By Hannah Krafcik
Helen Pickett strolled into the cafe of Powell’s Books on a surprisingly sunny afternoon in March, smiling brightly through her green-rimmed sunglasses, which were set off by her fiery curls. We were meeting at this quintessentially Portland locale, per Pickett’s suggestion, to discuss her new work, “Terra,” commissioned by Oregon Ballet Theatre.
Together, Pickett and I pored over images of the costumes in the dance—rusty tones that evoked layers of deep, red earth, illustrated in watercolor by designer Emma Kingsbury. As we discussed how this new ballet came to be, Pickett explained that she drew inspiration from several concepts, namely, myth and lore, archetypes, and rituals of the earth from different cultures. “In the end it has become this kaleidoscope of what ‘Terra’ means,” she mused.
Pickett, who lives in Brooklyn, New York, is a choreographer with a rich diversity of experience. She performed with William Forsythe’s Ballet Frankfurt for more than a decade, and she worked with the avant-garde Wooster Group theater company for five non-consecutive years. She has presented longer form work at the likes of the Scottish Ballet and Atlanta Ballet, where she serves as Resident Choreographer. She has set more than 30 works on companies across the U.S. and Europe during the past 12 years.
What makes this account all the more remarkable is Pickett’s gender. Only this past June, The New York Times’ Michael Cooper wrote of the staggering gender disparity in the programs of the biggest ballet presenters, noting that “ballet remains overwhelmingly a man’s world.” OBT is doing its part to counter this underrepresentation with this summer’s Choreography XX program in Washington Park, which will present original work created by North American female choreographers.
As Pickett and I discussed the dangers of tokenism in dance-making, I got the sense that she was far less concerned with her own exceptionalism in this field than she was with the notion of community—something that rose to the surface as a recurring theme of “Terra,” too. A community that recognizes that it needs to encourage more women choreographers and perform their work has a far greater chance of success than individuals who come to the same conclusion.
While some of Pickett’s works—such as her dances based on theater sources, Tennessee Williams’ Camino Real and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible—draw on narrative, “Terra” sits in the line of her abstract work, which includes “Petal,” a piece that OBT danced in 2014 and opens the Terra program. “Petal” has moments of definite drama, and “abstract” might be too constrictive a category for “Terra.” Pickett remarked, “even in its greatest abstraction, there are reasons and meanings behind creation.”
The choreography of “Terra” is challenging, but it is also relatable — the ethos of the work probes into human experience in a way that is destined to be palpable for audiences. “In ‘Terra’” Pickett says, “the quest is for unity, inclusion rather than exclusion.”
Structurally, “Terra” leads with a series of vignettes that Pickett describes as “like an amuse bouche,” phrases that eventually cycle back through the work in longer expressions. These sections have a particular quality or set of qualities: “In ‘Terra’ there is sensuality, strength, memory, disruption, order, intimacy, power, vulnerability,” Pickett says.
Communicating these qualities in movement can be a challenge. Dancer Xuan Cheng spoke about her quiet duet with Michael Linsmeier in “Terra.” Rather than adopting a presentational approach to the choreography, she said, she found the capacity to inhabit the movement and respond authentically to her partner in the present moment. “Instead of doing a movement, I’m actually just reacting,” Cheng shared. ”It’s all about connection and communication…how I communicate with my partner, and how my body reacts, and how I look at him…what he does to me, and then I react.”
Composer Jeff Beal spoke about his process of creating the score for “Terra.” While Beal reminded me that his “day job” is usually writing music for the film industry, including acclaimed scores for the likes of Netflix’s House of Cards, he also emphasized that composing music for dance has always been one of his personal goals. “I feel in a lot of ways like I’m in the hands of someone who has so much experience in this world,” he said. “The thing that really excites me about this process is that I get to hear the music in a different way. I can see the music in a different way, just by nature of the physical interpretation of it.
In speaking with Beal and other dancers, I concluded that Pickett had included them in a “community of creation.” Dancer Jacqueline Straughan illuminated the inclusiveness and sensitivity of Pickett’s process—how she attended not just to technicalities and mechanics of choreography, but also to the humanity of the dancers in relation to one another, the music, and the sections of choreography. When asked what most excited her about “Terra,” Straughan came back with the earnest reply: “I like that I can be me.”
“Transformation through ritual hopefully brings us closer to our communities and ourselves,” Pickett says. She quotes writer Joseph Campbell in The Power of Myth: “What we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances within our innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.”
That’s a tall order—for a ritual, for a dance, for a life. And Pickett’s approach to choreography and working with other artists indicates that she believes that we are more likely to achieve it together, in a community, than by ourselves.