Feature: Ballet / Ballet - General

Inspiration #04: Interview with Helen Pickett (karma: 4)
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On Tue Jun 02, 2009 12:49 PM
Edited by nycsylph (206174) on 2009-06-02 12:54:29 Added info
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Inspiration #04 The fourth in a series of interviews with professional dancers. Their personal stories will allow you to go behind the curtain and take a fascinating look into the world of professional dance.

Helen Pickett
Helen Pickett is another example that creativity need not be confined to one area of life. She’s a dancer, choreographer, teacher, actress and writer. She received much of her formal dance education at the San Francisco School of Ballet. It was while she was a student at this prestigious school, that she gained valuable early performance experience. Later, a chance meeting with a world-famous choreographer would go on to shape the direction of her career. By letting fate lend a hand, she seized the opportunity presented and asked to join his company. She did just that, and in 1991, she went onto become a principal in the Frankfurt Ballet. Her career with this ensemble company would last over a decade. From there she went on to perform with The Wooster Group, appear as a guest artist in William Forsythe’s, Impressing the Czar, and be commissioned to choreograph works for such companies as Boston Ballet, Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, Royal Ballet of Flanders, Washington Ballet and Ballet West. In 2007, she was chosen by Dance Magazine as “One of 25 to Watch” – and it’s not hard to see why! One look at her work EVENTIDE (that you can view on YouTube here www.youtube.com . . .), speaks volumes about why she’s in such demand! In-between all these achievements, she even finds time to teach classes in improvisational dance technique.

I met Helen at The Dancing Crane in Central Park. I was first impressed by her presence, enthusiasm and confidence. As I began to talk with her, I realized that what first struck me was a reflection of an intelligence that went much deeper – and that her collective ideas – pooled into making her what she was. She had much to say and I was drawn-in and, yes, inspired by her outlook, opinions and view on life which included taking responsibility for it! She is a vast wellspring of knowledge that she imparts with ease and authority. She’s not afraid to challenge or question more traditional concepts, but neither is she fixed in her opinions. She’s honest and open and that’s how she seems to greet the day – and the challenges that come with it! I felt refreshed and revived after speaking with her. She definitely put a spring in my step and I feel better prepared to meet life head-on! I hope you’ll feel the same way!

Q: I’d like to thank you so much for agreeing to be interviewed for dance.net. It’s so great to have you here. Per my other interviews, I see that you’re very multi-talented and have a finger in everything. I usually like to start at the beginning and ask you when you began dance and whether it was your idea or someone else pushing you?

A: No, I started eight and it was definitely my idea. My mother won tickets on the radio to The Nutcracker in San Diego, California. She took me and after that show, I told her that I was disappointed with how little they were on pointe because I – in my child brain – thought that women were on pointe the whole time. I thought they walked on pointe – did everything on pointe! I was enrolled in classes soon after that, but it was my idea.

Q: And did you take to ballet? Was your body suitable for it or did it take you awhile to get into it?

A: Well, I always loved moving. Moving … dancing – I had a lot of energy. I think that’s the way I “took” to it. It was all about the movement. Of course when I started pointe, I did things like hide in the alley so I didn’t have to go. [laughter] My dad would sometimes find me and say, “If you’re going to do this, you know you gotta … “ [wags finger imitating being lectured] You know! [more laughter] And then around that same age – around 13 almost 14 – we were still in San Diego, there came a time I wanted to stop. I thought it was taking a lot of my time and I wanted to do other things. It was my dad again that made the best deal with me. I thank him forever for it. He said to stay in ballet for six more months and that if I still wanted to quit after that then I could. We went on to discuss what else I’d like to do. I’d always had this idea that I wanted to be a doctor of some kind. Anyway, I did stay for those grueling six months and it was what I needed to get over that period. It’s actually a time when many, many girls – teenagers – do quit their chosen discipline. It happens quite often. I hear it over and over again, “Oh, I danced until I was 13 or 14 and then I quit. Or I played an instrument …”

It was a little after that, that we moved to San Francisco. We were very lucky. We moved so that my mother could go back to school and become a dentist. That meant I got to go to San Francisco Ballet. I had just had turned 15.

Q: That was lucky! Now you mentioned pointe, when did you start pointe classes?

A: At about 11 or 12.

Q: And at which school?

A: California Ballet, a school in San Diego.

Q: I’m asking because I understand that the early training is so crucial to the later development. How do you feel about children getting poor training? What should they do?

A: I think proper training is very important when a child is between 6 and 8 because that’s usually when professional dancers start. That’s what I hear most often. So I think it’s crucial that between the ages of 6 to probably 11, that children have a teacher that is going to teach them about the love of movement and dance – all the while easing in the technique. At that point, children are going once or twice a week and they need to have a teacher that starts planting the seeds that ballet is not just fun, but a discipline that can bring them joy. It can also teach them how to use your brain – I think that’s a very important aspect to teach. I don’t think that that’s always fostered. There’s a wonderful teaching method called Brain Gym that I’ve taken a few levels in it. I think I’ve completed about three levels so far. It was created by a man called Dr. Paul Dennison and his former ballet dancer wife. He’s a neuroscientist and they created this system. It’s based on helping learning impaired children overcome their learning disabilities. They did all sorts of tests about crawling and how important crawling is to a child’s development. Because of this, I’ve kind of incorporated their warm-up. We learn it when I teach the course in improvisational technique. I do it when I teach a semester-long class. I don’t know if I’ll be doing it in my upcoming workshop. It’s only 1 ½ hours a day so I have to consolidate and condense these ideas, but early training is very important. I actually developed two huge bad habits from my early training. I had to undo both of them in the five years I was San Francisco Ballet. Things can be undone, but muscle development happens so if you if teachers telling you strange ideas like, “Push your ribs down” and “tuck your hips,” that is going to create a certain muscle structure –heavier quads, for instance. You’re also going to have compression in your body rather than a lightness and air running throughout it. The same type of thing happens when teachers say, “Lift your chest.” It’s setting a child up to lean their upper bodies backwards so that they’re using the upper back and middle back improperly. Because of this, they’re going to be dealing with a balance issue until someone tells them not to puff their chest out. Standing straight is about your spine. I think if more teachers had to take Alexander Technique – which has changed my career – it would happen less.

