Art Crush: Helen Hale Dances Her Way Into Atlanta’s Heart

Photo by Sandy Hooper.
[Updated] Helen Hale has an aura. She sculpts and molds it with her hands, gesturing in swirls around her. You feel privileged to be on the edge of her bubble. Constantly moving yet quietly composed, contained and aware of her body and surroundings, it’s instantly apparent that Hale is a dancer. A native Atlantan, Hale returned to Georgia and gracefully leapt into the burgeoning dance scene, taking part in noteworthy performances such as i45’s Convergent Frequencies, WonderRoot‘s Magnetic Drift, and Dashboard Co-op‘s Modes of Operation (click here for the Creative Loafing article inspired by Dashboard’s dinner party and performance). Hale entertained us with some minty lemonade in her cozy apartment as we spoke about Atlanta’s new love affair with dance.

BURNAWAY: Where in Atlanta are you from?

Helen Hale: Grant Park. I was home educated my whole life. I danced at Callanwolde.

BA: You stayed in Philadelphia for a little while after attending Temple University for undergrad. What brought you back to Atlanta?

HH: The idea was to stay up there and dance with the company of this teacher. From day one, that was my goal. I got out of school and was perfectly poised to do that. I performed with them once with an understudy role, and then I dislocated my shoulder for the fifth time and decided I needed to get surgery because I had been putting it off since my freshmen year of college. So I came home to Momma. I thought I was going to go right back after some rehab but realized rehab took longer than I thought. Momentum decreased there and built here, so I thought maybe I’ll just embrace this change of course as much as I can and explore a new side of Atlanta; I thought I’d focus on making work and then wait until I heard word of where to go next, then make that transition.

BA: What do you do in your day-to-day here? How much time do you devote to dance?

HH: Not as much as I would like. I have two to three other jobs: I’m a gardener, I tutor phonics, I give a little girl art lessons; it’s a total hodgepodge. It ends up, in ways, putting creative work to the periphery, and I have become increasingly discontent with that. There is this vision: that you do this work to support what matters, but along the way it isn’t supporting the work that matters; it’s not contributing to my creative work, which is really hard. I know, to a degree, that will be something I encounter initially wherever I am. But in Atlanta there is not a place to go. You aren’t sticking around to get into a company that will give you a salary. The companies that give you a salary don’t exist. There’s a low ceiling on that journey here.

Photo by Sandy Hooper.
[Updated] BA: How has it been working with Dashboard Co-op? They are a definite example of helping bridge the gap between different art forms around the city.

HH: I think [Dashboard Co-op] is awesome, and I really appreciate their vision and efforts, especially the bit about helping artists at turning points where you could be just sitting, or you could be moving. It’s been really incredible to have advocates and people who are keeping an eye out for opportunities and collaborative opportunities and spaces. It’s fun to have partners in crime in that way and people to help brainstorm and consult with.

BA: Atlanta’s visual arts community is starting to embrace dance as it appears more and more with groups like Dance Truck, Glo, and others. How has it been watching that and being a part of it?

HH: I have been really excited about that. I think that the visual arts community in the city is the only way dance is going to gain excitement, spread, and gain a following. Dance can be really inaccessible and that is one thing I am interested in—the accessibility of dance. As a form, it can be very accessible in basic ways. We all have bodies and understand the sense of being embodied, as well as reading gesture and movement. It doesn’t have to be this esoteric type of thing. Part of it is that it often exists in exclusive spaces, and you have to know that it’s there. I did a show that I self produced a year ago; it was fun and a bunch of work, but I made it free, and people could donate at the end if they wanted. It turned out I broke almost exactly even, and it made me really happy to know that there were people there who couldn’t have come otherwise. I think it’s very exciting. There’s a lot of room for innovative work and interesting collaborations if people in both realms can work more closely and deeply and share processes.

BA: At i45’s Convergent Frequencies last year it seemed like there was a bit of that collaboration. People seemed really interested in the dance component.

