Helen Pickett: Rebel on Pointe
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!
It took two years of intense nutrition counseling and psychotherapy to pull me out of being anorexic. My problem now is that I've gained too much weight from eating normally. Is there no middle ground? I can't fit into my clothes, but I don't want to go back to being sick.
—Former Anorexic, Weston, CT
Whatever your feelings about Wayne McGregor's heady, hyper-physical choreography, we can all probably agree on one thing: We'd really, really love to pick his brain. And tomorrow, Dance Umbrella, a UK-based dance festival, is giving everyone the chance to do exactly that.
"Women are often presented as soft, fragile little creatures in ballet," says Léonore Baulac. "We're not." The Paris Opéra Ballet's newest female étoile is discussing her unease at some of the 19th-century narratives she portrays. "It was real acting," she says with a laugh of La Sylphide. "James kills her by taking away her wings, yet she tells him not to worry and goes to die elsewhere onstage!"
Sitting in the canteen of the Palais Garnier, Baulac embodies some of ballet's contradictions in the 21st century. With her fair curls and dainty features, she could easily pass for a little girl's fantasy princess. As Juliet, she exuded a girlish ardor that felt entirely natural; her reservations notwithstanding, her Sylphide was committed and carefully Romantic in style.
Yet the 27-year-old is no ingénue. At Garnier that day, her sweater reads "I can't believe I still have to protest this s**t," a feminist slogan; last winter, Baulac proudly wore it over a Kitri tutu on Instagram. And her repertoire is as thoroughly modern as she is offstage. A versatile performer even by Parisian standards, she is equally at home in Nutcracker as she is in the works of Pina Bausch and Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker.
You know Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo as the men who parody your favorite ballet variations—and make it look good. But there's more to the iconic troupe than meets the eye.
A new documentary, Rebels on Pointe, goes behind the scenes of the company, and it's full of juicy tidbits about what it's like to be a Trock. These were some of our favorite moments:
We always figured that stretching made us more flexible by loosening up our muscles and joints. Some of us, ahem, might have even tried to fall asleep in our middle splits to get our stubbornly stiff inner thighs to let go.
But it turns out that might not actually be how stretching works.
A new review published in the Scandinavian Journal of Science & Medicine in Sports suggests that increased flexibility actually comes from your brain growing more used to the tension.
Efficient movement is easy to recognize—we all know when we see a dancer whose every action seems essential and unmannered. Understanding how to create this effect, however, is far more elusive. From a practical perspective, dancing with efficiency helps you to conserve your energy and minimize wear and tear on the body; from an artistic point of view, it allows you to make big impressions out of little moments, and lasting memories for those watching.
So much struggle and determination goes into your training that it can be difficult for early-career dancers to recalibrate their priorities toward simplicity and ease, says Laurel Jenkins, freelance performer and Trisha Brown Dance Company staging artist. "Your aesthetic might shift, and you might have to find new things beautiful." Mastering the art of effortless movement requires a new perspective and a smart strategy—on- and offstage.
After 30 years of pioneering work in physically integrated dance, AXIS Dance Company co-founder Judith Smith has announced plans to retire from the Oakland, California, company. Throughout her tenure, she strived to get equal recognition for integrated dance and disabled dancers, commissioning work from high-profile choreographers like Bill T. Jones. Her efforts generated huge momentum for expanded training, choreography, education and advocacy for dancers with disabilities.
By phone from her home in Oakland, Smith reflected on how far the field has evolved since the early days of AXIS, and what's yet to be done.
You know that how you care for your body before curtain can impact your performance. But with so many factors to consider, it can be difficult to nail down an exact routine. How much rest is enough? How close to showtime should you eat? We asked the experts.
How do you make your athleisure collection stand out from the pack? Get the ultimate studio-to-street seal of approval by having dancers star in your campaign, of course.
For his second collaboration with activewear brand Carbon38, ready-to-wear designer Jonathan Simkhai traded in his usual top models like Gigi Hadid and Karlie Kloss for the original Hiplet dancers—and the resulting video is as cool as we'd expect from such a fierce collaboration.
Again and again, dance teaches me that when the filters fall away between people—when the boundaries of geography, religion and politics soften—the beginning and end of our relationships is always human.
In March, I traveled with Keigwin + Company to Cote D'Ivoire, Ethiopia and Tunisia, on a tour sponsored by the US State Department and facilitated by DanceMotion USA/Brooklyn Academy of Music. Our mission was cultural diplomacy: Simply, to share ourselves with diverse communities, to promote common understanding and friendships.
Our last stop was Tunisia. Until that point, we had mostly been learning varieties of traditional African dance, and sharing American modern dance. But Tunisia was different. The dancers already had a solid grasp of contemporary movement invention. Though we didn't speak the same language, we could make movement vocabulary with surprising ease. Everything about our backgrounds was different, but there was this special intersection through dance that seemed to present an open door to collaboration.