Q: Oh, really? You’re a proponent of the Alexander Technique?

A: Yes, it’s changed my whole idea of dancing. I think it should be mandatory for teachers to take some sort of Alexander Technique just to implement ideas or certain techniques so that they don’t parrot what they teach. One of the most important aspects of being a teacher is to keep learning yourself. If you fall in love with your ideas, you’re going to start being a parrot and not teach as well. You might even think your ideas are more important than looking an individual and saying, “This idea doesn’t work on this kid.”

Q: Yes, I can see that.

A: So I think one of the most important aspects for a teacher is to keep learning, keep their minds open. In terms of bad training, many children and many young adults have overcome bad training and gone onto to have really good careers. They’ve redefined their training. It also happens when you’re a professional. Technique evolves – like any art. I know things now, 10 years after I’ve retired that I wished I’d known about my body. I think, “Oh, that would have so much easier” and “Oh, now I know what turning is!” [laughter] So you keep evolving.

Q: So it’s a process.

A: A lifelong process.

Q: And if you give up too quickly on it – if you retire or stop than you never continue the process. Is that what you’re saying?

A: Well, no, I think that even dancers that retire and, let’s say, no longer include dance as part of their lives in anyway whatsoever, will still continue to think like a dancer. It’s impossible to take on a discipline like dance and really have it out of your life forever. You’ll continue to enjoy it whether you only just watch it. You’ll continue to pick-up things and think, “Oh, I wonder if that would have worked for me?” So I don’t think the process stops. However, I think it’s more active in people that stay in the field after they retire.

Q: Maybe they just become more introspective in thinking things through – how things work …

A: I hope so. It is my hope for people. I know it’s true for me.

Q: Now to get back to San Francisco Ballet … could you tell us a little about your time there?

A: Yes, I went there as a student – when I was 15. I had the good fortune to be picked to work with the company. At the time, Michael Smuin and Lew Christensen were still the directors, and they needed kids in the school for the animal parts – like simians or chickens in La Fille mal Gardee so I got to work with the company right away, which was great …

Q: Wonderful!

A: Yes, and we got paid.

Q: Oh, even better!

A: Yes, I don’t remember how much, but I was very proud about my little paycheck. I got to work with the San Francisco Ballet as a student during my whole time in school when they needed a bigger corps – in ballets like Symphony in Three Movements, Western Symphony, Stars and Stripes, La Fille mal Gardee, and of course, The Nutcracker. So even though I was in the school, I got to perform quite a bit with the company. By the time the idea of apprenticeship came around, I’d already met Bill – Bill Forsythe – he had come to the company to make New Sleep in 1986.

Q: And for those who don’t know Bill Forsythe is … [laughs]

A: William Forsythe is a living choreographer, of the former Ballet Frankfurt that is now The Forsythe Company. I don’t know what to say [more laughter] … he’s a huge force in dance …

Q: How about look it up on the web?

A: Right! He’s definitely, in my book, helped change the face of dance in this current time along with Jiri Kylian, Mat EK and Ohad Naharin has a good deal to do with it also. I’m unfortunately naming only a few people right now and they’re all in the other hemisphere [laughter]. Anyway, he’s a huge force in the dance world and not just ballet.

Q: I’d like to ask about this performance experience you received at a young age. How does this add to your dimension as a dancer? I mean as opposed to only being classroom dancer or occasionally giving recitals. What happens when you’re a young dancer that’s actually on stage involved in giving a professional performance?

A: Well, to begin with, it bolsters your resume when you’re 18 or 19 and looking for a job. That’s the least of it probably, except they look at things like that when they’re hiring. They want to see a dancer has had some stage experience. It also teaches you the ropes. I’m not saying that in the ballet world that you have to be in corps de ballet, but I’m telling you it teaches you about stage craft.

Q: Yes, absolutely.

A: Your senses … you get a full spectrum … I call it Total Body Listening. I teach something else called The Expansive Artist that teaches about this Total Body Listening concept. It basically incorporates proprioception which is actually considered one of the senses now. It’s a kinetic idea of how you view … how you feel yourself in space and it’s definitely one of the huge gifts that comes out of this type of experience. So besides giving a young dancer of say 15, the chance to be on stage, you get an awareness being in the corps de ballet. You have to get this peripheral vision – all kinds of vision – going and working. Your ears have to be more awake so your senses can become more attuned on a professional level. That’s one big bonus. The other is that you learn what company life is about. You learn about respect in a much different way than respect in a classroom because you’re in a group full of elders. You get to watch first-hand some of your favorite dancers. You get to see what you may want to become or what area you want to strive to be in. You get to see all kinds of bodies and personalities so you see that you can form your own personality and style as well. I think this type of stage experience is very important and I think the more dancers get to perform, the better it is for them. They’ll have a much easier transition into company life because nothing prepares you for company life. I teach a lot at The Ailey School and they have very rigorous program. They are dancing for hours and hours a day. I also teach a lot of Fordham kids – so they have their studies on top of it. When they say they’re tired. I say, “Guys, yes, I know you’re tired, I remember how tired I got, but company life? It’s a completely different arena!” [laughter]

Q: Okay, so you mentioned meeting Bill Forsythe. You were with San Francisco Ballet …

A: … the school.

