Dancer, actress, and choreographer—Helen Pickett is a sensation in the world of ballet. For over a decade, she held the position of principal dancer in famed choreographer William Forsythe’s Ballet Frankfurt. Her newest piece, “Tsukiyo (Moonlit Night),” which was commissioned by Boston Ballet director Mikko Nissinen, considers the complexities of human interaction in the setting of a Japanese fairy tale. The Office for the Arts’ Dance Program will bring Pickett to campus today at 7 p.m. to discuss the upcoming world premiere of her piece, which debuts next Thursday.
The Harvard Crimson: Is there a general story or theme that plays out through “Tsukiyo?”
Helen Pickett: Mikko and I talked about a duet, and he expressed that he would like to have a Japanese theme to the duet. I went to a piece of music that I have liked for a very long time by Arvo Pärt, called “Sciegel im Sciegel,” and that’s the bulk of the duet.
I found this fairy tale called “The Woodcutter’s Daughter,” which I decided I liked the best, because it has an ethereal quality. I knew that I wanted to do a duet about relationships—the questions of, “‘How does someone approach someone else in any situation?” “What are the boundaries?” “How do people let each other in?” With the ethereal quality, there is a built-in boundary—there is one person who is going to be of this world and one person who is not of this world.
THC: In addition to being a performer and choreographer, you are also an actress and a dance teacher. Have acting and teaching added to your own style of dance and choreography in any way?
HP: Definitely. One of the big ways acting has helped me in choreography is how I approach the dancers. I make them describe what they could be feeling. I think it is a very important process for a dancer because for the most part we do not use our voices on stage. I have also learned from my acting that stories are very important to me.
As far as teaching, it has helped my coaching: teaching someone about finding something new within himself or the technical aspect of what’s happening. Writing also helps me in coaching. It allows me to describe in a different way, using punctuation—this is a period in your movement, or a comma instead of a breath, or an explanation point to explain that this needs to come out stronger. As much imagery as one can use in the dance world, the better, because it gives people a focal point.
THC: Many of your dance seminars focus on improvisation in dance. Could you explain how improvisation helps to improve a dancer’s abilities?
HP: I really believe in structured improvisation, that technique can set you free. I believe that the improvisation that I teach can teach students or dancers to know their bodies better. Your body is your instrument, so the more you can know about it, the greater you can investigate. Improvisation is very important in this day and age because every ballet company is doing neo-classical and contemporary work, and the boundaries are being blurred more and more in dance. If we are producing ballet dancers that do not know about improvisation, we are producing ballet dancers that are going to be part of a dying art. If we get this improvisation out there, making these young people more curious about what their bodies are capable of, then perhaps we will produce the next great choreographer.
THC: On Friday night you will take part in Harvard Dance Center’s “Boston Ballet Dance Talk.” What do you hope the audience will take away from the night’s performance and discussion?
HP: I want to spark their curiosity to come see the piece. I will be showing sections of the piece and going into why I chose to show these sections. I also want to hear their responses and what they might take from the specific section I show them. I would like to have an intellectual conversation about an emotional content. If it has moved them, I would like to know why.
Also, I will show them the same section with three different casts. I would like them to take away that each individual person brings something to the same choreography, and to see that the art lies in the individual.
—Renee G. Stern