A dancer laces a pair of size 11 double-wide pointe shoes around each calf. Making one last check in the mirror for makeup and hair, Ashley Merrill-Lynch moves with the other corps de ballet members to the stage wings. One by one, the dancers step under the blazing lights, each executing on count two the same sustained arabesque for the famed entrance of La Bayadère. But this particular performance differs from the traditional Bayadère in one significant respect. Like the other members of the corps, this dancer is a man.
In his first season with the all-male comedy ballet troupe Les Ballets Grandiva, Ian Archer-Watters is dancing as Ashley Merrill-Lynch. The stage name refers to retired New York City Ballet principal Merrill Ashley and to Archer-Watters’ former occupation as a fundraiser, where he generated financial support from people working at places like Merrill Lynch. The name was conferred upon him by Victor Trevino, Grandiva founder and artistic director, whose simultaneous send-ups and reverential tributes to ballet’s greatest choreographers and dancers are the building blocks for the company’s 31-piece repertoire.
Archer-Watters’ life has radically changed since 2003 when he was first spotted in ballet class by Grandiva ballet master Paul Boos. Now, under Trevino’s stewardship, the Midwestern-born arts administrator and former classical dancer is evolving into a ballerina.
Archer-Watters first stepped onto the stage with Grandiva last April, during the company’s New York season at Symphony Space. He’s back in (pink) tights following a 10-year absence from professional dance when, after a knee injury, he returned to school and ultimately joined the development staff of New York City Ballet.
The 33-year-old isn’t entirely new to pointe work. In his teens, he strengthened his feet through pointe work outside of ballet class. Since joining Grandiva, he’s immersed himself in ballerina life 101: how to dance in a tutu, apply fake eyelashes, and rise en pointe with effortless ethereality. He also dropped 55 pounds.
In April, Grandiva embarked on a four-month tour. Archer-Watters traveled with 20 male dancers, performing to near capacity audiences in 37 Japanese cities, and learning to create a French twist—in 10 minutes.
From a Tokyo hotel room, Archer-Watters talked about his attitude toward drag ballet. “It’s not so much that we are imitating women,” he said. “It’s that we are paying homage to the ballerina by becoming her onstage.” Under the lights, Archer-Watters explained that he feels he transcends gender. “Yes, I am in a wig and long tulle skirt with pointe shoes, but I don’t feel like I’m a man trying to be a woman dancing this role,” he explained. “These female roles are just another way for me to express myself as a dancer.”
Asked about learning to dance on pointe, he cited the typical list of complaints—blisters, tears in the skin, bruised toe nails—with one additional challenge. “It often felt like I was hauling my large frame onto a pinhead and trying to balance. I had to redefine my relationship with the floor,” he said. “But I didn’t get discouraged. Dancing in pointe shoes is a privilege. It is the way I was meant to dance and any other way doesn’t hold the same thrill.”
After every performance in Japan—a country where the 400-year-old Kabuki tradition celebrates male drag performers—scores of fans stood outside the stage door entrances. Fans follow the company, much like American teenagers used to follow the Grateful Dead. Archer-Watters said he was presented with many gifts including a pair of linen pajamas, chocolates, and a handkerchief sporting his name.
Despite the adulation, the first season as a male ballerina is tough. “They’ve never been ballerinas before,” said ballet master Boos. They’re struggling to find out who they are.” In contrast to senior dancer Allen Dennis who, like Victor Trevino, has a ballerina’s sinewy silhouette and has created a stage persona inspired by the personality and movement style of famous female dancers such as Natalia Makarova, Archer-Watters acknowledged that his female impersonations can only go so far. He stands 6' 5" on pointe and is built more like a swimmer than a bun head.
“Given my size and stature,” he said, “it is useless to model myself after Suzanne Farrell’s image. But I want my spirit and my soul in dancing to be reminiscent of hers.” The daily hard work of aspiring to Farrell’s lyricism and purity of technique could help Archer-Watters develop his performing identity.
“They have to work harder at it than we do,” explained Katherine Healy, a Varna gold medal winner who takes ballet class with the Grandiva dancers. The men are presenting a gravity-defying image despite the disadvantage of their greater muscle mass, she said. Healy added that Boos conducts company class at as “high a technical level as any company class I’ve ever done, including Paris Opéra Ballet.”
New York City Ballet dancer Antonio Carmena has also taken Boos’ class. He said he was immediately impressed by the men’s good pointe technique and by the challenging combinations. Carmena also enjoyed the class because Grandiva dancers joke around and root for each other’s multiple turns. Nevertheless, Archer-Watters said the dancers compete aggressively for the best roles.
New Grandiva dancers perform most frequently in Swan Lake. “If you can get through the corps section,” said Archer-Watters, “you can get through anything.” He aspires to one day perform Trevino’s Dying Swans, composed of three competing swan solos that require both technical precision and improvisational humor.
Consistently encouraged by others, Archer-Watters described one unexpected moment when he became the focus of a prima ballerina’s inspired idea. In class last December, American Ballet Theatre principal Alessandra Ferri asked Archer-Watters whether it was difficult for him to dance on pointe. When he explained that he had just received a contract to join Grandiva, Ferri responded, “Well then I must coach you.” Healy, who overheard, said to Ferri, “Back off. He’s mine.” Then, turning to Archer-Watters, she said, “You’ve made it if you have two ballerinas fighting over you.”
As fantastic as it may be to receive pointers from the likes of Ferri and Healy, a ballerina’s approach to Swan Lake, Giselle, and Don Quixote differs from that of Trevino. If a Grandiva soloist flubs a turn, he can make it a dramatic moment in which he ends on his stomach, tutu in the air, pounding his fists into the stage. Traditional ballerinas cannot. Archer-Watter’s life partner, Jack Watters, pointed out another difference when he described a typical Grandiva moment: “You have a very large woman and a very small man onstage. They look at each other as though saying, ‘There’s been some terrible mistake!’ ” Then the ballerina proceeds to complete a flawless phrase, making you forget you’re watching a travesty ballet.
Trevino underlined how Grandiva differs from America’s original travesty ballet troupe, Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo. While the Trocks emphasize being funny, Grandiva’s priority is to generate beautiful ballet dancers. Trevino said his mission for Grandiva performers is to be serious about technique without being too serious about themselves.
“Dancers are known to be very insecure,” said Boos, a 16-year veteran of New York City Ballet. “You have to be very secure to do this kind of work.”
Back in New York after his first tour, Archer-Watters is pleased with his performance. He described an emotional moment following the final curtain of the last show in Japan. “As I headed into the wings, I broke down in tears out of shock and relief that I had actually finished,” he said. “I feel like I’ve moved a mountain.”
Rachel Straus is a freelance dance writer and a journalism student at Columbia University.