Q:Yes, the school. When did this meeting take place?

A: Well, it was at the crux. I had been looking for jobs. I had already auditioned for American Ballet Theater. Baryshnikov was still the director at the time.

Q:Oh, okay!

A: That was my dream and I got to stay for two weeks and audition.

Q: How did that go?

A: It went very well. He told that I needed to work on my arms, which I did, and to come back in six months. He was a very generous, gracious person.

Q: Well, that’s good to know.

A: And then I auditioned for Houston and that was a near miss. And then Elliot Feld – I was the last one there. I see now that when Bill came to San Francisco Ballet, I had just had these three near misses and it still unclear about whether Helgi – who is now the director – was going to take me as an apprentice. All of a sudden Bill Forsythe showed up! I remember I was rehearsing Stars and Stripes and another ballet. I was rehearsing with the company – on the top floor. My classes were divided in the mornings and afternoons so I also had some free hours because the last year I was there, the ballet instituted a high school. That meant I got to do my schoolwork at the school so I was there all day. Because of this, I started to watch his rehearsals and I’d never seen anything like it. I’d never seen a choreographer work with dancers in that way. Now, I hadn’t seen much – I was young– but I’d never seen anything like this man! I mean, he was laughing and the atmosphere in the studio was so light and alive and energetic. He was dancing and demonstrating what he wanted and he was partnering with the women figuring out what he wanted with his dancers. I hadn’t seen many creations so it was new to me to see someone making one for a dancer. I thought, “Oh, this is what I want! This is who I want to work with!”

Q: Oh, kismet!

A: Kind of … that’s what I really believe now.

Q: Definitely seems to be!

A: I was watching and at one point, he saw me sitting and watching in the doorway. He’s also very good about this – if he sees someone that’s interested – he’s done it time and time again – he says, “Why don’t you come in and try some things?” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen him do that! If he visits companies where he’s creating, he’ll come back with a dancer from a company that he’s just created on. He always does this when he sees an interest or a curiousity. For him, it means that this person is hungry. So he saw me and invited me in. I went to every rehearsal I could and was in the back. I was doing this in-between my regular schedule. Then one of the dancers got sick – for a whole week – and I got to take her role in the rehearsals until she came back. At the end of the process, I went to him and said, “I’d really love to join your company. Do you think there’s a space open?” He said, “If you come to Frankfurt, Germany and come and see the company, I’ll give you a job.” I think that was smart. I think it’s a very good thing for a young dancer to do that before they make a move to different country. You should go to that country and audition. You need to see what that country is like and what the company is like. I tell my students that when you audition, you’re also auditioning the place where you want to dance. Remember that you have a certain amount of power in your decision. I know how much you want jobs, but if you’re going to go to a company and you’re going to take any job and be miserable, it’s not worth it. So I went there and that’s how got there! [laughter]

Q: Now I’m curious about some things you’ve said about him. You’ve said a few times that you’d never seen anything like him. Was that his just his style? Or were his movements different than say pure classical ballet? More modern, for instance? What differences are you referring to?

A: Well, he’s based in classical ballet. He studied at Joffrey and was in the Stuttgart Ballet. He loves the art of ballet – he’s in love with it. His work is – for lack of a better term and I’m telling you that we really as a dance community have to come up with a better term – contemporary. That term is a huge umbrella. It encompasses so much now and we really need subdivisions. Neoclassical is out the window so we need a better term. In terms of the question, I would say that he took ballet and kept rediscovering the aspects of the form. He questioned how form could be morphed, not necessarily changed, but morphed into a “furthering” of the specific idea. He is/was excited about the possibility of the body. He was open to what was in front of him, in terms of a dancer or concept. He used to say, “Show me what you know.” I love this statement. I like to say, reach beyond the natural reach. I always say this in my Forsythe improv classes. I guess it’s because that idea got me into thinking in a new way about his movements and got me into doing them. Another thing I would also say was different, was how he worked with these dancers. He was just so excited to impart this knowledge. It was also how excited he got when he’d watch a dancer do a step that he’s just demonstrated. He loved it when they got it! I mean, he’d cheer like, “Yeah, yeah fantastic!!! Let’s keep going!!! That was fantastic!!! Now try this!!!” He’s an ecstatic personality and they are hard to resist.

Q: Yes, they draw you in!

A: They do draw you in and thank God! I always use an image that I feel he went right into my chest and pulled out things that I didn’t know existed as far as art goes. He expanded my vision of what dance is … he got me to understand that dance is part of an art world. Dance isn’t a little tiny box in and of itself. You must look outside to further your dance career. You must read, you must write, you must go to galleries, you must listen to music. He even taught me how to listen to music.

Q: Oh, really?

A: Oh, yeah! When I was doing Artifact – it’s 25-years-old, which is hard to believe – but when I was learning a pas de deux in Artifact, he went over one phrase with me. I was 24. He went over one step and one phrase – a short phrase of music, but I can’t tell you how many times. There’s a famous story about John Cassavetes, a wonderful film director, who made Gena Rowlands do a scene 100 times …

Q: Oh my God! [laughter] [/b]

A: And it’s kind of like that. He made me listen, and listen, and listen again. And then demonstrate it and it would be no, listen again. Do you hear? I tell you, this was the start of learning how to listen to music for me. There’s listening and there’s listening …

Q:I agree …

A: And the limbs were incredibly beautifully elongated and his use of his room was something that I’d never seen. There’s a wonderful quote I came across. I always start the Forsythe-based improv classes with wonderful quotes that have inspired me and one of them is from Emmanuel Kant. He said, “Space is pure intuition.”

