Photo Credit: Lola Hourihane
Many dancers, including myself, find it hard to see ourselves in an artistic community that reinforces gender roles, has a history of body-shaming, and restricts a dancer's personal identity onstage and within classes. In response to centuries-old binary rules in ballet, Ballez has emerged to break through the confinements.
Led by professional dancer Katy Pyle and a small army of LGBTQIA dance activists, Ballez was founded in Brooklyn in 2011 to investigate the narrative structures of ballet. The organization has been profiled by the New York Times, Cosmopolitan, Jezebel, and many other publications.
“We’re queering narrative ballet,” Pyle said with a grin when I met with her in Union Square. She tells me this is something the dance form desperately needs, and I agree.
Classical ballet narratives often impose gender-conforming traditions upon countless performers, and has been plagues by glaring omission of openly queer, trans, and POC character in the storylines played out on stage. Brief glimpses of change have hit classical companies recently with some abstract same-sex partnering and trans ballet dancers like Chase Johnsey at the English National Ballet, but many large schools and companies are still slow to break from the heteronormative rigidity that have defined ballet. Worse over, there had only recently been an awareness of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. Patriarchal, gender-conforming roles have long ruled the ballet world, reducing individuals into a collection of CIS heteronormative bodies from an early age.
Originally, Pyle said she loved narrative ballets as a kid. However, she said this love was challenged by a complete lack of acceptance of changing bodies and minds while attending professional training as a teenager.
I could relate. In ballet studios I was told to fit in with the other girls by wearing more makeup and by shaving everyday. Outside of ballet class, I also struggled to find myself as a bisexual. biracial woman with dark body hair and no interest in lipstick.
Pyle experience similar struggle of sticking out as a gender non-conforming lesbian. She said watching the "wrong" steps performed by the "wrong" bodies in ballet peaked Pyle's deeper motivation to later form Ballez.
In a Ballez production, traditional narratives are reconfigured to make room for inclusive character representation more aligned with this century's social structures. The dancers are a rotating, non-hierarchical performance family of queer, allied, and non-conforming artists — including NYU Tisch alumni, Maxfield Haynes.
Full-length productions include The Firebird (2013) at Danspace Project; Sleeping Beauty & the Beast (2016) at La Mama; and Slavic Goddesses (2017) at the Kitchen. Currently, the creative team is expanding on their exploration of the iconic nineteenth-century ballet, Giselle, with their production Giselle of Loneliness, which ran as a short work at the BAM Gala in May.
“I want to reframe the main character’s sorrow into something beyond the story’s traditional romance,” said Pyle. “And possibly get more dogs on stage.”
When I asked about Ballez classes Pyle lit up with enthusiasm. The aim is to help dancers heal with a community that includes a full range of bodies, ages, ethnicities, sexual orientations, gender identities, and experience levels. Pyle described Ballez classes like moving therapy for adults where they transform the conventional chamber of mirrors into a safe space where pronouns for the group are discussed at the start of class, barre is held in a circle rather than menacing lines, and non-binary partnering is explored with a playlist that’s refreshingly of the twenty-first century.
At the precipice of their new season beginning this September at Brooklyn Arts Exchange (BAX), Pyle is optimistic about the direction of the company and classes while also pointing out the need for continual funding in order to advance.
At present, Kickstarter has been integral for most of their public fundraising, and they use social media wisely as promotion and outreach. Their lively Instagram includes educational posts highlighting dancers who have been misunderstood throughout history.
It is obvious that Ballez not only promotes inclusivity and openness, they also insert themselves in order to authentically represent a range of bodies and voices. And as a teaching entity, Ballez is spreading genuine awareness to a dance form in need of radical, rational change.
Jessica Maria MacFarlane is a dance writer and researcher from Houston, TX currently living in Queens. She is in her second-year at Gallatin, pursuing an individualized MA with a thesis concentration in science fiction and the future of dance.