For Natalie Helm, principal cellist of the Sarasota Orchestra, the pandemic proved to contain a fertile combination

Photography by Wyatt Kostygan


of angst, uncertainty and, most importantly, free time—ingredients that, historically, have led to some of the most prolific creative periods in art. She took advantage of  it to hone her technique, add compositions to her repertoire and conceive new ideas to excite her. “I’m also very type-A too,” she jokes, “so I’m always looking for something to do,” And out of that fertile period of unrest came her 'Bach Immersion' collaboration with Sarasota Contemporary Dance (SCD). 

In November, Helm took the stage with SCD’s Leymis Bolaños-Wilmott for a performance that pushed her far outside her comfort zone as she performed Bach’s cello suites Number 5 and Number 3. The unique interdisciplinary performance saw Bolaños-Wilmott arrive at SCD’s studio dressed in full hiking gear—windbreaker, pants, hiking boots, beanie and big camping backpack—as though she had just completed a hike to the top of a mountain. She interacts with guests while in character then heads inside, where the stage is scattered with leaves and a tent is pitched off to the side.

The third and final performance in the Bach Immersion series is in April of this year.


Helm, also dressed in camping attire, roams the stage with binoculars and as the audience streams in, plays her part by wondering aloud where Bolaños-Wilmott is. The two greet each other and make some small talk before Helm grabs her cello and begins performing Suite Number 5. Wilmott dances around the campsite and amongst the audience—all with a backdrop of massive paintings of the Oregon coast by artist Steven Strenk.

For Helm, the unique challenges of the collaboration also proved to be the most fruitful. For one, Helm has no acting background. “Leymis was really supportive of me during rehearsals when it came to the acting,” says Helm, “and she really encouraged me to push my role a little further for the story.” Musically, Helm had to overcome the discomfort of playing without an entire orchestra. “It’s so different when your technique and phrasing is front and center,” says Helm, “and I also got an opportunity to relearn the skill of memorizing music, which is something you don’t always have the time to do during the orchestra season.”

But it all comes back to the pandemic and the space it inadvertently created for artists like Helm, Bolaños-Wilmott and Strenk. “The quarantine period last year definitely gave me the space to push myself,” says Helm, “and I decided that if I’m not uncomfortable, then I’m not growing.”