Q: Oh, I love it!

A: Yes, and I don’t explain it. I just say that you explain that for yourself as we go along.

Q: Wow, that is very cool. [laughter]

A: It is. It’s a beautiful quote. Then I read a nice passage from Jack Kerouac because he was an ecstatic personality. I try to vary it also to show them what reading can do for you. Again, you can define your dance and your art by looking elsewhere.

Q: Oh, definitely. It’s all somewhere connected.

A: I love teaching college age kids for that reason. They’re so excited about life. They’re just out of the nest and they’re still looking for some kind support in that way. And they’re provocative [laughter] … and the world is their oyster and they want to press boundaries … and they’re sassy [more laughter] … but they want a good relationship because it’s like the family thing …and they want to do a good job! I love college age kids.

Q: And they have everything to succeed. They have all that potential.

A: Yes.

Q: Now in the Frankfurt Ballet, did you start in the corps and then go to soloist and then principal?

A: It’s an ensemble. I got my first leading role, in Artifact, 1991. We all did leading roles and ensemble work. We did everything. Sometimes I think the hierarchy – especially in dancers that get it too young means a certain respect goes out the window because it’s not about the dance anymore – it’s about the position – and it always has to be about the dance. Without question.

Q: Now in terms of you being a dancer, were there any early indications signs that you wanted to choreograph or teach? If not, when and where did this idea come about?

A: Again, in Frankfurt. As with every company, you have different casts. Very often, if you’re first or second cast you’re in charge of teaching the other casts. Then Bill would come in and coach and change what he wanted to. Very early on, you were teaching your fellow dancers and they were teaching you. You actually learned how to teach detail, coach, try to figure out what worked for this person, and why it didn’t work for this other person – and this was from the get go. Now in the first two years, I would say that I was mainly being taught by my fellow dancers. In other words, I was taught more frequently than I was teaching. We were also learning about choreography because there was so much structured improv in Frankfurt. In terms of choreography, we did construct phrases from choreography that he demonstrated. Sometimes Bill would choreograph a solo for us and then he’d say, “Try doing it backwards.” He’d begin working with somebody else – which would give us time to go off and do a solo made for us, but we’d do it in retrograde. Other times the whole room would learn long, long phrases of movement as a group and then he’d say, “Okay, let’s split off and do a solo, do a trio and do a duet. Oh, you want to do a duet together?” And so you’d do a duet. Essentially I was learning how to teach and how to put movement together. I learned about structure. Plus, we had a very special situation, we’d get the stage for about three weeks at a time to make a piece on the stage. Usually you get the stage a few days before a performance to do your lighting, but we had about three weeks in the studio and then we’d have about three weeks onstage. He could really construct some things and we worked from 10 in the morning til 10 at night those days – with two breaks. We’d sit on the stage and watch him make piece. I learned how to construct things. I learned about the craft of choreography so I think it started then. You know, I knew I wanted to be a performer after I retired from Frankfurt Ballet and I worked with the Wooster Group. I started teaching one year after I came to New York. I also discovered that I did like teaching – I didn’t know that I did. Then in 2005, I was teaching a Forsythe Workshop for MIT of all places! Every two years, they have Cyber Arts Festival. I was a human component to their cyber world.

Q: Oh my gosh!!! [laughter]

A: This workshop was being held in the Boston Ballet studios. I remembered that I knew the director, Mikko Nissinen. We knew each other way back when he was in San Francisco Ballet. I also knew him from Europe. I went up to his office. You know, now or never kind of situation. I had not seen him in years and thought I should say hi. I took responsibility and marched into the office. You’re responsible for your work and your career. I just stood there until he looked up and said, “Helen?” [laughter] I invited him down to see one of the classes. He could only stay a few minutes. I was demonstrating because I demonstrated a lot of the improv. I demonstrated a pretty long phrase to show how all these modalities could string together. He was really happy to see what I’d been doing with my life all this time. Then about two months later, he called me up and asked me if I wanted to choreograph a piece for Boston Ballet.

Q: Wow, that’s amazing!

A: My work with Bill, plus my background as a classical ballet dancer interested Mikko.

Q: Now was this EVENTIDE?

A: No, this was Etesian. Etesian was the first piece I made in 2005. Then I was a participant in the New York Choreographic Institute, The Fellowship Initiative – New York City Ballet – Where I created a 10-minute choreographic idea that developed into, Petal, for Aspen Santa Fe Ballet. I made EVENTIDE last Spring, and now this Fall, I’ll be working on a new duet.

Q:So just to construct a timeline, you were with Frankfurt Ballet for how long?

A: 1987 until 1998.

Q: And then it’s at that point you …

A: Moved to New York and worked with the Wooster Group, started teaching and writing more.

Q: And act ..

A: With the Wooster Group I acted and I’m part of this art film company, Eve Sussman and The Rufus Corporation, but the last thing we did together was The Rape of the Sabine Women. I’ve been reprising my role that I adore. It was a speaking part in Impressing the Czar. It was at the Lincoln Center Festival last July. It’s another older piece that I’ve been doing it since 2005 with Royal Ballet of Flanders.

