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Preview: Atlanta Ballet’s “New Choreographic Voices” will showcase two world premieres

Tara Lee and John Welker in rehearsal for Pickett's "Pray of Touch." (Photo by Charlie McCullers)
Tara Lee and John Welker are featured in Helen Pickett's "Prayer of Touch." (Photo by Charlie McCullers)

In rehearsal for her new work “Prayer of Touch,” New York-based choreographer Helen Pickett watches intently as Atlanta Ballet veteran Tara Lee darts across the studio, her tiny, muscular body just barely glistening with sweat as she performs a complicated, lightning-quick movement sequence.

Later they will be colleagues: Pickett is sharing a triple bill with the famed Christopher Wheeldon and a piece choreographed by Lee for Atlanta Ballet’s annual program “New Choreographic Voices,” running May 18-20 on the Woodruff Arts Center’s Alliance Stage. But right now they are director and dancer, and Pickett will keep pushing for what she wants. “If they’re not getting it,” she says of her dancers, “it’s my fault, not theirs.”

Lee executes the movement with measured precision, but something is missing. Pickett thinks for a moment and then strides onto the floor. “There’s no mistaking a pointe shoe, right?” she asks with a sharp downward arm gesture. “It’s like the exclamation point. Now try it again, this time like you have fireworks coming out of your four limbs and your head!” Lee repeats the sequence, and somehow it looks entirely different; her limbs whip through space, the rigidity in her torso melts away and the speed looks effortless.

“I’m in love with ballet technique, what it affords in detail,” Pickett says, her curly hair bouncing with excitement. “I still take class, and I’m still discovering things. When I stop learning about this profession, I’m going to close my eyes at the end of my life.”

The 44-year-old Pickett, who danced with Ballet Frankfurt under the legendary William Forsythe for over a decade, is quick to credit her “old boss” for shaping her aesthetic eye. But she also seems determined to separate herself from his looming presence and quickly tweaks a movement that she suddenly recognizes as “that classic Forsythe picture” — arms outstretched in an L shape, a high bent knee to the side. “Forsythe was a big deconstructionist, and that was another time,” she says. “It’s been done.”

Of her own work, Pickett (at left) speaks in the language of a philosopher and often uses the word “connection” when describing her creative process. Connection, she explains, should be considered “in its entirety because there is always something to learn and always an opinion to change. We are both eternally here and temporary.”

Pickett, always conscious of human connections, is quick to praise her dancers and allow them freedom to make choices within the parameters of her choreography. She talks about their “pervasive generosity” and speaks often of her gratitude at being offered a spot on the “New Choreographic Voices” bill. The new commission is her second work for Atlanta Ballet, following the company’s March 2011 premiere of “Petal.”

“Prayer of Touch,” she explains, is about “the reverence of touch, that desire.” She speaks excitedly and somewhat tangentially about this, almost as if the concept is still taking shape in her mind. And perhaps it is, because the initial rehearsals for the piece, a world premiere, were something of a whirlwind.

Last fall, Pickett choreographed a staggering 23 minutes of movement in 11 days of rehearsal, and she’s been “hacking it up” since. “It won’t be finished even on stage,” she declares. The temporary nature of dance, the opposition between the unpredictability of human movement and the nature of set choreography, seems to delight her. “Don’t be afraid,” she says — possibly to herself, possibly to those listening — “to change something that seems set.”

Pickett’s approach has influenced Lee in her new piece, “Pavo,” also a world premiere, which explores the spiritual significance of the peacock. Dancers jut out their chins and elbows, birdlike, through what promises to be the least balletic piece of the three. The 2011-12 season closer will be Wheeldon’s “Rush,” which debuted with San Francisco Ballet in 2003 and is an Atlanta Ballet premiere.

Pickett, and especially Wheeldon, who has created over 40 full-length ballets, can hardly be considered “new” choreographers. But it is perhaps this spirit of experimentation that brings new “voice” to an old art form.

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