Challenges, Chances, Changes—Gender Equity in Concert Dance: Interview with Helen Pickett

Pennsylvania Ballet and FringeArts are presenting a symposium “Challenges, Chances, Changes—Gender Equity in Concert Dance” on October 30, 2017. While more and more women have been actively engaging and renowned as choreographers and directors, it still is the undeniable fact that women face lack of opportunities in the field of dance, just like they do in so many other fields. How do we challenge the hurdle? How do we create and obtain new opportunities? How can we move towards equity? One of six panelists, Helen Pickett is premiering her ballet at Pennsylvania Ballet’s upcoming playbill The Edge.  She talked about her experience as a dancer and choreographer, vision for the younger people in the dance world and her new ballet Tilt.

helen-pickett
Eri Yoneda: The topic of the symposium is “Challenge, Chances and Changes-Gender Equity in Concert Dance.”  Have you ever felt any hurdles for being woman as a dancer and/or a choreographer?

Helen Pickett: I am in the ballet world, and I think that there are less female choreographers than male. I believe this has to do with old tradition (of ballet). But rather than talk about the hurdles that I felt, I think it is important to talk about what we can do (to change it). This is why I decided to stay on pointe.  I work on pointe in ballet world because I want to stand as an example for young women.  When I talk with friends regardless of their gender, it always comes down to seeing example and knowing it is possible.  We all have influences. But it comes to very important example. I certainly think there there need to be more female choreographers and directors. Among the six panelists, we have a quite few examples. Francesca Harper has her own company, Virginia Johnson is a director of Dance Theater of Harlem, and has also given commissions to choreograph. Staying in the field as example is important for not only young female but also young male, too. Both male and female needs to be feminists.  Because dominant number of my commissions come from male directors.

EY: And this is not just dance field but much broader issue. More example and changes are needed.

HP: The more people stand for a change, the more changes can happen. That is why more female come to the ballet world as choreographers and directors.  I was recently in a program where all three choreographers were female. There have been more female presence. It has been happening.  I remember when I was in San Francisco Ballet School at age of 15 years old, there was a program of three contemporary works. Jiri Kylian and Robert North were two choreographers, and the third choreographer was Elisa Monte. And that was the first time I ever saw a professional female choreographer. I remember I thought “wow, of course. That is amazing.”  Then I heard about Twyla Tharp.  That was back then in 80s’. That was an important moment for me to recognize that.  And then When I worked with William Forsythe at Ballet Frankfurt, he was not only a feminist but also worked against the idea of racism.  The company was diverse. This was what he believed in.  It was not about race or gender but who was contributing to the work. There was equal opportunity and Bill, without explicitly saying, set the environment of equity up.

EY: Your new work will be premiered by Pennsylvania Ballet next month. Can you talk about the ballet?

HP: The ballet is called “Tilt”.  It explores the ideas of balance in space, in human lives and between people. It is about “negotiation” of balance between people, between environments and within the whole idea of space. I was greatly influenced by a book, Architectural Body by Madeline Gins and Shusaku Arakawa.  They were a couple and both architects.  Their whole life work was that the architecture that you live in, work in and you are part of, dictate how we move. As a choreographer i thought it is very very interesting.  

The set and costume designer, Emma Kingsbury built magnificent huge set that looks like a cut out of the earth. For the music, I came back to Philip Glass, a composer whose music I used before.  There are two rocks that join at very small point that looks like they are holding up a wall. Right there is a negotiation of balance.  The architectures that are on the stage and the dancers on the stage are influenced by the architecture they are in and the architectures affect their movement. They must negotiate their movement within the space.   Here is one of the direct quotes from the book. “Have the architectural surroundings themselves, by virtue of how they are formed, pose questions directly to the body.”  That was interesting to me. It is architectures that poses questions to the body.  It is delicate situation and delicate negotiation. For me, the question that keeps coming up is what the different tipping points are. Where is the perfect balance? Where is it beautifully balanced?  Is falling a good thing or bad thing? Either way, it is part of life.  

Helen Pickett’s first choreography for Pennsylvania Ballet, “Tilt” will be performed by Pennsylvania Ballet November 9-12, 2017..

[FringeArts, 140 North Christopher Columbus Boulevard] October 30, 2017, 7pm; paballet.org; fringearts.com

 

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About the author

Eri Yoneda

Eri Yoneda writes about dance and classical music for Phindie.