Q: I’d like to talk about your instructing. What is the nexus of your classes? What do you hope to do with your class? Why are you a teacher? If you had a wish, what would be the one thing you would want your students to get from you? Or a wish list if it’s more than one thing?

A: To get excited about life. I want them to invest in an investigative and curious way in their chosen field – which I’m assuming is dance. I want them to go away celebrating the idea of responsibility and not thinking it’s the horrible “R” word. I want them to know that they are the catalyst in their life as to what they will create. I hope to plant those seeds. I also hope to plant to the seed to really enjoy the brain/body connection. I don’t want them to be “don’t think, just dance” dancers. That’s a terrible phrase. I think it’s a misunderstood phrase. I believe what the person meant to say is, “Don’t judge, just dance.” Just get out of your way. That doesn’t mean don’t think. You need to think more. You need to enjoy thinking, but you need to stop being the judge. You need to stop judging and get the judge off your shoulder because that’s what stopping from being creative or reaching your potential. It’s the constant self-criticism, so you’ve got to get out of your way, but you’ve got to enjoy your brain. And you’ve got to enjoy this connection that you as a dancer are very privileged to enjoy. I always say that dancers are among the smartest people on the planet – even if it’s not a conscious thing – because we know our body is responsible. This is a give and take here. Of course, your brain is telling you everything. It’s central command, but what you can discover is endless. You don’t need to look for anything new, you need to keep rediscovering. And I know this is not a synthesis in anyway for the question, but I guess it’s curiosity, the wish to become great, stay hungry, being responsible, enjoying that responsibility, recognizing that competition is not an outward thing, but an inward thing. In this regard, you do not need to hurt anybody, you do not need to gossip, you don’t need to do any of that. Stay within yourself, be kind and be open to your environment.

Q: Well, you said a few things that I wanted to touch on here. You talk about the person being responsible and catalyst. How much do you think the dancer is responsible for what comes to them? If they’re being responsible, how much of what is happening to them is their fault or their doing? Is it a mix or do you feel that someone’s mindset alone is setting things off?

A: Yes, I have seen, and personally experienced dancers, sabotage themselves right out of a role.

Q: Okay, do they know?

A: No.

Q: They don’t know.

A: No, but there are ways to be taught. For example, and I am including me in this, [laughter] I for a very long time had an authority problem. [more laughter]

Q: Hmmm … sounds familiar …

A: And this is a healthy thing to recognize. I think that’s part of the problem. It’s that society is, “You’ve got an authority problem. You better watch out!” I think having an authority problem actually means a person is smart because they’re questioning. Questioning the status quo is very important. I always tell my semester long classes that the front of the room is not the end of the road. I tell them that I’m going to impart knowledge, but that I’m definitely not the last word. Neither is anybody else that’s in the front of the room for your career or anything. Never believe someone blindly – always question. It’s a very healthy thing to remember.

Now if an authority problem were addressed by saying, “What’s going on here? Why do have to fight me so hard? What is it?” – and I’m not going to get into the specific psychological issues here. We all have our own reasons for fighting. I usually say, “ I respect your authority problem. I want you to question me. That’s great, but make sure you’re not going to sabotage your own process of learning. Make sure you’re not going to everything you can from me and leave aside the parts you don’t want from me. Make sure you’re not sabotaging your own process here with your authority problem.” That’s just one instance of how I’ve seen someone not succeed in something because the truth is that you can learn from everybody. You can even learn from people you don’t think are your cup of tea. If you keep that frame of mind, your authority problem is going to diminish in the way you’re going to coach yourself to deal with it. No need to have an aggressive attitude that says, “This is me and this is who I am.” That’s great! Okay! Then let me see who you are! Let me see less attitude and more dance! I’m on the same page as you are, but I said it this semester, “I said, guys, believe it or not your fantastic leotards and your fantastic attitudes are not going to get you a job. What’s going to get you a job is if you can dance and if you know the rules of etiquette in your art because there are rules!” And they’re not bad things and they’re there for a reason. Yeah, rules are made to be broken, I’m all for it … I’m all about it, but how about being polite to your fellow dancer? How about knowing about space in a room! Little things like that. Spatial awareness. And all this needs to be taught in a classroom – it can’t be assumed! So I stop whenever I see someone that’s not been thinking just barrel into people that are still dancing. I stop the class immediately and say, “What happened?”

Q: Thank you! Yes!

A: But I don’t reprimand and say, “What did you just do?” The response is something like, “I danced, but …” Then I say “Yeah, you stopped when people were dancing all around you!” If they say, “Yeah, but I couldn’t get it,” I say, “That’s not allowed. You come forward and then exit, but you don’t stop in the middle in the room when there are people still dancing.” They think it’s okay, so this needs to be taught. How are they going to learn, if they’re not taught?

Q: Exactly!

A: And if you don’t reprimand – if you don’t come at them like a general – they’re going to assimilate the information much better.

Q: I wanted to touch on one more thing you said earlier. You said something about not judging – don’t be a judge. I was speaking to someone about being hypercritical in dance reviews to the point where they’re not reviewing, but eviscerating who they saw perform onstage. It seemed out of proportion to an entertainer trying to entertain. Where do you think this hypercritism started and what’s the best way to deal with being bombarded by it? Especially if your school or company is into that mode. How can you get something out of review that is criticizing the way you look, your weight and everything about you and take something good away from it?

