The world of classic ballet, which runs on a set of rigid strictures, encourages and affirms an almost unattainable, incredibly unhealthy body ideal, and has been one of the last artistic fields to racially diversify, isn’t exactly what you’d think of as a safe haven for socially-conscious dancers looking to make their voices heard. But that’s exactly what a New York City-based queer dance troupe is doing—by turning two separate classical ballets into one artistic expression of LGBT activism.
Founded in 2011 by dancers Katy Pyle and Jules Skloot, Ballez is a dance collective dedicated to promoting the visibility of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans communities through a traditional but approachable medium. Their latest project, a mashup of Russian composer Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s The Sleeping Beauty and Beauty and the Beast, takes both stories out of the realm of fairy tales and places them in a concrete historical context. Ballez’s Sleeping Beauty and the Beast puts audiences in the garment factories and union halls of the Lower East Side at the turn of the 20th century, as well as in 1990's New York City during the end of the AIDS epidemic, creating a timeline of the LGBT community’s eventual politicization.
The impetus for Sleeping Beauty and the Beast began long before Ballez was a reality, according to Pyle, who is directing the show. In an email response to Jezebel, the co-founder and artistic director of the company explained the origin of the troupe’s latest endeavor, which began when she saw a traveling tour of the ballet as an 11-year-old in her hometown of Austin, Texas.
“The ballerina who was playing Aurora broke her ankle in the finger-pricking scene,” recounted Pyle, “she was weaving around the stage, doing intricate passes of bourées, and then she kind of collapsed and hobbled off the stage. Seconds later, the Violet Fairy appeared, still in her Violet Fairy tutu, but she became Aurora.”
The transformation had an arresting affect on Pyle.
“The choreography she performed, the energy in her body, the way everyone addressed her, it was as if she was Aurora, and she was incredible,” Pyle continued. “I think this was a really formative experience for me, because I saw that sometimes the ‘wrong’ person can actually be the right person for a role.”
Sleeping Beauty and the Beast, which will premiere at La Mama theater on April 29, both internalizes and engenders that very sense of metamorphosis, subversiveness, and fluidity. The Violet Fairy, which is usually a female role, will be played by male dancer Christopher DeVita in the Ballez production. Likewise, Skloot will play “the Beast,” who in this version is now “a leather clad Butch top...who also plays the Union Organizer in the first act.”
“These queer characters [that] are brought to life through the bodies of these particular performers is not only a good thing for LGBTQ people,” said Skloot, “[but these same characters] enrich the lives and imaginations of everyone who gets to witness and participate as an audience member regardless of how they identify.”
While the Sleeping Beauty and the Beast was largely shaped by Pyle, Skloot made a major contribution to the show’s second part that helped recast it in its final version. During a residency in which the duo worked on their first collaborative effort, a ballet called The Firebird, a Ballez, Skloot brought along a book of queer and lesbian fairy tales, which inspired the Beast portion of their next project.
“This was a crucial moment, because it laid the groundwork for how we would conceive of all these characters, but especially the Beast,” continued Pyle. “A lot of people might see the Ballez as beastly, and all the characters as beastly, but they are actually incredible beauties. It was a way of framing this creation.”
Right now, the dance troupe is raising money through a Kickstarter campaign to be able to pay the dancers involved with the ballet. As of the time of the publication of this article, they have raised more than $11,000 out of their $25,000 goal. As Skloot pointed out, their efforts to “create fair wage jobs for queer and gender queer performers...in itself is a radical and supportive act.”
In the end, the ultimate message of Skloot and Pyle’s dance troupe is that of inclusivity.
“In this time of such extremism and hateful separation and bigotry, I want to give queer, trans and straight audiences alike, a moment to truly witness the incredible, beautiful human beings whose stories deserve remembrance and canonization, and these performers who deserve joyful witnessing,” Pyle said.
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Image via Ballez | Photos by Elyssa Goodman