Ballez: Making Ballet Funny, Strange, and Explicitly Queer

ballez

I’ve always liked ballet, but whenever I go to a show, I know I’m seeing something that isn’t for or about my community—the queer community. At the heart of traditional ballet is a celebration of heterosexual love, a lack of female agency, and impossibly thin bodies.

Three years ago, I went to see Ballez perform The Firebird, a retelling of the turn of the century Stravinsky ballet. I went in knowing nothing about the company or what I was about to see. But as soon as the lights went up, I knew I was home. The princess was a lesbian who rescued herself from danger. Instead of the traditional Firebird there was a Tranimal—part bird, part prince. The sorceress was a mohawked, dominant femme with a harem of submissive, gender non-conforming princes who did the sorceress’s bidding in between having sex with each other.    

Everything about Ballez was funny, strange, and explicitly queer. And it managed to be outrageous without compromising the balletic form. There were still grand jetés and pas de deuxs but they were being done by queer bodies of all sizes, shapes and genders.  Suddenly I was no longer left outside of the fantasy I was a part of it. I was being shown that the queer community can be graceful and beautiful and celebrated.

Founded in 2011, Ballez is the only ballet company for lesbians and gender non-conforming people in the country. It remakes classical ballets and places queer stories, characters and histories directly in the center of the narrative.

Their newest full-length show, Sleeping Beauty & the Beast, will premier at LaMama in NYC on April 29th. Three years in the making it tells the story of the lesbian activist involvement in the 1893 Garment Workers strike and 1993 AIDS protests. Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty score will be performed by The Queer Urban Orchestra, along with new house music compositions from DJ and former Le Tigre member, JD Samson. Ballez is doing a Kickstarter that ends April 8th in order to raise the $25,000 necessary to fund the show.

I spoke to Ballez creator Katy Pyle about how leaving the traditional world of ballet saved her life, overturning gender and sexuality norms, and the importance of financial support to ensure queer art flourishes.

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What parts of traditional ballet is Ballez pushing against?
There are a lot of problems with the history of ballet.  It came out of the Italian and French Court and all of the dances were celebrating the king and the idea of the monarchy which is, we’re born into this and we are the only people who should be seen and valued.

More relevant, is the recorded history and images that we have of ballet.  There was a moment with the Ballet Russe during the turn of the century in which the artists in that company were making much more radical work. Nijinsky’s Rite of Spring for instance.  And his sister Nijinska who made over 70 works of ballet. She made feminist, anti-marriage ballets, she made ballets with women in tailcoats and top hats.

I didn’t even know about her!
No one knows about her! This is my next project. And the bodies represented there were not all these super skinny, prepubescents. That ideal got manifested by Balanchine when he took over the Ballet Russe and he started hiring twelve-year-old girls for lead roles. It was a real choice to say we’re not hiring women who have their own adult bodies and power, we’re hiring young girls who look like they can be easily subjugated. And that choice became this huge aesthetic which is problematic on all kinds of levels.

You walked away from traditional ballet at the age of 16. What precipitated that decision?
I went to the North Carolina School for the Arts where I was weighed, measured, and fat clamped three times a year and charted with my class and the deal was if you weren’t 15 percent below body weight for your height, you would get kicked out of the program. And so, I tried to maintain my twelve-year-old body for the entire time I was dancing. I did a pretty good job. I didn’t menstruate, didn’t eat, and didn’t really grow up.

At sixteen I came up against a wall where I knew that I had to maintain my eating disorder in order to stay in the program. My whole heart and soul want to stay with ballet because I loved it so much and it was the only thing I’d known. But I also knew if I kept going, I was going to die. So I made the decision to leave in order to stay alive.

I moved into the modern dance program and for the first time, I got to start choreographing—which we definitely were not allowed to do in ballet—and that was really empowering.  I knew then that I wanted to be a choreographer, and I wasn’t ready to deal with ballet because it was too painful and loaded, so I just did the most opposite weirdo dance I could do. I still enjoy that and I don’t feel like the worlds of experimental dance and ballet have to be so separate.

What led you from there to the creation of Ballez?
I moved to New York and continued to make and be in a lot of experimental dance. I had my own drag king band. But the whole time, I would dream about ballet. I would dream that I was dancing in pointe shoes, spinning, and feeling in my body a deep, visceral pleasure and joy in doing those movements. So I knew there was something still there.

About five years ago I was at a modern dance show where the entire show consisted of a bunch of dancers lying on the floor, slowly rotating their arm. My friend and I thought, well, that was kind of boring. There’s nothing wrong with that, but wouldn’t it be cool if we could, you know, also dance? If we could fly across the room and make movements and do those movements in unison?  And Ballez just popped into my head. It was a pun and I like puns. There was something about the stickiness of it and the seeming anachronism of queer downtown dance people in a ballet that’s so wrong. So I was thought, Oh that’s a good idea. I’m going to do that.

