Ballet Careers
Georgina Pazcoguin as Hippolyta in Balanchine's A Midsummer Night's Dream. Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB.

In January, when news broke that Peter Martins had retired from New York City Ballet amid allegations of sexual harassment and physical and verbal abuse, I was sitting with my mother, a former dancer and teacher. We stared at the headline in shock, wondering what this meant for the future of ballet as a whole: In the wake of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, cultural shifts were stirring, and conversations about feminism and workplace equality plunged into ballet. Some of my favorite dancers started sharing their statements and stances on Instagram, and their comments sections were bursting with dancers and ballet fans all struggling to define what feminism and equality in our art form would look like—or if it is even possible. Especially since female dancers have historically been considered muses to be seen and not heard, to perform but not lead.

Feminism isn't just possible in ballet—it's necessary, and the biggest part of that is an artistic advantage, too: empowering dancers to have and use their own voices.

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Mayara Pineiro rehearsing with Helen Pickett for the world premiere of Tilt.Photo by Arian Molina Soca, Courtesy Pennsylvania Ballet.

As I watched Helen Pickett rehearse her new work Tilt for Pennsylvania Ballet last week, there was no doubt in my mind that she's a natural leader. Hovering closely around young corps dancer Jack Thomas during a run through, she pushed him to carve more space through the air with his upper body. "Use those hands, do not stop," she said emphatically during a particularly tiring section, at once firm and encouraging. "It should feel like you're eating a meal rather than grazing." Yet earlier, Pickett had admitted to me that when she was first approached by a major company to create a ballet 12 years ago, she questioned her ability to lead. Despite growing up in a feminist household, being surrounded by strong female role models throughout her dancing and acting career, and learning the craft of choreography from William Forsythe at Ballet Frankfurt, she says, "I still gave more credence to male voices than female voices."

Her realization is one component of a bigger issue in the dance world: that for all of the droves of women and girls who flock to ballet classes and pursue performance careers, the majority of leadership positions—be it directing, curating or choreographing—are held by men. To help illuminate the topic in advance of Pickett's world premiere November 9–12 , last week Pennsylvania Ballet partnered with Philadelphia's FringeArts to present "Challenges, Chances, Changes: Gender Equity in Concert Dance," a round table discussion among six women leaders in the industry. Joining Pickett was Dance Theatre of Harlem artistic director Virginia Johnson; BalletX executive and artistic director Christine Cox; Big Dance Theater choreographer and co-director Annie-B Parson; Philadelphia Dance Projects executive director Terry Fox; and choreographer Francesca Harper, artistic director of the Francesca Harper Project.


From left: Francesca Harper, Virginia Johnson, Annie-B Parson, Helen Pickett, Brenda Dixon-Gottschild, Christine Cox and Terry Fox. Photo by Chris Kendig, Courtesy Pennsylvania Ballet.

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Helen Pickett and dancers from Atlanta Ballet in rehearsal for The Exiled. Photo by Charlie McCullers, Courtesy AB,

Atlanta Ballet's resident choreographer Helen Pickett has embarked on a new challenge: choreographing her first full-length ballet, Camino Real, inspired by the 1953 Tennessee Williams play and set to premiere in March at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre.

"The play is about intrusion on personal freedom," says Pickett. It's set in a town called Camino Real—a dusty dead end surrounded by desert and populated by figures from Western culture, including Don Quixote and Lord Byron. "You're not sure where or when the story occurs," Pickett says. "Williams created this surreal place where there's room to find yourself within the play. For me, that's the crux of interesting storytelling."

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This week, Boston Ballet hosts its first-ever Choreographic Intensive in Marblehead, MA. Student Leah Hirsch will be blogging daily from the Intensive for Pointe. Stay tuned for more entries!

 

As I drove out of Boston yesterday, past the prim and proper Newbury Street and into the convoluted paths of Marblehead, a thought suddenly took hold: what a perfect place to hold Boston Ballet's first Choreographic Intensive! The circular movements of the upper body found in contemporary dance parallel the physical location of the program. Each plays with the idea of transformation, movement, and interest.

I also realized that although the Marblehead lighthouse, fishing boats, and beaches aren't beautiful in the traditional sense, the amalgamation of these items in one location is beautiful. This is evident in contemporary choreography as well. Not everyone sees the movements of contemporary dance as aesthetically pleasing, but each position, each shift from one pose to the next, communicates something important, something significant to the choreographer, dancer, and—hopefully—the audience.

