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Atlanta Ballet seeks fresh directions in naming Helen Pickett resident choreographer

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

If Atlanta Ballet seeks to sharpen its profile through fresh repertoire, Helen Pickett, the company’s new resident choreographer, may be the right person to lead the way.

Atlanta Ballet has appointed Pickett, an increasingly sought-after contemporary ballet choreographer, as resident choreographer for a three-year term.

Pickett’s approach — influenced by more than a decade of work with choreographer William Forsythe and his Ballet Frankfurt and several years of experimental theater and film work — invites dancers to contribute to her creative process. She gives dancers choices and responsibilities for their roles. This process draws out their unique individual qualities, which form active and dynamic connections between performers and audience.

These connections were felt in a remarkable kinetic response to Pickett’s “Petal” in March 2011, when the opening-night audience jumped to its feet. Her “Prayer of Touch,” created with the dancers last season, highlighted their individuality, each dancer’s voice woven into a complex and witty interplay of active and reactive relationships.

Helen Pickett: “It’s being at the cliff’s edge."

To start the residency, the company will restage “Petal” for a program titled “Carmina Burana” in April. “Prayer of Touch” is slated for the season closer, “Love Stories.” In the following two seasons, Pickett will create at least one new work per year. She will also teach, starting with a choreography workshop next summer.

There are risks and potential benefits to an extended-residency agreement. It offers a free-lancer some financial security and a chance to develop a series of works for a single group of dancers. For the company, investing in creativity can be risky. But innovation and creativity are essential parts of Atlanta Ballet’s new five-year plan to establish its brand as the pre-eminent ballet company in the Southeast and distinguish itself in the dance world through a proprietary repertory of signature works.

Atlanta Ballet Artistic Director John McFall believes Pickett is the right person to make this happen. “She brings a passion into the studio that’s unmatched and connects with our dancers in a way that is earnest and heartfelt,” he said. “She inspires them to reach deep inside themselves, and it translates to the stage in a way that is startling and wonderful.”

Pickett received her first choreographic commission from Boston Ballet in 2005. Seven years later, she has more than 20 works under her belt.

She looks forward to deepening her connection with Atlanta Ballet. “It’s a confluence of energies,” she said, phrasing the description in crystalline bursts. “If you look at the top, you can see the personality of the company: John McFall, who has a rich imagination. He loves life, he loves dance and is a creator himself. He is extremely generous of spirit and of personal exploration in his dancers.” Those qualities, she said, “trickle down” through the organization.

Pickett said she looks forward to creating her first full-length work with Atlanta Ballet. She also hopes to incorporate more theater into her choreography, as she recently did in a commission for the Semper Oper/Dresden Ballet.

She sees the company’s valuing of freedom of spirit and spontaneity as essential for nurturing creativity and performance. “It’s being at the cliff’s edge, conveying the urgency, the need to express yourself,” she said. “At a point, you have to accept that it is an extraordinary feat — to give over to it with all the cliffs, all the pitfalls, all the joys and the ecstatic moments that all come with it.”

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