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.
Women make up the vast majority of the dance world. Yet it’s no secret that they’re routinely passed over for leadership positions and choreography commissions, confronted with sexism in the studio and stymied by expectations of how female artists should look and behave. Here, 10 industry leaders open up, candidly sharing their stories, and offering ideas for how we can do better.
Q: What makes you a feminist?
“This spring, I decided that if an organization wanted me to do a piece, I would only say yes if they included a woman choreographer on the program. When I look at some of the playbills of programs I have going up, it’s just like, Really? Only men again? The disparity is kind of insane. If someone chooses not to use me because I’ve insulted them by saying that, I still think it’s worth saying and having that in their ear.” —Kyle Abraham, artistic director and choreographer, Abraham.In.Motion
Q: Do female choreographers make different work than men?
“Definitely. We experience life fundamentally differently, and that affects our physicality and our sensitivity. In The Virgin Suicides, there’s this line that says, ‘We felt the imprisonment of being a girl, the way it made your mind active and dreamy, and how you ended up knowing which colors went together.’ That’s a really poetic way of talking about the unique humanity of women. There’s a quiet power and also a bubbling revolt, a delicateness and a fierceness that’s a negotiation of pleasing people and not. Men have a freedom we don’t have. As a woman, and as a Latina, I feel like every piece I make is somehow supposed to represent my entire culture. I don’t think white men have that kind of baggage.” —Rosie Herrera, artistic director and choreographer, Rosie Herrera Dance Theatre
Christopher Duggan, Courtesy Gibney
Q: What have you noticed as a female entrepreneur?
“When I opened Gibney Dance Center, there was a huge difference in the way women and men reacted. A lot of women came up to me and said, ‘The space is beautiful and I can’t wait to make work in it.’ Men said, ‘I’d like to show my work in your performance space.’ There was a very different attitude about the plans and programs men wanted. They were making deals. I didn’t get a single business proposition from a woman in that way. It’s up to women to take the reins, and take risks.” —Gina Gibney, CEO and artistic director, Gibney Dance
Rose Eichenbaum for Dance Teacher
Q: How can we help young women in ballet build the confidence to become leaders?
“We have to train leaders. A lot of it is about helping students with their priorities. So many just want to get their leg up, want to be insta-famous. And many are myopically focused on ballet. At Colburn, we expose them to other kinds of dance, and to museums. We offer a unit of drama. It’s so hard for ballet students to talk, to get out there and advocate for themselves. The culture is to be silent and to receive. I have to keep reminding them to find their voice and keep expressing themselves.” —Jenifer Ringer, director, Colburn Dance Academy
Rachel Soh, Courtesy Goebel
Q: What has it been like to rise in the male-dominated world of hip hop?
“I never felt there were different standards for men and women, but a different value placed on what women’s work is worth. But there are a lot of amazing female choreographers making their mark today. My movement style, polyswagg, allows us to use all our woman qualities that the boys don’t have, and at the same time be able to hit as hard as the boys.” —Parris Goebel, choreographer for Justin Bieber, Rihanna and Nicki Minaj
Sylvain Guenot, Courtesy Dendy
Q: Why does the dance world trail behind pop culture as far as trans inclusion?
“It’s a private thing to watch on your television. There’s a safety, and that gets taken away when you’re sitting in a theater experiencing a live performance. There are some gender-fluid characters in dance today, but I don’t think you’re going to see a trans person walk out in Esplanade anytime soon.” —Mark Dendy, experimental choreographer who recently created Whistleblower, about transgender soldier Chelsea Manning
Whitney Browne, Courtesy Camille A. Brown
Q: Why is empowering young black women so important to you?
“One time on tour, we asked a high school audience, ‘What comes to mind when you hear the phrase “black girl”?’ Everything was negative and the way they were saying things really made me uncomfortable. I saw people mimicking the gestures that they associated with black girls—snapping their hands, rolling their neck, putting their hands on their hips—and they were pointing to the few black girls in the audience.
That’s why I do the initiative. Black girls need to know that they are valued and they are more than a stereotype. How often are we able to see a black girl’s story through her gaze? We need to talk about the issues, but we also need to show the full spectrum of who black girls are.” —Camille A. Brown, choreographer and founder of Black Girl Spectrum
James Jin, Courtesy Latarro
Q: What is it like to be part of the first all-female creative team on Broadway, for Waitress?
“I’m usually hyperaware of my tone—as a woman, there’s a fine line between speaking too softly and kindly and speaking too harshly. But when you’re in a team that you trust, you can be direct. You just say what you need to say.
Also, we’re women writing about a woman. It feels different when you’re watching because it’s a point of view that we’re not used to. In many other Broadway shows, even if there’s a female protagonist, she still behaves the way a male writer might see her.” —Lorin Latarro, choreographer for Waitress
Julie Mack, THEY Bklyn, Courtesy Pyle
Q: Do outmoded gender stereotypes hold ballet back?
“In my training, I was really discouraged from being strong. There was always the expectation that I would be 15 percent below the typical body weight for my height. Eating disorders come along with that, and then not being able to menstruate—that affects your hormones and emotions and development and your brain. When I stopped ballet, I could think more clearly because I stopped being anorexic. I got a message from my teachers, whether explicitly or implicitly, that I should appear smaller, more fragile, more vulnerable. The archetypes that were presented to me were of women who needed to be saved.
Ballet appears as a very elitist, white, male-run form that will just reproduce the same ideas and images over and over and over again until there is a bigger disruption in terms of types of bodies, genders, race, backgrounds—there’s so much! Having transgender people in ballet companies is what I’m interested in. Bringing in people who have more diverse relationships to their own gender is going to shift the work.”
—Katy Pyle, artistic director of Ballez, an organization and company that explores story ballets with lesbian, queer and transgender people
Jade Young, Courtesy Bond
Q: Do you feel you’re treated differently as a female choreographer?
“I struggle with not being taken as seriously. I look young and I’m in the corps de ballet: I was 16 when I started, and now I’m 33, and I’m still treated as a girl—even when I’m choreographing. I’m not seen as a woman. It’s like I’m pigeon-holed into a box. If I want to do anything I have to initiate it myself.” —Gemma Bond, choreographer and American Ballet Theatre dancer
Interviews by Suzannah Friscia, Marina Harss, Gia Kourlas, Madeline Schrock, Kristin Schwab, Jennifer Stahl and Lauren Wingenroth.