Beside the Pointe: Queering Ballet
by Emerson Cooper
A couple of months ago I enrolled in a ballet class on a whim. On the first day of class we all sat on the floor in a circle to introduce ourselves while I fidgeted with the lint on my socks. I wasn’t sure what I wanted out of the class, but I needed to do something to contend with my queer body. I thought dancing might be a good way to subdue my constant, low-grade dysphoria. I’d spent enough time awkwardly dancing around my apartment to Rihanna when I was in a bad mood, so at the very least, I was sure my neighbors would be relieved to have a break from hearing “What’s My Name” on repeat.
Part of me was drawn to dance because I’ve been trying to figure out how “embodiment” feels for a while. How do you occupy physical space in a way that aligns with your mental perception of yourself? My body and my gender feel untenable when I try to hold them side-by-side. It’s a fractured kind of awareness, but I’m working on it.
I ended up fixating on dance because there’s athleticism and discipline, but also because it extends into a realm of self-expression I’ve never been able to access. Dancers seem so in tune with their bodies, so at ease with the ways they occupy space. I’ve spent hours watching YouTube videos of choreography on repeat, wondering what it must feel like to understand your body well enough to use it as a mode of expression. This sentiment eludes me. I flail around like a newborn giraffe.
At the same time, I’ve wondered if some dancers feel a rupture in their physical awareness that’s similar to mine. After all, dancers are asked to push their bodies to an extreme, and sometimes those bodies break. Sometimes there is a distance between what we expect of our bodies and what they can give us. Where does dance make room for queerness? Between the rigid stereotypes about gender and the narrow range of bodies that are deemed acceptable in classical dance, how do queer dancers go back to the barre, day after day, without feeling alienated?
The dance class I found ended up being one of the rare places that makes room for queerness in dance. Taught by choreographers Katy Pyle and Jules Skloot, the class is aptly named Adult Ballez. Every Monday night they offer a space to a space to reclaim the rules of ballet, bending them to suit our queer existence. I still flail around, but I do it shamelessly and a little more gracefully with every passing week.
The Adult Ballez class is an offshoot from one of Katy’s larger projects. As an artist-in-residence at Brooklyn Arts Exchange, Katy is choreographing her second full-length Ballez, the term she’s given to her classical ballets re-imagined through a queer lens. The plot, the characters, the dancers, and the histories they portray — everything about the Ballez is queer. The first Ballez that Katy choreographed with Jules, The Firebird, debuted in 2013; the second, Sleeping Beauty and the Beast, is a work in progress.
A few weeks ago, I sat down with Katy to talk about dance, gender, and how to fail spectacularly.
When did the Ballez start and where did that idea come from?
Ballez started in 2011 for rehearsals and showing little things. It came out of a conversation that I had with other queer dancers about wanting to dance more. We were all in a lot of abstract, postmodern work where it wasn’t necessarily physical. That was one thing. And we were also thrilled by the idea of ballet that was about our bodies and our relationships. I became really obsessed with it.
I had worked with Jules Skloot [the other Ballez teacher] on another dance I choreographed. I had really liked working with him and we were talking about identity between us, so I came to him. The Firebird came up, which was an exciting way to have a trans character in a ballet; there’s that transformation part with the bird. That was the first Ballez, and it took a long time to make it, and we’re still trying to make the next one.
The first one was The Firebird: you were the princess and you meet Jules and you carry him off into the woods?
Yeah, in the original ballet there’s this prince and he’s off in the woods hunting and he finds the Firebird and they have this weird sexy scene in the woods, but the Firebird is played by a ballerina. It’s creepy because the prince overtakes the Firebird in the woods, definitely overpowering her, and the only way she can get out is to promise to come back when he needs her, and she gives him a feather.
So we changed it. I was doing the role of the prince as a princess, and I had escaped from the kingdom and met a magic bird-creature in the woods. I was definitely playing a more femme-aggressive princess, but it was a consensual rendezvous in the woods. And then Jules’ character, the Firebird, pulls out a feather, but instead of giving it to me he writes his number and a place on my hand. So it’s more like she can come to the spot he writes on her hand, which is a garden full of princes — all polyamorous, gender-nonconforming princes — that live in a magical, enchanted garden under the control of a dominatrix sorceress, who is in a dominant-submissive relationship with all of them.
Did this narrative come up collectively?
Jules and I talked about it. Cassie Mey, who plays the sorceress, came in and we talked to her. It was based on the original ballet, where there are 12 princesses that are kept by an evil sorcerer, so that was already in there.
It came a little bit from these ideas of what is good and evil. Jules and I talking about it, talking to Cassie Mey, talking to other friends, I feel like there was a huge community around the process. There was a tremendous amount of fantasy going on between the people that were in the piece. It was definitely in response to things I saw happening around me. Not that I knew of a specific garden with a dom-sorceress, but I could imagine it. It didn’t feel that far away.
Was this an important project for you guys because you were able to make dance explicitly queer in a way that traditional ballet isn’t?
