If you were to try to come up with the two least likely dramatic sources for new ballets, it would be hard to top Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit — an existential play in which the central conceit is that the protagonists can't move — and Tennessee Williams' Camino Real — an early poetic fantasy that flopped on Broadway and nearly sank the writer's career.
But it is precisely these two sources that Helen Pickett, the Atlanta Ballet's intriguing new choreographer in residence, has chosen as inspirations for her first full-length works with the company. Pickett comes from a performance background that's almost as strong in theater as it is in dance. This dual perspective, along with Pickett's down-to-earth style and always roving curiosity and energy, suggest that the upcoming world premieres will be among the most exciting and compelling performances Atlanta audiences will see over the next few seasons.
"These are human stories," says Pickett of her decision to create dances out of the unusual plays. Her work The Exiled, based on No Exit, premieres with the Atlanta Ballet in May 2014, and Camino Real, which she (along with many others) contends is something of a lost classic, will premiere with the company the following season.
"We can all look at these plays and recognize the things we do to ourselves. We cringe, we laugh, and we have that moment of recognition," she says. "I hope the audience can relate with the work in that way, through what the characters are going through."
Atlanta audiences first got a taste of Pickett's work when she created the short pieces "Petal" in 2011 and "Prayer of Touch" in 2012 as a visiting choreographer. The works sparked a successful relationship with the Atlanta Ballet. Eventually, Artistic Director John McFall offered her choreographer in residence, a three-year commitment that includes the creation of one new full-length work per year.
Pickett has been exploring the interconnectedness of dance and theater throughout her career. As a young dancer at 19, Pickett left her home city and company at the San Francisco Ballet to move to Europe to work with renowned contemporary choreographer William Forsythe in his Ballet Frankfurt, where she danced for more than a decade. She was particularly interested in the way Forsythe often combined text, theater, and movement in his pieces. After her dance career, she continued to explore multidisciplinary work, joining the famous experimental New York theater company the Wooster Group as an actress.
"I believe performance is performance," she says of her unwillingness to draw a sharp distinction between disciplines. "We're trying to get to the person. As long as the person is up there, as long as the audience is connecting, we are rapt, whether that person is 'acting' or 'dancing.' I feel like that's what I have to give, to keep making work that doesn't have a separation."
It's a blurring of distinctions that comes naturally to her but may hold a challenge for the dancers. For the first time, Atlanta Ballet dancers will have speaking roles on stage.
"It's a new situation for them," says Pickett of her decision to have some of the performers speak lines of text in The Exiled. "But they are opening and unfolding in incredible ways. I wouldn't have asked them to do this the first time we worked together. You have to build trust between you and the performer so that a person feels like they can open up to themselves, so cracks can happen in those walls, maybe even a breaking through can happen."
The new work will not only represent a first for the dancers, but also a first for Pickett: The Exiled will be her first major narrative work.
"The dancers are going even deeper in their trust and what we're doing together in the studio," she says. "I feel so fortunate to have landed with this extraordinary family. It's a company full of individuals, and for me that's the best palette you could have ... I feel that what I give back to Atlanta, I'm giving back to them through the artists of the Atlanta Ballet."