Trinity Arts Interview Series: Helen Hale

For the newest chapter in our series, we’re hearing from modern dancer Helen Hale, who shares with us about dislocation, the Divine, the potential benefits of being half-horse/half-cheetah, and how to turn a piano into a light source. Read on to learn more.

Q: What is your favorite space to create?

Helen Hale: For me that favorite space has less to do with physical space and more to do with accessing a creative space mentally, an inner space, where the work can unfold. Often, though not always, that’s when I’m alone and I feel the freedom to be totally uninhibited and I can abandon a concrete sense of space and time and go instead into a more abstract movement world where  I can follow my intuitive impulses.  Music is often a part of that space.  I love the space in which I become subservient to rhythm such that the movement vocabulary and compositional connections are made in a way that feels like I’m being a vehicle for them, rather than the creator of them.  So I guess you could say my favorite space to create is a space in which I can be truly available and receptive to the work, whatever that looks like on a given day.  

Q: What is your favorite snack to eat while creating?

HH: Morning: coffee, almonds and chocolate. Night: red wine, almonds, and chocolate. 

Q: How do you handle artist’s block (times when it is hard to create)?

HH: That’s usually when I hit play on my “Belly Dance Fever” album. I also find that if I watch other work that inspires me it’ll help me kick into gear. Right now there is an old GPTV series called “Dancing” that I‘ve been watching. It’s about dance styles and traditions from around the world and it’s getting me so worked up I may have it on hand as my artist’s block go-to for a while.

Helen, dancing on top of a shipping crate

Q: How do you stay motivated and disciplined as an artist in our distracting society?

HH: It’s hard. I especially find the discipline piece hard. It’s easier for me to stay motivated than to stay disciplined. Dance is my vocation and therefore, to a degree, an obsession, which keeps me going after it constantly. It’s hard for me not to think about dance and making work. It tends to be the thing that distracts me from our distracting society. On the ground level that translates into a lot of writing and reading and constant jotting down of notes which helps keep the thought fires burning. And I have to continually push myself to be gutsy and rigorous in seeking out and saying yes to opportunities that come my way. Having deadlines keeps me accountable to actually create work and show it consistently. It can be hard to set aside the time and space to create but the fear of being unprepared when show time rolls around is a powerful motivator!

Being a dancer, physical discipline can be tricky for me. I need structure. If it’s just me trying to do my push-ups in my room it doesn’t always go so well. I just signed up and paid my dues a month in advance for Kung-Fu class which I’m taking for conditioning and technique—I’ve already paid so now I’ve gotta go.  

Q: What is the best advice someone has given you?

HH: To not experience pain as an enemy but as a teacher. 

Q: What is your theme song?

HH: Probably a traditional Greek song, because that’s my heritage. I feel like my themes change a lot and so I need lots of songs. But I will dance to MGMT’s “Electric Feel” any place, anytime.  

Q: If you were an animal, what animal would you be?

HH: Funny, I got asked that just the other day. I’d be half horse, half cheetah—super fast and graceful with a wild mane! 

Q: Who/what has inspired you lately and/or locally (i.e. other artists, exhibits, shows, bands, designers, etc)?

HH: Choreographer Akram Khan’s work made me cry the other day. So there’s that. Ha! –He’s a London based choreographer.  I just saw the Henri Cartier-Bresson exhibit at the High and it blew my mind.  I’m inspired right now by my poet friend, Amena Brown, who is writing a book on broken rhythm and artistic disciplines,  by Tyler Lyle’s songwriting,  the Agnes de Mille autobiography I’m reading, and dancing to DJ Kemmit’s “dusty grooves” at Soundtable every second Saturday. 

Q: Have you worked in your medium in some sort of community lately, be it collaboration, brainstorming, etc? How has that environment affected the work?

HH: Yes, I’m blessed to have what seems to be an ever expanding community of collaborators. The last show that I did was shared between six choreographers and part of the mission was to be engaged in each other’s processes. We watched rehearsals and gave feedback and generated a lot of energy for one another. I’m currently working with costume designer and sculptor, Amanda Baumgardner, to design a dress and a series of props for a solo I’ve been working on. Her knowledge and perspective has turned my initial idea for the dress and piece into a glorious design that I would never have been able to generate on my own. I also just found out that we got funding from the Atlanta Beltline for a project I’m doing in collaboration with DashBoard Co-op. For that piece the Dash girls (co-founders Courtney Hammond and Beth Malone) and I did a bunch of brainstorming and have come up with a wild outdoor dance/feast/performance picnic that will be shown in September. And again, that isn’t a piece of which I would have conceived on my own. Being privy to their creative voices is such a gift. 

Q: What is one book/song/painting/piece/etc that has been enriching to your faith?

HH: My Name is Asher Lev, by Chaim Potok. 

Q: What is your connection to the Divine when you create? Does it resonate with you spiritually when you come up with new work?

HH: Yes, it very much does. In part because every day I have to surrender the work over and over in order to stay sane and centered. I have to constantly remind myself that I am acting as a vessel, as a co-creator with the Spirit, and to resist taking the piece into my own hands alone and trying to force it to become what I want it to become. Dance is the language through which I communicate best with the Divine, and through which I most experience the nearness and the power of the Spirit. When I dance I feel like I am who I actually am and I can say what I want to say and pray the way that I want to pray.  I know that when I dance I am embodying the calling I have been given. In that knowing there is an intimacy and communion with the Spirit that I do not experience in any other way. All of my dances are, at their core, prayer, praise, and an offering of gratitude.  I often think of the film, Chariots of Fire, in which the Scottish runner, Eric Liddell, says, “I believe God made me for a purpose. But He also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.” When I dance I feel His pleasure.   

Q: Describe your process behind the featured piece.

HH: These are a couple photos (courtesy of Johnathon Kelso) from the evening-length piece that I showed last spring. The piece is entitled, HeadFirst to Upside Down. It was my first self-produced solo show and it emerged from the year previous in which I moved back to Atlanta from Philly, underwent shoulder surgery, and spent a lot of time unable to dance.  I thought a lot about dislocation—dislocation of shoulder joints certainly (the reason for the surgery), but also “dislocation” of plans, relationships, and places.  I began the creative process thinking I’d just make a little quartet but then I found a big tricycle and it turned into a sort of Mary Poppins’ bag for me from which a much larger pool of ideas began to spring. I ended up with four dancers and six musicians and here and there we all swapped roles. It was important to me that the musicians and the dancers be woven into the fabric of the piece so that a community was created among us, rather than having the dancers jigging around and the band off in the corner. The dancers and I rehearsed once a week for about five months, during which time I worked with Holly Evans, the musical director, to develop the score. The musicians came into the rehearsal process on show week (which I now know was definitely not enough time!)  Part of my choreographic process was to make lots of drawings--of the space, props, costumes, movement--in order to establish the aesthetic personality of the piece as a whole. I made lots of trips to the thrift store and lots of phone calls to borrow potted plants and floor lamps for the set. We performed in the sanctuary at Ga. Avenue Church which wasn’t rigged at all for theater, so we rigged all the lighting with clip and floor lamps.  Some great ideas emerged from the necessity to be scrappy and homespun with it--clipping lights to the piano and wheeling it around the space as a movable light source was one of the rather magical elements.  The cast had to be both performers and stage crew and it was wild. Micah Dalton, Tyler Lyle and Daniel Bass, among others, were members of the cast and they were each so generous with their time and creativity. We had a total blast. At some point I hope to rework HeadFirst and restage it taking into account all that I learned the first go round.   

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