American choreographer Helen Pickett is on a roll. Her first full-length story ballet, Camino Real, based on Tennessee William’s provocative 1953 play, opens at Atlanta Ballet on March 20. Next week, her world premiere for Ballet West, Games, loosely based on Nijinsky’s ballet Jeux, travels to the Joyce Theater. And the 10th anniversary of her launch into choreography will be marked by Boston Ballet in its Edge of Vision program, April 30 to May 10.
Atlanta Ballet’s Kiara Felder and John Welker. Photo by Charlie McCullers.
One of the few prominent women choreographers in ballet today, Pickett challenges her dancers to use every part of their bodies. She asks them questions to stimulate their inventiveness but also, in the case of narrative ballets, to deepen the understanding of their character. “I ask them the same questions I ask in class: What does that feel like in your body? What would the character do in this case? How would you translate the solo I’ve just given you to the monolog that is in this play? How does that get translated in your body?’ ”
Ballet West in Games. Photo by Beau Pearson.
For Pickett, it’s natural to slide from ballet to drama. As she told Kina Poon in this Q&A, her parents were actors. “The idea of looking at the human dilemma is embedded in me.”
But also embedded in her is sheer ballet virtuosity. In this “Choreography in Focus,” she says, “I bow at the altar of technique.” She talks about pointework as expanding the woman’s vocabulary instead of limiting it. “Pointework gives you way more possibility of off-balance and [steps of a] precarious nature.”
At left: Helen Pickett. Photo by Dustin Aksland.
Camino Real as a story ballet poses both dramatic and technical challenges to the dancers of Atlanta Ballet, where Pickett is resident choreographer. She passes down the adventurous approach she absorbed from years of dancing with William Forsythe. Again, in the “Choreography in Focus” she says, “He let you discover your rebellious side.”
As a novice choreographer 10 years ago, Pickett challenged dancers right out of the gate. In Etesian, Pickett’s first work, Kathleen Breen Combes of Boston Ballet remembers how daunting it was to have to improvise onstage alone for a whole minute. But eventually Combes found her sense of freedom in that task—and Pickett was on her way to becoming a risk-taking choreographer. Happy 10th anniversary to Helen!