HH: I felt really excited dance was involved with that. I think in Atlanta dance is still very unexpected, and so when you encounter it, it’s exciting because it feels different; hopefully also because it’s exciting work, but I don’t think it’s as common here. Which doesn’t mean there aren’t people who have been making work for years, but they have been harder to find. I think Le Flash and Flux Projects have brought a lot more attention to it by combining the dancers, the puppeteers, and the mural artists so that there is a sense that this is one of the artistic offerings in the city.

BA: Where do you aspire to go?

HH: Right now I am taking the summer to brainstorm and plan; there are a few things. I want to leave to do more studying and performing. There are some people in London I’m interested in, so my strategy right now is to get myself to London. I studied abroad in Greece in college and I have been craving that kind of difference. There are some groups there doing work I find really interesting, and who knows if that will result in opportunity, but if there is a shot, I should try to ease my ambition. Eventually I’d like to have a space here that I open and run that can be a studio and presenting space. It sounds super hippie but I’d love to begin to foster a Jacob’s Pillow of the South—a dance farm kind of space that can be a retreat center and resting space for locals, as well as a landing place for people from other spots; something that will provide residencies and workshops that aren’t insular, which we really need here.

Photo by Sandy Hooper.

BA: What is your spirit animal?

HH: I don’t know anything about spirit animals. I think half horse, half cheetah.

BA: A hortah? A chorse?

HH: I love big cats and the way they move. The horse to me is totally the embodiment of the free spirit running through the fields.

BA: This could lead to a dance performance!

HH: One of my teachers in Philly did a piece where he danced with a horse. I love the idea of an amazing Taiwanese man dancing around with a horse.

BA: I feel like when we talk to visual artists about process it is a huge part of their work. For you, how much of dancing is the process of choreographing and movement, as opposed to the finalized performance? Which do you value more?

HH: You spend so much more time in the process, but the nature of why you make the work is to offer it and manifest it to others, so without that, the process feels empty. But I think that to me the process is lab time for movement research. It’s a lot of trial and error and working it out. I’m very visual and a lot of the process for me is watching video in my head of what it looks like compositionally, and then fusing that with trying to make it happen viscerally in the body. I think that you build the work in the studio, but you learn about it in the performance—in the time and space of a heightened energetic place. Performance is very revealing. It’s hard to separate the two.

Photo by Sandy Hooper.

BA: What is the difference in performing for a choreographer and performing for yourself?

HH: Different people ask for different things from you. There’s a balance in making work for someone in the way they ask while remaining authentic to yourself. I often come up with my own meaning and feeling about others’ work when I perform it because I need it to be meaningful to me to perform it in a way that communicates something. If you exclude the energetic performance from the aesthetic performance it can easily become only a showcase of technique. But that’s not why I dance: I don’t think that’s evocative. It’s interesting to talk about the space of performance because it’s very charged; my sense of presence is so heightened when I’m performing. It’s very much about the energetic experience, and the audience can affect that too. The first night of Magnetic Drift we decided the audience was curious. It’s like a dialogue: Some are reserved; some are enthusiastic; some are confused, but glad they’re there.

BA: Why did you choose the style of dance you did? What spoke to you about that style?

HH: Ballet began to feel very confining for me, and painful as well. You have to have a really specific body and a strong desire to let the aesthetic of what you’re doing be the trump card, as opposed to how your body wants to move in a holistic way. That was the start for modern dance: how does the body want to move? What does organic movement look like? I love modern because everything is an option. It’s a valuable and important search to test the limits of the body in a way that doesn’t kill the body. That’s something I’m interested in investigating. How far can we go? But doing so in a way that the body feels comfortable; so that the body reaches its limits because it can and wants to.

BA: During the Magnetic Drift performance, it stood out that you have a lot of energy and enthusiasm when you dance. You clearly enjoy it. It doesn’t seem formalized and impersonal.

HH: I do love it, and I want to be able to communicate that. So much of performance is in its energetic power. The arm only reaches so far, so if nothings coming out of it, you don’t have a lot to work with: your instrument is limited. Learning to be articulate with your energy and the energetic body is as equally important as the physical body. I think I love when I am in communication: It’s a spiritual, personal practice.

Atlanta Art Crush is an interview series brought to you by Susannah Darrow, Laura Hennighausen, and photographer Sandy Hooper. Look for profiles of our latest heartthrobs on the last Friday of each month.

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