A: First of all, regarding bad reviews, a very wise person said, “Hey, you got reviewed!” That’s the first thing – you’re in the paper! The other thing is that bad reviews are not necessarily bad for your career. If you get a bad review or the piece gets a bad review – let’s take the personal out of it – it means that the piece is rubbing someone the wrong way. It could mean a couple of things. It could mean that it’s pressing new boundaries. Hallelujah! That needs to happen. That is art. It might also be because of the taste of that reviewer. It’s one person – one person is making that review. If a reviewer – and I’ll get back to how a judgment evolves – knows what they’re talking about and is a balletomane – and they write a review that sounds informed, even if it is cruel, there’s something to learn from that review. You do not take the cruel things – that are obviously cruel – to heart because as artists, you’re setting your soul out there. You’re setting yourself up and you need to have thick skin. I’m not saying it gets easier although I think it does – if I get a bad review it still hurts. I think, “What didn’t they see?” but it’s okay. It’s par for the course. If you’re going to be an artist of any kind – or a human being although artists lay their souls bare more often – you’ve got to be prepared to receive a bad review.

I don’t mind the snarkiness if it’s a person I know knows their craft. It’s when the book critic is all of a sudden the dance critic because budgets are being compressed. The book critic doesn’t know an inch about dance, they know about books! Then I wonder about the snarkiness, but hey, just focus on what you can do for your art. Focus less on the negative and more on the proactive. It’s a very important thing that young artists have to know. If you get a bad review, read it and throw it away. Or read it and try to get something out of it. You know, the arts are judgmental – sculpture, painting, writing. In college, you’re always getting reviewed by your teachers – it’s called grades. The teachers are there to learn from and again they’re one opinion so you have to be responsible. That’s why I’m speaking about being responsible. If someone can teach you to be responsible and think for yourself, you can say that it’s one opinion. You can then learn from it. You can take what you need to take and then you can let it go. Being an artist puts you in a judgmental situation. That’s why, many people don’t become artists.

Q: That’s true!

A: It’s part of our trade. And you know what? It’s good to be honest and open about yourself sometimes. I’ve said to my students, “You’re about to embark on a pretty hard profession. Be honest enough with yourselves and ask if you really want to do this. Because if you don’t, you’re setting yourself up for years of heartache.” I tell them that I know it’s a hard question to ask themselves because they may be studying dance for a college degree, but they need to. This is where it starts. And if you do want to be a dancer, you have to work overtime if you want to get to a place that you deem fabulous. There are only so many slots in so many companies.

Q: Definitely. You have to persevere.

A: But that’s part of judgment.

Q: I guess I was getting into the area of “hyper” criticism.

A: But you’re going have teachers that function that way, critics that function that way and directors that function that way. Then it’s up to you, especially if you’re an adult to deal with it You’ve got to make a decision about a bad situation and about whether you can stand it or want to leave?

Q: Absolutely. Totally. And it’s a shame sometimes because ballet companies are only choosing from who’s in the group. If you leave that group, you’re really taking the choice away yourself and them.

A: Except if you’re in an unhealthy situation. If you’re in a company situation where you recognize that this company isn’t working for you on many different levels – and if you’re in a state of complaining about not getting roles – it’s time to leave. I believe that when you take a responsible position of any kind, one door closes and another one usually opens. If the decision is because of that judge and all the internal sabotaging, it’s going to follow you until you deal with that.

Q: Earlier, you mentioned the Alexander Technique and I wanted to get back to that. Where did this interest in it come about? When did you start using it and how do you incorporate it into your teaching?

A: I started when I was a dancer. It was with a teacher who now lives in Amsterdam, but who used to live in New York Tom Koch. I started out with him because he would come through Frankfurt since he had a couple of friends there. I learned so much about the spine – about the body. It really drops a plum line and spirals out from it. It started me thinking because muscle structure is made in spirals. If you look at the anatomy of a muscle, you’ll see spiraling fibers. It’s how a muscle is made. I also had a wonderful teacher in San Diego that I’d see when I visited my parents. Her name is Kathy Irey and she’s probably one of the most talented teachers I’ve ever come across. I would definitely say that she’s changed my idea of what a dancer is. I take greatly from her as a teacher. She is probably the teacher that incorporated Alexander and ballet in the most profound way. She would always speak about the torso and legs spiraling away from each other. So in attitude, it would be a scallop shape going away from each other – two points going away from each other in a scallop – the top of the hand, to the top of the foot that angles upward. In class, I very much use semantics along these lines. In Alexander Technique, you keep your eyes open, but you notice your body. You don’t close your eyes. You do this so you keep aware and awake. I feel it’s a very proprioceptive idea of the body. In class, I say things like drop your Achilles tendons into the floor all the way when you’re stretching so you’re not hanging onto the front of your ankle. You should imagine an elastic opening in the front of your ankle as you plie so you’re creating space. Now you’re saying this to yourself, but your body does it anatomically. When you plie, these two bones in your ankle actually open to allow you space and room for you to complete the movement. It all makes sense when you understand how the body works. What they say is anatomically and scientifically sound so it’s true what Alexander is professing. If you create space in your spine, well, you’re not compressing it. That means, you’re giving the soft tissue more of a chance. You’re taught to think of width through your body and not just length. If there’s a width, you’re widening and lengthening. I use those two words quite a bit when I teach ballet.

Q: To me that helps since I’ve always loved teachers that can give me images, as well as specific points in the body and explain exactly what is going on. I find it helps me understand. Since we’re speaking of your classes, you have one coming up at the Peridance Center. When is this happening?

A: I’m going to be teaching a Forsythe-based improvisation workshop the week of June 22nd through June 26th, 11:30 AM – 1:00 PM. [See link below.] It’s not a lot of hours – 7 ½ hours – so I’ll spend a lot more time in the set-up before we get to the modalities. I used to go much faster, but I’ve learned in teaching over the years how to condense this class and still get results.

