Cover Story - Choreographer and dancer Helen Hale makes magnetic, inviting performances
A little more than two years ago, dancer and choreographer Helen Hale moved back to Grant Park, the Atlanta neighborhood where she grew up. This hadn't been part of her plan. Hale had gone north to attend Temple University in Philadelphia, where she studied dance, but had been plagued by chronic shoulder dislocations. Eventually, she decided to have surgery and move back to Atlanta, where she could rehabilitate near family. It was then, during that long period of recovery, when she asked a friend, "Hey, what's that WonderRoot place that's always on Krog tunnel?"
Fast-forward two years and you'll see why that was such an important question. Hale's rhythmically grounded, visually inviting dance performances have found a regular home in Atlanta's burgeoning arts scene. Hale's work and ambitions first caught the eye of organizers like Dance Truck's Danny Davis and Dashboard Co-Op founders Beth Malone and Courtney Hammond while doing volunteer work at that arts nonprofit, WonderRoot. Since then, Hale's work in Atlanta has often been seen in the unconventional spaces favored by Atlanta's emerging artists: atop a shipping container during the ambitious, i45-curated Convergent Frequencies installation, or in a warehouse on Krog Street for a recent fundraiser for local arts blog BurnAway. This fall, she's choreographing an ambitious outdoor performance on the Beltline that will explore themes of harvest and autumnal change.
Despite those unexpected locations, it wouldn't be right to say that Hale's work fits with the highly abstract, bewildering approach common to Atlanta's dance scene. While Atlanta has eagerly embraced a number of highly conceptual (and occasionally head-scratching) choreographers, Hale overtly draws from traditional forms and structure. Her somewhat uncommon status as both dancer and choreographer gives her the chance to play a physical role in her performances. Though she has a small, spritely frame, her presence is always big, undeniably magnetic.
After college, she became increasingly interested in considering and engaging her audience. "If I'm crawling on the ground in front of someone, if I'm looking them in the eyes, if I'm bringing them in, if I'm flailing in front of their face, I want them to feel that I'm flailing in their face for a reason, and that reason is not to alienate them," she says. "Unless I'm very clearly making a piece about alienation."
For Hale, a big part of that engagement lies in rhythm. "There's something that's universal and understandable and evocative about seeing the body respond to rhythm," she says. Hale cites her experience with traditional Greek dance growing up and, later, studying West African dance in college. Those traditional dances, Hale says, feel "very grounded, basic and truthful, and rooted in these communities and rituals that people have created and do together because they work for them. And that, conceptually, is very interesting to me."
When asked to describe what she does in a word, Hale says "dance." Hale doesn't think the word is too general or too literal. To say it clearly, in speech or in dance, just happens to be her style. "What else am I going to say? I create? I explode? I delve? Everything else sounds so artistic and angst-y to me. I dance, that's what it is."