Helen Pickett: 'I learnt so much about what to leave alone – about the note that is not played, and leaving space for that note'

Helen Pickett: 'I learnt so much about what to leave alone – about the note that is not played, and leaving space for that note.'

credit: Andy Ross

American choreographer Pickett and RADA-trained director James Bonas have given Arthur Miller's The Crucible the best of both worlds

In 2014, when Scottish Ballet premiered Helen Pickett's one-act version of The Crucible, I wrote in my review that 'the world needs more Helen Picketts'. Five years later, with the imbalance between male and female choreographers on the world stage still problematic, I stand by that statement. But happily, in 2019 what we do have is more of Pickett herself – literally.

That 45-minute, one-act adaptation of Arthur Miller's play about the Salem witch trials has been razed to the ground and rebuilt – emerging as a full-length narrative ballet that will premiere at this year's Edinburgh International Festival. Written in 1953, Miller's tale of 17th-century paranoia and oppression has benefitted not only from Pickett's punchy and intelligent choreography, but the assured directorial wisdom of James Bonas.

Each brings something unique and special – Pickett trained at San Francisco Ballet, spent 11 years working with William Forsythe at Ballet Frankfurt, then moved to New York to hone her own creative style. Bonas bagged a First from Oxford University then studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, before carving out a career as an actor, then theatre and opera director.

'I'd never worked on a ballet before,' concedes Bonas straight off the bat, 'I didn't even call myself a dramaturg, because I didn't know what that meant. But the principal thing I could bring to The Crucible, is how to tell a story with people's bodies – and a lot of the work I've done in both theatre and opera is coming from that place anyway.

Helen Pickett: 'I learnt so much about what to leave alone – about the note that is not played, and leaving space for that note.'

credit: Andy Ross

'And what was fun about working with Helen was having a really dynamic collaboration where we both brought a different perspective to the table. She was telling the story through steps and I was looking at the storytelling and the relationships between people, how we let the audience know what's happening and who people are. So in many ways, I worked with the dancers in exactly the same way as I work with actors.'

For Pickett, the chance to learn from Bonas about the times when less equals more, proved pivotal. 'Dance is my very being,' she says. 'So to work with someone for whom theatre is their very being, I learnt so much about what to leave alone – about the note that is not played, and leaving space for that note.'

The result is a show drenched in atmosphere, tension, passion and humanity in all its guises. Pickett's choreographic style was born in the melting pot of ballet the US is known for, gleaned from Russia, France, Italy and Britain. Then she laced it with the fascinating, quirky movement typified in mainland Europe, before picking up cultural hues while touring the world.

'I have an American sensibility because I grew up here – I'm a product of that typical go-getter aspect of the American stereotype,' says Pickett. 'But then aged 19 I went to Europe and had the great fortune of being exposed to different styles of dance – icons such as Jiří Kylián, Mats Ek, Ohad Naharin, Pina Bausch and many more.

'Then moving to New York to work with the Wooster Group, touring to South East Asia – all of these things have had a huge influence on my artistic life, and have gone into who I am.'

Scottish Ballet's The Crucible, Edinburgh Playhouse, 3–5 Aug, 7.30pm, £15–£35.

Scottish Ballet: The Crucible

  • 5 stars

The Scottish Ballet adapt Arthur Miller's thinly-veiled critique of McCarthyism, under the guise of the Salem Witch Trials, to life on stage, with a score by Peter Salem.

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