Choreographer Helen Pickett in rehearsal with Charlotte Ballet dancers for her world premiere IN Cognito.
It’s hard to imagine that the colorful choreographer Helen Pickett could go anywhere incognito.
Even if she wore a disguise, there’s no way to tamp down her exuberance, her chattiness, her way of gesturing when she’s telling a story. She’ll even stand up to demonstrate how a bud opens on a flower — a fluid movement she took time to notice and now hopes to incorporate into one of her pieces.
The idea of being incognito – of wearing a mask or assuming another identity – fascinates her. So much so that it’s the basis for a new ballet Charlotte Ballet commissioned her to create. “IN Cognito” will have its world premiere at Knight Theater April 25-27 as part of Charlotte Ballet’s Spring Works.
Spring Works also includes British choreographer David Dawson’s “Opus 11,” an 11-minute duet, and Johan Inger’s “Walking Mad,” a piece inspired by wisdom from Socrates: “Our greatest gifts come to us in a state of madness.”
All three works deal with human connection.
Pickett, 51, borrowed the title of her piece, with permission, from Tom Robbins’ novel, “Villa Incognito.” She’s is a big fan of Robbin’s writing and of the man himself.
“He’s wild, crazy, a rule-breaker, esoteric, iconoclast, no-holds-barred, Timothy Leery-like … he’s such a free spirit as an artist,” Pickett said. “The craft is gorgeous. His imagination is wide open. He loves the English language.”
Pickett and Robbins, a N.C. native (Blowing Rock), have been pen pals since 2014. That’s when she first wrote him to tell him what his writing meant to her. (“We forget what it’s like to say ‘thank you’ to our heroes,” she said.)
“IN Cognito” is not based on the novel; Pickett sees a “recurring leitmotif of being incognito within all of [Robbins’] books.” The title – with the capital IN – refers to Pickett’s intention to have the piece take place “in a place and be of that place and be incognito in that place.”
Pickett sees inspiration everywhere. She’s always observing, jotting down notes. “I might see a particular pink in a bloom that catches my eye, and I’ll make a note of it,” she said.
She’s found particular inspiration in a “Villa Incognito” line: “ … to perform without a net is ecstasy. To perform without focus is fatal.” Pickett is as much a risk-taker as she is a careful planner.
Hiding in plain sight
As an artist, Pickett is drawn to the notion of hiding. “Performers assume other identities and show us their souls at the same time,” she said. “There’s this dual thing going on. Are we hiding in plain sight? I love the ambiguity of it.”
Pickett and Charlotte Ballet Artistic Director Hope Muir have known each other since 2012 — since their days at the Scottish Ballet. When Muir offered her friend the opportunity to choreograph a new ballet, she gave her no parameters.
Pickett said all artists have their own voices, their own particular way of expressing themselves. “I want them to use their voices,” she said. Even though uniformity may be the goal in a ballet, she allows room for self-expression.
It’s an approach Muir appreciates. “Helen creates a safe environment for dancers,” Muir said. “She lets them take risks and gives them the freedom to fail and learn from that.”
Pickett relishes seeing her friend leading Charlotte Ballet. “She’s put a lot of thought into what kind of director she would be,” Pickett said.. “I see it made manifest here. I see the years of thought. The dancers love her. This place is a happy company. It’s also a company of individuals. Some companies want uniformity, and that’s fine.” But allowing for individuality is what Pickett wants. It’s where she came from.
“Frankfurt Ballet,” she said, mentioning the German ballet company led by the famed William Forsythe that was her home for 12 years. “I mean, we were a motley crew, man. Everybody was so different.” And yet it worked.
The dancers in IN Cognito have been given a certain amount of freedom, but they will be in uniform costumes. Both men and women will be dressed in Audrey Hepburn-inspired outfits designed by Charles Heightchew – crisp shirts tucked in, skinny pedal pushers.
Pickett’s high spirits are evident in the set. She calls the bright colors of the ‘60s and ‘70s “celebratory, almost performative.” A sectional sofa and potted plant figure prominently in the set and the action. Lighting design, by N.C. native Les Dickert, further shapes the mood of the piece.
Pickett chose music by the late, Oscar-nominated Johan Johannsson and Mikael Karlsson, which she calls “at times whimsical, passionate, methodical or ominous.” She allowed the music to inform her choreography.
Need for speed
Pickett creates a dance the same way she talks – quickly.
“When I’m creating, I’m going really fast,” she said.
Pickett speaks in a freewheeling, stream-of-consciousness style. During an interview in Charlotte a story about her editing process led to a story about being a “good finagler,” which she said is an important thing for a New Yorker to be. That led to a story about how she talked her way into a sold-out Basquiat show – but not by fast talking. By being kind. And then she came back around to editing.
“I enjoy being in the mosh pit of fast creation,” she said. She creates her dances using improv, and it moves fast. She relies on video — much later in the process — to see what she’s created. She likes to take three or four months away from the piece before beginning her quiet and ruthless editing process.
And unlike most of what Pickett does, editing happens slowly. The process requires her to be deliberate, to move into low gear.
“I have to go in and kill my darlings,” she said, borrowing an edict editors sometimes tell writers who are enamored of a particular phrase that’s beautiful but doesn’t advance the story. “I’m always in service to the art.”
Want to go?
Charlotte Ballet’s “Spring Works”
When: 7:30 p.m. April 25-27; Family matinee: 2 p.m. April 27.
Where: Knight Theater, 430 S. Tryon St.
Tickets: Start at $25. Carolinatix.org or 704-372-1000