My name is Leah Hirsch, and I have been a student of Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet for the past five years. (This coming year I will be taking classes at the Pennsylvania Ballet while also attending University of Pennsylvania part-time.) When the opportunity arose to attend Boston Ballet's Choreographic Intensive, I was thrilled at the prospect of delving into contemporary work—and also, honestly, frightened. I have attended thousands of classical ballet classes at CPYB but have never truly experienced a contemporary class. Sitting here on Sunday, the day before the program officially begins, my mind is swirling with thoughts of uncertainty. However, I enjoy the fact that I am taking a leap of faith and stepping out of my comfort zone. I can't wait to work with such esteemed choreographers as Helen Pickett and Thaddeus Davis; to immerse myself in Forsythe technique; and to develop my choreographic skills. I believe that by both creating and dancing, I will walk away from this program with a greater contemporary knowledge learned through a complete mind/body connection. Sometimes non-traditional beauty is the most stunning of all.

This week, Boston Ballet hosts its first-ever Choreographic Intensive in Marblehead, MA. Student Leah Hirsch will be blogging daily from the Intensive for Pointe. Read Leah's first entry here, and stay tuned for more!

 

Fear is often inevitable when stepping into the unknown. But with conviction and maturity, a dancer can put fear squarely in the back seat.
 
As I got ready for the first day of the Boston Ballet's Choreographic Intensive, I was thrilled by the prospect of working with Helen Pickett. My initial motivation in coming to this intensive was to force myself out of my comfort zone, out of that "ballet box." I thought that by familiarizing my body with contemporary choreography I would lose all my previous inhibitions. But today I learned the most by simply listening.

Ms. Pickett taught us that we can't let fear hold back our talent. The fear of looking stupid, the fear of forgetting specific choreography, the fear of being inadequate--they all disrupt a dancer's ability to be fully engaged. It's the personal connection to a dance that truly defines a professional dancer, whether that person is an experienced performer or not. To the saying, “Don't think, just dance,” Ms. Pickett replies, "Don't judge, just dance."
 
I tried to apply what Ms. Pickett said during the choreographic portion of our schedule. She taught us a phrase of five or six counts of eight. The piece was incredibly internal--our hands were constantly in direct contact with our lower bodies and legs. The movement appeared to flow effortlessly when Ms. Pickett danced; she seemed to completely lose herself in it. When I began, I realized that I was able to take bigger risks when I was completely engaged in the choreography. The moment I second-guessed myself, the overall energy of the piece dwindled.

Ms. Pickett then asked us to take the basic phrase and re-interpret it as a solo, a duet, a trio, etc.--basically, to deconstruct it. As she pointed out, that process of deconstructing is choreographing. Choreography is not just about pulling movement from thin air; it can also be redefining steps in a non-conventional way. Movement is endless.
 
I can't wait to see what's in store for us on Tuesday!

This week, Boston Ballet hosts its first-ever Choreographic Intensive in Marblehead, MA. Student Leah Hirsch will be blogging daily from the Intensive for Pointe. Read Leah's first entries here, here and here, and stay tuned for more!

 

Dancing and writing share many parallels. That thought came to me as Helen Pickett taught us the different parts of Forsythe improvisation technique today. The ideas of pausing and hovering are very prominent in both art forms. Contemporary and classical dance contain significant pauses—punctuation—that are equivalent to semicolons, dashes, even exclamation points.

But choreography doesn't have to obey set grammar rules. A dancer or choreographer's response to music can be more interpretive. It is not a dancer’s ability to simply regurgitate choreography, but her ability to add to it elements in tune with her own physical structure that makes contemporary dance unique. No piece is ever danced just one way. As Boston Ballet soloist Jeffrey Cirio (who visited us yesterday) pointed out, his choreography is constantly changing to fit a specific dancer at a specific moment. Catching a director's eye is not solely based on technical ability, but also on movement quality, emotion, and imagination.