Q: And what are dancers going to get out of this? What are you going to teach them?

A: I’m going to teach them a different version of space. I teach them – very importantly – I announce to them, that this is an improv technique based on the ballet tradition. That’s a really different situation than most improvisational classes. I explain to them that the more information they have in your body, the more they’ll have to draw upon it to dance. I also tell them that I can see what you know, but that I want to see this technique I’m teaching – I want to see it evolve out of what they know. They’re not a formless being in the class. They’re going to be using what they know and thinking of it and pursuing it through these different modalities. I want them to learn the very helpful idea of a circle and bounce within the body – that they’re bouncing off positions. In dance, you are actually bouncing off this space that is pure intuition. This happens because the air around you has texture and weight. So as they’re learning some of the set-up, it’s not just going to be a warm-up. It’s going to actually setting them up to understand the coming modalities. It’s hard to explain. In class, I show. When I show, the words come. When I demonstrate, that’s when vocabulary starts to flow. I’ll also be teaching some Forsythe modalities. Because Forsythe is so sought after now, kids want to know these things. They want to know what makes a Forsythe dancer look like a Forsythe dancer.

Q: I’d like to know! Are there key points?

A: Use of space.

Q: Use of space. What about a difference in stance or posture? How about an arabesque? What would be the difference in an arabesque?

A: Okay, first arabesque. [Helen demonstrates a first arabesque. She brings her right arm forward – chin level – and her left arm in a traditional pose], would become much more… [she lifts her right arm further up – lifting her head up to follow the new line – her left arm sweeps more dramatically back – she looks more lifted raised – further stretched both vertically and horizontally]

Q: Oh!

A: Like two points for example – there’s a modality that’s point, point, line – two points going away from one another. So this is a point [indicates tip of fingers right hand] your front arabesque hand and this is a point [indicates the tips of her left hand]. Now you have an arc [arcs her left arm forward almost meeting her right hand so there’s an arc created] or a line [stretches her arms back out so a line is formed, depending on how you look at it – or you have a diagonal {tilts arms to show diagonal and that it can change]. So when you do a tendu [she stands and does a classic tendu – hips square – right heel leads foot out – points toe] you’re tenduing out to a point and let’s change it somehow. Let’s lift the right hip [she lifts her right hip and when she does it draws right leg back – posture takes on an almost impudent or slightly audacious look – moves again it becomes Balanchine-like in structure – reseats herself]. So you’re piecing out the body. I teach them how to piece out the body and to think of their body in terms of the classical technique or the classical idea of a set-up body because there are modern techniques of set-up. I tell them to open their imagination and think of their body as a palette. In other words, I’ll try to touch the back of my chair with my belly button [demonstrates – does strong abdominal contraction] What else could this be called in the Graham technique? [pauses] Do you know what I mean? It’s teaching them how to look at their technique with different semantics. It’s also teaching them that this body that we have isn’t separated out of huge chunks, like “I’ve got an arm!” [holds out arm] There is so much detail in this one limb of your arm! There is so much detail in this hand! How many facings of the hand do we have? [turns her hand over and to the back] You might want to show this facing and if I say I want to show that side of my hand to the audience, well, you have to change your body to do it. I’m teaching how to view and change and piece out their body and to see their body as a happening! [laughter] You know! It’s a state! It’s a happening! It’s an active state! It’s not a state of stasis. You don’t arrive at a position – you find a position and you figure out how to change your body through a directive to achieve something different. So it’s looking at your body as a blank slate and saying, “The back of your right calf to the front of your left hand.” Well, you have to change your body to do that. You can’t stand straight and have your normal posture. You have to change something. You have to take something out of its normal position. And you might find your normal position again and most often you do. And also the idea – very important – the idea of balance. Our bodies are made to be in balance. We’re in balance no matter what. So that’s another semantics thing I have a little problem with someone saying, “Find your balance.” Your body does that for you automatically. It’s called your vestibular system – that beautiful little coil in your ear and your proprioceptive sense. That’s why when people lose their toes they can’t walk anymore because there’s a lot of proprioception in those toes. And you are in balance period so just accept it! [laughter] You can psychologically mess yourself up, but you are always in balance! And that’s a nice thing to remember. You are always in balance. That’s your body’s job. So redefine your idea of balance – play with being off balance and what that might mean. Now that’s an oxymoron because if you’re off balance your body has already adjusted to that off balance and trying to find what that means for itself. I try to change their perception of how they see the idea of dance. I guess that’s the crux. [laughter] After an hour long explanation … [more laughter]

Q: But it was certainly a thorough explanation! I would be excited to take your class myself. It sounds like a different approach and fascinating! I sort of like the cerebral meeting with the physicality of everything! .

A: Exactly! It’s wonderful that you said that. That’s my mission.

Q: What you’re talking about reminds me of this art exhibition I saw called The Summer of Love. There was this one exhibit – it was this room where you’re plunged into total darkness. There’s just this sound synthesizer playing an almost an “ohm” sound. It’s amazing how being in this total darkness gets you completely whacked out because you don’t have a point of reference from a light being on. It’s amazing the difference you feel when the light does go on again. I almost feel that that’s what you’re talking about. [laughter]

A: Exactly. You don’t need to get whacked out. That’s your reality is right now. You’re in a black hole and you can stand there until something happens or you can turn on a light!

Q: Right, be your own light! I’m glad you understood. It’s what I got out of what you were saying. [more laughter] I thank you so much for this interview. I can’t wait to get this up and posted for everyone to read! It was such a pleasure meeting you!

