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American choreographer Helen Pickett spent more than a decade dancing for iconoclastic choreographer William Forsythe, who pushed classical ballet into hyper-modern territory with sleek, speedy urban works that balance on a precipice. Like Forsythe, Pickett stretches the boundaries of ballet idioms by often engaging with works of literature, where her movement reveals elegant intimacy and emotional depth spiraling with a distinct feminine sensitivity. She shares with ICONS the interior processes of her creative space.


Dance ICONS: What can you share in your words about how your choreography looks and feels?



Helen Pickett: Intimacy and the liminal spaces of intimate connection come to the forefront. The sensory system has always been a deep place of inspiration and curiosity for me, not only as a choreographer but also as a dancer. Describing the textures of space and music, and discovering the vast interiority of the human body; creating worlds and movement based on how we intertwine.


I think the theater and film training and work influenced my choreography greatly. Even with my first commission with Boston Ballet in 2005, I knew I wanted to find creative pathways with the long view, not slipping into a niche or style, but shifting with every piece. I’m always interested in the different branches of the journey. The ethos that change is the only constant is a mantra for me. I am still blissfully discovering along the many paths.


And I must add, the tangible feeling of the present -- where I am at any given moment -- is and has always been hugely inspirational. Replete with all matters of input and ideas, the world’s inspiration is never-ending. 



ICONS: How does your choreographic process relate to the humanness of your dancers?


H.P.: I work with incredible human beings. I’ve always loved to coach and mentor … and I do that within my choreography. Regardless of the work, dancers are always at their best when they rehearse and perform with the feeling that it is their art, empowered to find their voice. There’s something greater than the steps … the communication and relationships, the textures of the individual, and how each person communicates – this is truly exciting.




ICONS: Did you use videotaping of your choreographic material in the early stages of your career?


H.P.: I did. I needed the video because I needed to document the original movements and not water them down. I found a movement vocabulary I could keep folding into. But, when I realized that I understood the puzzle, I could trust and let the movement morph. [My process] became more about who I was working with and sharing the room with, and less about my body’s specific style. Collaborating in the interpretation of the intricacy and idea of the steps helped the process develop into us instead of me; we were in a collective practice.


I no longer use video ahead of time. [Today] when I get in the studio with a new company, I have a rather long process in getting to learn [about] the dancers, and this is especially true when I’m creating a narrative work.


ICONS: You worked with William Forsythe for 11 years. What did you learn about the choreographic process from him and were you conscious of that at the time?


H.P.: It was a constant in-process environment. We were generating and reevaluating all the time. This was a culture that all of us lived and breathed. We lived … the delving, the mosh pit diving, the deconstruction, and reconstruction … the hovering around a balance, but rarely being on balance. Nothing ever stayed the same. We were in a state of growth, discernment, and questioning the ideas around chaos. I always say to people, “Don’t be afraid of that world. The unknown is an amazing place.” It’s not scary or unattractive. It’s the place that makes you thrive and evolve as a human being because in that place, you are ever questioning your realities.



ICONS: Does chaos free you?


H.P.: Yes. It sounds terrifying, but it’s not [terrifying] when you realize the power of the moment. You must be present, which was one of the most valuable lessons I learned and that I have taken with me. Don’t get me wrong. I am not talking about erasing techniques. I revere ballet technique and consider it a life-long journey. Rehearsing the roles, the phrases, the qualities of your movement, until all the facets sparkle with understanding, gives you the chance to be ready for anything.


And that’s the point, right? It’s a live art. It can be spontaneously beautiful, alive, with a knowledgeable foundation.


ICONS: Is there something you wish someone had said to you when you were starting your choreographic career?

H.P.: Actually, the following words were said to me often, but I iterate them here: “Don’t give up on your ideas.” If you have an idea and you believe in it, develop it. The doors will close sometimes, but there is always an opportunity. Keep your antennae up and be ready for the reveal. Self-motivation will help you get there. If you need it, you will find a way.


And have patience. That’s one of the hardest things for a younger person to grasp. Keep working no matter what. And always carry a notebook.




More about Helen Pickett:


As a choreographer, Helen Pickett draws on her wide-ranging interests for inspiration, from the scent and color of flowers to philosopher Immanuel Kant to literature, including Arthur Miller’s 1953 play The Crucible. Pickett loves encouraging her dancers to imbue her movement with their individuality. During the pandemic pause, she crafted more compact works over Zoom, including 12 dances for film, conducted 83 online interviews of dance and theater artists called Creative Vitality Jam Sessions, and founded Female Choreographers Big Round Table.


In the coming 2022-23-24 seasons, she’s back in the studio for large-scale pieces with four new choreographic projects – an hour-long narrative piece for National Ballet of Canada and a 25-minute work for West Australian Ballet; a 20-minute work for Boston Ballet, and a full-length narrative for Dutch National Ballet in the 2024-25 season. Before that, however, The Scottish Ballet will perform her full-length The Crucible, at Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London from June 14-18, 2022, and at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., in May 2023. Website:


Helen Pickett is represented by Kristopher McDowell, KMP Artists, and Rhizome Arts Consulting.








The Crucible, choreography by Helen Pickett, performed by The Scottish Ballet:




Petal, choreography by Helen Pickett, performed by the Boston Ballet:






Helen Pickett, portrait, photography © Mihaela Bodlovic

Petal, choreography by Helen Pickett, Pittsburgh Ballet, photography © Rosalie O'Connor

Petal, choreography by Helen Pickett, Pittsburgh Ballet, photography © Rosalie O'Connor

TILT, choreography by Helen Pickett, Philadelphia Ballet, photography © Dayesi Torriente

The Crucible, choreography by Helen Pickett, Scottish Ballet, photography © Andy Ross

The Exiled, choreography by Helen Pickett, Atlanta Ballet, photography © C. McCullers

The Crucible, choreography by Helen Pickett, Scottish Ballet, photography © Andy Ross



(Choreography By Helen Pickett)

Photography © Costin Radu (girl)

Photography © Hiromi Platt (boy)




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