An Interview with Choreographer Helen Pickett

“I’m making a premiere for California━I’m from California━and the drought is killing me.” Choreographer Helen Pickett joined Smuin Ballet in the San Francisco studio last week to create a world premiere on the dancers titled Oasis. A nearly 30-minute work in four parts, Oasis explores the concept of water in its many incarnations and implications.

Choreographer Helen Pickett works in the Smuin Ballet studio. Photo: Chris Hardy

Choreographer Helen Pickett works in the Smuin Ballet studio. Photo: Chris Hardy

Helen Pickett is a force to be reckoned with. A self-described rebel, Pickett moved from San Diego to train at the San Francisco Ballet School before joining dance pioneer William Forsythe’s Ballet Frankfurt. Pickett credits Forsythe as a major shift in her artistic career. “Forsythe

[did not only tell the dancers what to do,] he asked for opinions. I wanted to be in on that conversation. I didn’t want to be told what to do.”

In 2005, she received her first choreographic commission from Boston Ballet, sparking an illustrious career creating over 30 ballet works for the likes of Vienna State Opera, Scottish Ballet, Royal Ballet of Flanders, Dance Theatre of Harlem and Atlanta Ballet, where she is a Resident Choreographer. Pickett’s contemporary ballet choreographic style is inspired by her extensive ballet training and 12 years dancing with Forsythe, as well as film, music, nature and more. She notes that “the scope of beauty and human possibility is far more vast than [we can perceive.] I feel incredibly privileged that this is the art [form] I chose, because [the body] is a living palette.”

Choreographer Helen Pickett coaches Smuin Ballet dancer Erin Yarbrough-Powell. Photo: Chris Hardy

Choreographer Helen Pickett coaches Smuin Ballet dancer Erin Yarbrough-Powell. Photo: Chris Hardy

In 2013, Helen Pickett set her 2008 work Petal on Smuin Ballet. She comments that working with the company dancers is different this time around: “They finish my movement ‘sentences,’ and I finish theirs.” Pickett values collaboration and communication with her dancers as she creates new work, rather than simply teaching previously created choreography. “When the dancers have a say in the piece, the piece becomes more theirs… [and the results] will be more tangible to the audience.”

Composer Jeff Beal, who recently won an Emmy for his work on Netflix’s House of Cards, created an original score for Oasis. Beal recommended Pickett watch Last Call at the Oasis, a documentary featuring a soundtrack by Beal and released by Participant Media (Waiting for Superman, An Inconvenient Truth). Pickett is quick to note that Oasis is not based on the film, but rather inspired by the idea of water. “I started thinking of water in terms of a celebration, and I decided to focus on the offerings that water gives us, as well as the dearth. I want people to lean in━to be engaged by what we’re creating onstage about the facets and joy and sensuality of water.”

Composer Jeff Beal, choreographer Helen Pickett, Artistic Director Celia Fushille, and Ballet Master Amy London.

Composer Jeff Beal, choreographer Helen Pickett, Artistic Director Celia Fushille, and Ballet Master Amy London. Photo: Chris Hardy

Pickett’s choreographic process begins long before she ever sets foot in the studio with the dancers. “I’ve been listening to the music for four months. I’ve been letting the ideas build into a tipping point━a critical state of creativity.” Now, working with the dancers and Beal in the studio, Pickett is exploring the practical relationship of the movement with the music. “I speak in terms of architecture when I hear music. I see the form where [Beal] hears the form. We come at it from each of our traditions and navigate towards the center where we understand it together.”

Choreographer Helen Pickett and composer Jeff Beal with the Smuin Ballet dancers and staff. Photo: Chris Hardy

Choreographer Helen Pickett and composer Jeff Beal with the Smuin Ballet dancers and staff. Photo: Chris Hardy

Pickett is inspired to create by the culture and vibrancy around her. As a traveling choreographer, she stays in many parts of the country, but keeps coming back to California. “I have such a love for San Francisco. When I come here, I feel like I’m back where possibility is king. This is where you’re supposed to grab for all the edges. It’s a city full of tipping points.”

Helen Pickett’s Oasis premieres in Dance Series Two on May 6, 2016 at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, with shows throughout the Bay Area May 6 – June 11, 2016. Tickets available here.

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