A: Thank you and you’re very welcome!

If anyone is interested in taking Helen Pickett’s class at Peridance [raises hand], here is the class schedule, a link and a little more information:

www.peridance.com . . .

Forsythe Based Improv. Tech. with Helen Pickett
Jun 22, 2009 - Jun 26, 2009; Mon - Fri
11:30 AM - 1:00 PM

Peridance Center
International Dance School
890 Broadway, Sixth Floor
New York, NY 10003
Tel: 212-505-0886
Fax: 212-674-2239

Mass Transit:
(to Union Square/14th St. or 23rd St. stop/station)
Subway - 4,5,6,N,R,L (L is 14th St. only)
Bus - M1, M2, M14

9 Replies to Inspiration #04: Interview with Helen Pickett

re: Inspiration #04: Interview with Helen Pickett
By Acrothiel
On Wed Jun 03, 2009 01:08 AM
Yay, another one! thank you very much! :)
re: Inspiration #04: Interview with Helen Pickett
By pasdeblake
On Wed Jun 03, 2009 08:30 AM
nycsylph wrote:

“Don’t judge, just dance.” Just get out of your way. That doesn’t mean don’t think. You need to think more. You need to enjoy thinking, but you need to stop being the judge. You need to stop judging and get the judge off your shoulder because that’s what stopping from being creative or reaching your potential. It’s the constant self-criticism, so you’ve got to get out of your way, but you’ve got to enjoy your brain. And you’ve got to enjoy this connection that you as a dancer are very privileged to enjoy.

That and the things she mentions about spiraling, intricate muscles are things I will definitely apply in class! I mean, I've had an inkling of those ideas, but Mrs. Pickett really articulates them so well! Thank you nycsylph!
re: Inspiration #04: Interview with Helen Pickett
By Flashnflakymember has saluted, click to view salute photos
On Wed Jun 03, 2009 09:17 AM
Wow! She really IS an inspiration....I think her class would be mind-altering :O)

Make sure to let us know how you liked her class and what you got out of it, nycslyph!
re: Inspiration #04: Interview with Helen Pickett
By nycsylphmember has saluted, click to view salute photosPremium member
On Wed Jun 03, 2009 04:20 PM


- Yay, another one! thank you very much!

You're welcome!!!

This is working out well for me also! I get to interview all sorts of fab-oo-lous! people who normally wouldn't talk to me!!! But they do and I have a wonderful time learning so much!!!

pasdeblake -

That and the things she mentions about spiraling, intricate muscles are things I will definitely apply in class! I mean, I've had an inkling of those ideas, but Mrs. Pickett really articulates them so well! Thank you nycsylph!

You're very welcome!

Yes, those ideas are compelling and insightful. I also LOVED that she took the bull by the horns and asked William Forsythe if there was a spot for her in the company! How many of us - if we were in that privileged position to begin with - would have simply asked him!!! Even when we know that's what we want, we often don't do it!!!

From now on, I'll at least ask!

Flashnflaky -

Wow! She really IS an inspiration....I think her class would be mind-altering :O)

Make sure to let us know how you liked her class and what you got out of it, nycslyph!

I think so, too! I'm still trying to wrap my mind around a few things she said!!! I really loved talking to her!!! Had a fantastic time!!!

Thanks for posting!!!
re: Inspiration #04: Interview with Helen Pickett
By DanceOfTheHeartmember has saluted, click to view salute photos
On Fri Jun 12, 2009 01:28 PM

she teaches at my college! She's so great her classes are like a mix of classical ballet and Forsythe.

Miss you Helen!
re: Inspiration #04: Interview with Helen Pickett
By nycsylphmember has saluted, click to view salute photosPremium member
On Sat Jun 13, 2009 08:54 AM
DanceOfTheHeart wrote:


she teaches at my college! She's so great her classes are like a mix of classical ballet and Forsythe.

Miss you Helen!

Brooke -

Oh, my gosh!!! Well, aren't you lucky to have such a wonderful teacher?

I found her so refreshing to talk to. She was truly one of those people that can make a huge impact on your life.

Thanks for posting!!!
re: Inspiration #04: Interview with Helen Pickett
By dancer_kath
On Mon Jun 15, 2009 03:28 PM
I loved this! simpley amazing!
re: Inspiration #04: Interview with Helen Pickett
By DanceOfTheHeartmember has saluted, click to view salute photos
On Mon Jun 15, 2009 10:16 PM
Yes she is great and a breath of fresh air. She was a sub for our teacher Richard Cook who was out with kidney cancer all last semester. She even taught our PDD class the In The Middle girl's solo which is super crazy fun.

I do hope she comes back next year, everyone is dying to get her to do their senior projects. her choreography is AMAZING!

re: Inspiration #04: Interview with Helen Pickett
By nycsylphmember has saluted, click to view salute photosPremium member
On Tue Jun 16, 2009 03:10 PM
dancer_kath wrote:

I loved this! simpley amazing!

Thanks so much!!!!

I'm glad you enjoyed the interview and hope you'll be reading the next one!!!!

Yes she is great and a breath of fresh air. She was a sub for our teacher Richard Cook who was out with kidney cancer all last semester. She even taught our PDD class the In The Middle girl's solo which is super crazy fun.

I do hope she comes back next year, everyone is dying to get her to do their senior projects. her choreography is AMAZING!

brooke -

Well, I am sorry about the reason she was there, but have to agree that her choreography is just terrific! Never danced it, but loved what I saw in the video.


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