The first show Ballez did, The Firebird, was about failure and how we transform failure into something new. I love the phoenix mythology of a bird who consumes itself in flames and is reborn. For me, that production was my rebirth into the ballet world on my own terms.  There are also a lot of people in my community who I admire and love who have gone through other kinds of physical transformation in terms of being trans or redefining themselves in relationship to societal expectations and I wanted to celebrate that—the desire to make the world better by being brave and changing. I worked closely with my longtime collaborator, Jules Skloot and the cast, so everyone was involved in the fantasy and the choreography of the dance.

Tell me about the new show, Sleeping Beauty & the Beast. Has the creation process for it been similarly collaborative?
This show is a deeper process. I’m working with many dancers who’ve had similar experiences with ballet as I did. They have been trained to perform genders and presentational sexualities that are not what they are and they can do it really well, so getting through and underneath that to an authentic presentation has been a big part of the work. It’s cool and beautiful to watch someone filter through all those different layers of experience. It’s like watching those theatrical lights where the colors flip by really fast and then suddenly it stops at the color you really want it to be.

It’s something I’ve been exploring as well. As a young person, I’d look at myself in the mirror and think “Oh God, you need to shrink. You need to make your collarbone shove forward and up so that you look more vulnerable and like you could be swept away.” And now, I want to lift people who are 200 pounds or over 6 feet tall. I want to be able to lift anyone (laughs). And I love that. I’m learning to appreciate my strength and say, yes, I like being in this body and doing movements that reinforce my goodness and power. And that is happening for the people I work with, too.

As a lesbian who grew up butch, my block is the opposite. I want to appear strong and tough, but embodying vulnerability and a certain kind of femininity is really difficult. Are there dancers who are struggling with that as well?
Yeah, and it’s fun for me as a director to uncover that, and say no, you’re partner is really supporting you right now, you can let go and be led and know that you’re going to be okay. For people who are coming from a masculine experience, there’s a desire, sometimes, to make feminine movements a joke. And laughter is great, but when it’s about mocking feminine archetypes, it starts to be a problem. But the folks I work with can see really quickly when that’s happening. It’s a process of noticing—oh, I’m making fun of this because I feel ashamed or humiliated when I do these kinds of movements. But is it really shameful for me to do these kinds of movements or have I just been told it’s shameful?

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How have you Ballez-ed the traditional Sleeping Beauty ballet for Sleeping Beauty & the Beast?
It’s quite different from the original in terms, not only of choreography, but also plot. It’s set in 1893 on the Lower East Side in a garment factory. The industrial revolution enabled women to work in factories and live outside of traditional family structures, but it also meant they were being overworked and had very little rights and I want to address that.

Three cisgendered men are performing the roles of the fairies. But we’ve shifted it so that the fairies aren’t giving Aurora, who is the garment factory’s daughter, the gifts of beauty and grace, but the gifts of clear boundary making, fingering, and gender fluidity.

Bless you, Katy Pyle.
On Aurora’s 16th birthday the garment workers go on strike and ask Aurora and the fairies to join them. Aurora falls in love with the union organizer who brings out a spinning wheel to represent the symbol of the work the factory workers used to do.  Aurora is transfixed by the spinning wheel, she pricks her finger, swoons and the whole scene jumps 100 years into the future to 1993. The union protest turns into an AIDS protest.   

In 1993, the fairies are dying of AIDS, including Aurora’s closest friend, the Violet Fairy.  So the audience sees that while some radical progress has been made in terms of queer visibility, it goes hand in hand with devastation and death.

The union organizer is now a leather-clad butch top called the Beast, who Aurora begins a relationship with. Despite their name, the Beast is incredibly kind and generous and ends up holding Aurora in a way that makes her feel safe after the tragic loss of her friends. A lot of people have viewed lesbians as beastly and angry and immoral and I want to say, that idea is insane. No one is perfect, but these are all good people. These are all human beings that deserve to be represented.

And you’re also saying that lesbians have always been political change makers and activists, even though mainstream history hasn’t recognized them.
Right.  There have always been lesbian at protests. The research that I did into New York activism was just loads of women going out and making things happen for hundreds of years.  And I want that in the ballet cannon.

I think there’s hope that the whole system could change, that it could reflect what I hope the culture is shifting into, which is multiplicity and different kinds of bodies and genders and sexualities and identities. It’s really boring to have just one thing. We’ve seen it. We need more.

How can people support Ballez and ensure you keep making work?
We have a Kickstarter to raise $25,000 dollars which will go directly to paying the artists wages.  It’s a huge production with 23 dancers and 18 musicians and they deserve to be paid for their tremendous efforts.  But we’re at a scary point where we don’t know if it’s going to get fully funded. This is a big dream and if we can’t raise the funds to make this happen in a way that doesn’t leave me $25,000 in debt, I can’t keep making this work.  So, if people want this to exist in the world, it’s important to support it with your dollars.   

To support Ballez go to their Kickstarter page.

Top photo of Katy Pyle by Julie Mack, of THEY Bklyn; bottom two photos of Ballez by Elyssa Goodman.

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