Did The Tenant unintentionally conflate transness and mental illness? Photo by Matthew Murphy, courtesy The Joyce Theater
Last week, Arthur Pita's much-anticipated The Tenant, featuring American Ballet Theatre principal James Whiteside, had its New York City premiere at The Joyce Theater.
Based on the novel by Roland Topor and the 1976 Roman Polanski film, The Tenant follows a man who moves into an apartment that's haunted by its previous occupant (Simone, played by ABT's Cassandra Trenary) who committed suicide. Throughout the show, the man—Trelkovsky, played by Whiteside—slowly transforms into Simone, eventually committing suicide himself.
But some found the show's depiction of a trans-femme character to be troubling. Whether the issues stem from the source material or the production's treatment of it, many thought the end result reinforced transphobic stereotypes about mental illness. We gathered some of the responses from the dance community:
The author in Nick Mauss' Transmissions at the Whitney Museum. Photo by Paula Court
During a period when I was intentionally taking a step back from performing, I was especially sensitive to the question, "So, are you auditioning for things?" Besides the insecurity of being a freelancer not hustling in that way, I also rankled at the complexity of what it means for a non-binary performer to audition.
To put it bluntly, there aren't many safe opportunities for us. That's because so many audition listings include gender-exclusionary phrases, so trans and non-binary artists either aren't eligible to show up or aren't sure whether or not they'd be welcome.
Ballez class staples include no mirrors and barres arranged in a circle. Photo by Elyssa Goodman, Courtesy Pyle
A flock of polyamorous princes, a chorus of queer dying swans, a dominatrix witch: These are a few of the characters that populate the works of Katy Pyle, who, with her Brooklyn-based company Ballez, has been uprooting ballet's gender conventions since 2011.
Historically, ballet has not allowed for the expression of lesbian, transgender or gender-nonconforming identities. With Ballez, Pyle is reinventing the classical canon on more inclusive terms. Her work stems from a deep love of ballet and, at the same time, a frustration with its limits on acceptable body types and on the stories it traditionally tells.
I'm a transgender ballet dancer (male to female) who desperately wants to perform in a professional company. I haven't come out about my gender because I'm afraid it will hurt my career. Yet it feels wrong to do male variations and have my teachers tell me to be more masculine. What can I do?
For Sean Dorsey, the dance studio used to be a source of pain that had nothing to do with dancing. "I would go to the women's dressing room and change there," he says. "That was, every day, this kind of knife in my heart."
Though the classes thrilled him, having to use facilities that didn't correspond with his gender identity made him feel extremely self-conscious and ashamed. Later, as an adult, Dorsey noticed that "people like me weren't onstage. Our stories weren't being told through dance."
An increasing number of out transgender performers and choreographers like Dorsey (one of Dance Magazine's "25 to Watch" in 2010) are working to fill that gap by challenging gender norms in dance, onstage and off. For an art form with deeply ingrained gender divisions, that's no easy task. Currently, from the moment a child steps into a dance studio, their training is often determined by gender. Ballet in particular breaks up genders into separate classes, demands gender-specific clothing, teaches gender-specific combinations and values gender-specific qualities. By explicitly addressing the politics of gender in their work and advocating for changes to these traditions, transgender artists today are helping to expand dance's representation of gender.