Helen Pickett’s ‘The Exiled’ draws Atlanta Ballet closer to new identity



Presented by Atlanta Ballet. 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. $20-$115 plus fees. Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, 2800 Cobb Galleria Parkway, Atlanta. 404-892-3303, www.atlantaballet.com.

Christine Winkler, retiring after 19 years with the company, will perform in Helen Pickett’s “The Exiled” during the 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. performances on Saturday. Winkler will be honored following the 8 p.m. program with a video tribute and special performance with husband John Welker of Diane Coburn Bruning’s “Berceuse.”

There is electricity in the air in one of Atlanta Ballet's Westside studios as Helen Pickett, in her second year as choreographer in residence, rehearses "The Exiled" with a handful of dancers. The sparks are firing due to the fact that these artists are working with the choreographer to build a ballet unlike anything they've danced before.

Pickett, whose works are increasingly being presented by international companies, is choreographing her first narrative ballet. It’s a piece of significant dramatic heft and a departure from more lyrical works. And in another first, and perhaps most courageous, Pickett has developed a script — a necessary step, though not without risk.

Inspired by the existentialist movement, "The Exiled" is one of two world premieres in "Mayhem," an intriguing triple bill this weekend at Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre. The program also features "Three," an exploration of dreams by artistic director John McFall, and a reprise of Jorma Elo's "First Flash."

A huge Plexiglas barrier stands inside the studio, a symbol of how different “The Exiled” promises to be for Pickett. Like a giant screen or glass case, it separates observers from dancers. It’s the last thing you’d expect from Pickett, who has shown in dances such as the pure-movement “Petal” (a 2008 work she staged on Atlanta Ballet in 2011 and again last year) the ability to connect performers and audiences.

Behind the barrier, dancers Nadia Mara and Christian Clark begin to speak. The darkly attractive, Bonnie-and-Clyde character types explain that they get their kicks by plucking wrongdoers from a crowd, encasing them behind the glass and doling out punishment as they see fit.

So begins the cautionary tale of guilt, revenge and ceaseless turmoil, with moments of beauty, but no mercy.

John Corigliano’s music is ominous and tense. Mara crosses in front of the glass, and taunts Rachel Van Buskirk, who plays a pension thief. Trapped inside, Van Buskirk slams against the wall and retreats toward center stage. She reaches forward, then whips a leg in the opposite direction, torquing her body, which unwinds into a series of tempestuous spins on pointe, as if she is caught in a vortex of frustration.

Pickett, red-headed and mercurial, leavens the intensity with frequent jokes and pop culture references, at one point likening their roles to those of “Star Wars” characters.

The New Yorker teases out details in the choreography, confident in her evolving vision. Dancers contribute readily to movement and dialogue; the choreographer folds in their ideas.

Though “The Exiled” is markedly different than “Petal,” it is a natural outgrowth of her experience as the daughter of two actors and her own extensive work as a performer with William Forsythe’s cutting-edge Ballet Frankfurt and as actress and choreographer in experimental theater and film.

Not until now, with Atlanta Ballet’s trust and support, has she been able to experiment with dramatic narrative and text in her choreography, and take on subject matter that might challenge an audience.

McFall explained why he offered Pickett the resident choreographer opportunity. After “Petal,” he commissioned “Prayer of Touch,” also well-received. Off stage, he was impressed with Pickett’s passion, enthusiasm and her give and take with company members.

“She really gets deep into a dancer’s capacity, their sensibility,” McFall said. “She can read instinctively how they got to where they are, but more importantly, their potential to realize more from themselves.”

Van Buskirk, who is sharing the role with Mara, explained how Pickett gives dancers choices in the creative process and greater responsibilities for their roles. The choreographer often presents clear parameters and lets each individual dancer interpret them in the most natural way.

“She’s given us great trust,” Van Buskirk said. Working with a script has been “a new leap for her and for us.”

In the course of developing “The Exiled,” Pickett came to realize that her creative approach falls in with existentialist ideas — at least, those that focus on individual choice, responsibility and authentic human connections.

Narrative, she also has found, helps to anchor her ideas. It’s a tool she will employ again when she tackles Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” for a Scottish Ballet commission debuting this fall and Tennessee Williams’ “Camino Real,” which Atlanta Ballet will premiere next March.

McFall respects Pickett’s choice not to play it safe. “We’re an arts organization that (tends) to be somewhat more provocative, and we do take risks together,” he said of his company’s collaborations with its resident choreographer.

Pickett acknowledged the risk, and admitted she’s unsure of how audiences will receive “The Exiled.”

“That weighs on me,” she said. “But I have to go my course. I’m not going to back out now.”