Today, we had the privilege of taking technique class with Boston Ballet artistic director Mikko Nissinen. He not only urged us to dance with an expansive quality, but also to toy with the musicality of each combination. Our goal, he said, should be to create a sense of excitement for the audience. He brought the ideas of musicality and movement highlighted in our contemporary classes into a classical ballet setting. At the halfway point of this intensive, I've realized the many connections and parallels between classical and contemporary dance. Both feed off of one another.

This week, Boston Ballet hosts its first-ever Choreographic Intensive in Marblehead, MA. Student Leah Hirsch has been blogging daily from the Intensive for Pointe. Read Leah's first entries here, here, here and here, and stay tuned for more!

Helen Pickett recently told us, "You must go to the edges of your physicality"--to a place where ridiculousness is commendable and falling is applauded.
And my ballet teacher often said that to be truly beautiful, you must first feel ugly. To reach into the unknown pushes you to an unrecognizable, quite often uncomfortable physical place. Yes, we must all have structure within our dancing, but that structure must be flexible. It is our minds, not our bodies, that limit us. 

 

Coming into this choreographic program, I was anxious about performing steps that seemed obscure or silly. But over these past few days, I have found that I'm only truly satisfied after pushing my body to its fullest. No step is awkward unless a dancer makes it so. Losing sight of your surroundings provides a release. Yes, as my teacher stated, you might first feel ugly, but that will quickly subside. That "alien" place will soon become a safe haven. 

 

As Friday is right around the corner, I'm beginning to reflect on my time here in Marblehead. Each contemporary phrase we have learned with Thaddeus Davis or Ms. Pickett stresses constant movement. There is never enough. They've taught us to reach beyond what our bodies perceive as correct or appropriate. What characteristics exemplify a professional dancer? Not just her ability to be as willowy as Giselle or as sweet as the Sugar Plum Fairy, but also her skill in articulating the movement of a sneaker-clad stomper in Twyla Tharp's In The Upper Room. As contemporary choreography continues to seep into the ballet community, dancers can't be single-minded. They must learn to be multi-faceted.

Atlanta Ballet resident choreographer Helen Pickett will premiere her first full length ballet on Friday. The work, titled after and based on Tennessee Williams' play Camino Real, will be the choreographer's fourth work for the company. Pickett spoke to Pointe about Camino Real for the February/March issue, and explained how she had found new inspiration in written text and the creation of a narrative ballet.

Atlanta Ballet has created several interesting behind-the-scenes videos in anticipation of the premiere—especially one detailing the process of building the ballet's unique set. The company has also made a "Camino Real by the Numbers" which notes that the process has taken Pickett five years from early research to premiere and that her copy of the play has traveled with her to six states and seven countries—a wonderful testament to the work it takes to make a ballet come to life.

 Mara rehearsing Camino Real with Christian Clark. Photo by Charlie McCullers, Courtesy Atlanta Ballet.

This weekend, Atlanta Ballet presents the world premiere of Helen Pickett's Camino Real. Inspired by the Tennessee Williams play of the same name, it tells the story of an unlikely cast of characters trapped in a dusty, dead end town. Not only is it Pickett's first full-length ballet, but the five main characters also have speaking roles. For Pointe's bi-weekly newsletter, we spoke with Atlanta Ballet dancer Nadia Mara before opening night.

You're playing Marguerite, who is based off the character in The Lady of the Camellias. What is she like?

She's a very elegant, effortless and delicate character. But at the same time, she goes through so many emotions, like anger, desperation, betrayal. That's when her movement starts getting a little more aggressive. At one point I even dance barefoot.


How would you describe the choreography?

It's very sensual and emotional. Helen Pickett does a really good job connecting the emotional state of the character to the movement. She'll say, "In this part, you feel anxiety," and does a movement. But she also gives me the freedom of creating. For a dancer, the best thing you can do is create with a choreographer and make a role your own.

 

What's it like working with Pickett?

She challenges me, and that's what I love about her. She knows she can give me anything, like speaking onstage, and I'll try to make it work. Of course, I'm from Uruguay, I have an accent and my English is not perfect. But she trusts me.

 

How is the speaking woven into the choreography?

It's pretty amazing--they happen together. I'm in the middle of a solo, and I have to scream and say things and express my feelings through movement. We have a lot of rehearsals where we ask, "Where exactly are we going to breathe?" I have a jumping solo and a microphone, so I can't inhale loudly before I'm going to say something. Everything is about timing.

 

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