Yeah, I think that was the only reason I was interested in doing a ballet at all. Because queerness specifically in ballet is a funny thing; ballet does have a history of having a lot of gay men perform it, and you can read into certain ballets’ narratives about gay men. There’s a lot of coding there. So it’s not like there hasn’t been any queerness in ballet, but related to the representation of women, I don’t think there has been.
And it’s never explicit.
It’s never explicit. Unless, well, I think there are some modern ballets, but classical, no.
Do you feel like it’s helped — I don’t want to say get over — but heal any trauma that was inflicted upon you when you were in intensive classical training?
Yeah, I do, I feel like that’s a major motivation. I’m interested in healing and I’m interested in what kind of stuff lives in our bodies and how to take it back.
Do you feel like the way you’ve used your body has changed over the years?
I didn’t realize until I started looking at ballet directly all of the weird habits I have that were related to ballet. Just little ways of holding my head a certain way, or trying to make myself look smaller, because that’s what I spent all of my time doing.
One of the things about ballet that I want to talk to you about is how the gender roles are super rigid, and as a woman, it’s all about being waif-like and young and pure, so it seems like it sets you up for failure because you can always be better, but you can never be perfect.
Right. So you’ll never be there.
Do you feel like you ended up figuring that out about ballet, and being able to be comfortable with the inevitable failure that it sets you up for?
I think that’s what I’m dealing with right now, very actively. Because I know I’m going fail. I think when I was younger I thought I would get closer, or close enough, that it would be possible for me to only fail a little bit. Now I know I’m gonna fail a lot. That’s spectacular to me, and I’m into the spectacular failure. I’m still going to try, and I’m going to invite other people to try with me, knowing we’re not going to be that perfect thing.
I feel like we’re asked to be certain things in the world all the time — that never align or match up with our reality — but we still walk around with these ideas and interact with them in our daily lives. I don’t feel like there’s any authentic version of myself or any mythical pure person that doesn’t have any of that ego bullshit or construction of identity. So it’s fun to me to play with those expectations, and still think that I’m awesome or that other people are awesome within that failure.
I guess I ask about it because, from the outside, it seems like there’s a parallel you could draw between queer identity and being set up for failure in dance, since part of being queer is failing to conform to societal expectations. Is there a parallel between failure in dance and queer identity existing outside norms?
Yeah, that’s why I like working with queer people in this context. There’s an understanding of that concept. There’s not an illusion of being the cultural standard or being the ideal. We create some of our own ideals within queer community, and that’s another shift — I think it’s subjective, it’s different — but I love that there’s this inward mobility and pride within the failure that I see in queer bodies. Having had the experience, over the course of a life, of being told you’re not ever going to be worth anything…there’s something you have to develop inside of yourself to keep going. It’s this incredible power. It’s an awareness that nothing is going to look right or seem like it’s supposed to be, but it’s okay.
It gets hard for me to put words around because it feels like a physical experience. I guess that’s why I’m a choreographer, not a writer.
When you choreograph things now, even though dance is physically demanding, do you feel like you push yourself? Ballet asks people to push their bodies to an extreme, but do you work with your body more now?
I think I’m too old to push myself, and that’s also ridiculous because I’m not that old, but in the scope of ballet, your career is ending when you’re 35. I definitely don’t do the kinds of things I used to do. I feel stronger because I know what my strengths are, and I know my body better. I know the ways that I can push myself, that are okay for me to push myself, and I like doing that. I like working hard. I like getting sweaty and dancing hard and feeling that rush of really trying for it, which I didn’t experience in these postmodern dances where I would lay on the floor and slowly move my radius and ulna around each other. It was beautiful research and I’m glad it happened, but I like jumping and turning and doing hard things.
I’m listening to my body more because I’m more okay with what it is. I’m nice to my thighs now instead of hating them. And I’m like, “Yes, we’re gonna jump together! And I’m so glad that you’re so strong!” As opposed to wanting to shave them off.
Is that part of the reason you have the Ballez class? Because it seems like a lot of other instructors or people with more dance training come to class because it is a space that isn’t so stringent.
Well I think that it’s a space for people to be witnessed and appreciated; it’s about seeing other people, and dancing with other people and being seen. I think that’s a really big deal. I try to cultivate a class situation where everyone is seeing everyone else and thinking that they’re awesome because it’s true. Witnessing the beauty of other people — I didn’t ever have that experience in dance class.
We’re told we don’t look right for so many reason, so I think having a space where people are practicing seeing each other, practicing feeling [right] about themselves, to me it’s very healing. But it does require a group of people who are willing to try that on.
It feels like a wild thing to do, to use ballet in that way. I like to do things that are more out there, that feel impossible, like “Why would you try do that?” That’s what I want to do.
The second Ballez, Sleeping Beauty and the Beast, is a work-in-progress and will debut at La MaMa theatre in 2016. More information about the Ballez can be found here, and more information about classes can be found here.
This interview has been edited and condensed. Photos courtesy of THEY Bklyn.
Emerson Cooper lives and works (where else) in Brooklyn.