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Aspen Santa Fe Ballet to premiere new work

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado
Lynn Goldsmith/Special to the Aspen Times WeeklyChoreographer Helen Pickett, front center, with the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet company. The company will dance the world premiere of Pickett's "Trace" in a program of mixed repertoire Friday and Saturday, Feb. 12-13, at the Aspen District Theatre.
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ASPEN – Through much of her early training as a dancer, Helen Pickett sensed a stern rigidity in the dance world. It hardly turned her off to dance; the San Diego native spent five years, beginning at the age of 14, studying with the San Francisco Ballet. But having been raised with artsy parents – she says there was “a nice Bohemian flavor in the house, of art and science” – she was ready to grab at something more dynamic and wide-open when it came along.

That opportunity presented itself in the person of William Forsythe, the American-born dancer and choreographer who founded the experimental Frankfurt Ballet in Germany. Pickett met Forsythe when she was a 19-year-old, in her final year at the San Francisco Ballet, and what he had to offer was just what she was looking for.

“I had never seen anyone work this way with dancers. He was laughing; the room was electric. Everyone was having a great time – and working their ass off,” said Pickett, who danced for 11 years at the Frankfurt Ballet. She was most impressed by the anti-authoritarian stance of Forsythe’s company. “He wanted people to be thinking, question-asking individuals. I was a rebel, and seeing how he led rehearsals – that was for me. I could do my rebelliousness in his company.”

Pickett’s rebellious stage is past. She is 42, retired from dancing, married, living in the gentrified Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn. But the flexible, open-minded spirit embodied by Forsythe is intact in her current life as a choreographer. “Petal,” a work she created in 2008 for the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet company, has been called “adventuresome,” “unpredictable” and “counterintuitive.”

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The freshness of Pickett’s work stems largely from her broad-minded perspective on the arts. In a conversation presumably about dance, she was more likely to bring up visual arts (the two Francis Bacon retrospectives she has seen recently, in London and New York); poetry (T.S. Eliot, especially his “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”); and books on brain science (“My Stroke of Insight” and another, the title of which she cannot remember at the moment). All of these she has used in specific ways to inspire and influence her choreography.

In “Trace,” her second commission for Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, Pickett has turned to literature. The piece, which has its world premiere Friday and Saturday, Feb. 12-13 in a program of mixed repertoire that also includes Jiri Kylian’s “Six Dances” and the Aspen premiere of Nicolo Fonte’s “In Hidden Seconds,” is inspired by Tennessee Williams’ surreal 1953 play “Camino Real.” Pickett’s original idea was to choreograph a long piece based on Williams’ drama, set in an unspecified, hard-to-grasp plaza in a Spanish-speaking town. But since she had only 20 minutes of stage time to work with, she cut back to focus on a handful of the characters. She still found plenty of material to work with.

“The characters were so full, I knew I could root them out and it would be enough,” said Pickett, who followed her time at the Frankfurt Ballet with five years as an actor at the Wooster Group, in New York.

In “Trace,” Pickett turned those characters into four duet segments that relate to characters from “Camino Real”: Two of the dances are based on the main characters Kilroy and Esmeralda; the other two are inspired by a group of other characters. But instead of a literal description of the characters, Pickett is using them to say her own piece about romance and relationships. Each duet raises a different time in person’s love life. There is old love (“It’s known, has gone through the gamut of what you’re supposed to go through,” Pickett said); the unveiling or the rapture (“When you know it’s going to end, and you don’t have a hold on it”); tender and mystical (“something that could be conjured up, but maybe isn’t really happening”); and a stage she says is “spunky and young and light and flirty.”

“Trace,” which features group segments connecting the pas de deuxs, is meant to say something about the visceral component of romance, the idea that love lasts, in various forms. “In all forms of human relationships, there’s memories of another human being. Something they have left behind,” Pickett explained. “Tracing something – that sounds tactile. But a trace of something makes me think of the sense of smell. It’s all of the senses. Not just the tactile. It’s everything that’s left behind.”

Pickett is in a flurry of activity that will result in five works for five different companies, and all of the pieces have been inspired by something outside of dance. “Tsukiyo,” for the Boston Ballet, is based on the Japanese fairy tale, “The Bamboo Cutter’s Daughter.” For Utah’s Ballet West, she is making a work about energy and the brain that builds on “My Stroke of Insight,” the memoir of a 37-year-old brain scientist who suffers a stroke. In her piece for the Oklahoma Ballet, Pickett starts with the idea of the company’s youth.

“I thought of spring, and new growth,” she said. “And also relationship: What happens if you splice new green growth with an idea of something old? Because the company is so young, they don’t have an idea of what old is. These are ideas they haven’t discovered in their life yet. They’re too young.”

For the Royal Ballet of Flanders, in Antwerp, Pickett found inspiration in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” – Eliot’s meditation on creativity. “You read his words, and he specifically tells you the lighting,” Pickett said, marveling at lines like “yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes/ The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes.” “I read him when I was young and went, ‘My god, I’m getting my lighting cues from this guy.”

For her color palette, Pickett was influenced profoundly by the Francis Bacon exhibitions.

Like the Oklahoma Ballet, Pickett too is in the early stages of her career as a choreographer. Despite her years of dance, and broad interest in the arts, she had never considered choreographing. But while conducting a master class in Boston, just five years ago, she came under the eye of Mikko Nissinen, artistic director of the Boston Ballet. Two months later Nissinen left her a message, asking if she wanted to choreograph. “I had to listen a few times. Had to have my husband listen,” said Pickett, who has created three dances for the Boston Ballet. “It was a, ‘Is this really happening to me?’ sort of thing.”

Still, she projects a notable self-assurance. Speaking about her experiences with different companies, and her preference to work with a company multiple times, she observes how important it is to take account of the character of the dancers, and of the company. Creating a dance doesn’t take place just in the choreographer’s head, but on specific dancers – and out of books, paintings and poems.

“If you don’t notice the colors, ages, youth, experiences that are in front of you, you’re going to fall into a pit. It’s insubstantial fluff,” Pickett said. “You have to know what you’re talking about. Like if you go to write a novel about planes – if you don’t know a lot about planes, it’s going to be drivel.”

stewart@aspentimes.com


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