By Cassie Peterson
Katy Pyle’s, The Firebird is a feminist direct action and a queer confrontation, making it anything but your typical ballet. No, this is a Ballez; a ballet-inspired theatrical process, featuring an all female-assigned, lesbian/queer/transmasculine cast, that redefines the traditional gender roles, technical expectations, and dominant narratives of ballet. Ballez seeks new embodied expression through the queering of classical forms. In order to challenge the heteronormativity implicit in ballet, Pyle deconstructs balletic elements: physical training, theatricality, and presentational performance, and reconstitutes them into a community-oriented, gender-fluid, queer utopian vision of what is possible in dance. Through Ballez, Pyle has made ballet available to untrained, queer bodies. In this process, Ballez strives for the complexity, beauty, and grace of classical ballet forms, while simultaneously breaking all the rules. Ballez allows for struggle and misfire, aiming at a standard, but missing it entirely.
In this version of The Firebird, we follow a yearning, Lesbian Princess and a Tranimal (part bird, part prince) as they seek liberation in a magically perverse landscape of polyamorous Princes and their dominant Sorceress. Accompanied by the Queer Urban Orchestra, and a cast of 15 queer performers, this work positions itself as part of a long lineage of radical, experimental ballet companies, including one of its inspirations, the Ballet Russes. Throughout her creative process, Pyle utilized the outline of the original “Firebird” ballet created by Mikhail Fokine and Igor Stravinsky in 1910. She read Fokine’s journals, which shaped her narrative structure and aesthetic choices. In this, she was particularly moved by his idea that “each ballet’s movements should be specific to the culture it represents.” Therefore, Ballez explores and communicates movements and embodiment specific to the queerfeminist culture that Pyle and her cast so unequivocally inhabit.
PERFORMING QUEER FAILURE TOGETHER, FOREVER:
I completely failed at this essay, the first time I wrote it. It was too long and it read like a string of theoretical bullet points. In response, my editors used words like “dense” and “impersonal.” I had in fact, written myself out of the piece, an act of total self-effacement. What got lost was my experience of the Ballez, the feelings it incited in me, and the effects of seeing my own community do this incredible thing together, on stage. With a pressing deadline and an overwhelming desire to perfectly document everything, my voice slowly disappeared and was replaced with a barrage of academic citations (which I have since removed). I had managed to write around the primary, organizing principle of Ballez: it’s a project of connection and togetherness. At the core of Pyle’s interest is generating and capturing community interaction; queer folks coming together for classes, rehearsals, and performances over time.
Ballez is a communal state where magic is possible and perfection is not. It’s a place where all the awkward struggles of being a sexual minority in the world dissipate and are replaced with the nobility of queer relations. This is what you’re seeing on stage — a community in full bloom, each individual pulled out momentarily from their particular alienations and isolations and placed together like a bumpy, beautiful, jigsaw puzzle, composed of vegetarian potlucks, cats, astrological signs, and burnt sage. This is some serious Deep Lez, Earth Goddess Mother, howl-at-the-moon shit.
I had the pleasure of joining the Ballez Company at Mount Tremper Arts during their residency there in March. Stepping into a Ballez rehearsal was like a homecoming I never knew I wanted or needed. The first night I arrived, we each pulled our totem animal card from the deck and shared it with the group. A polar bear, a snake, a firebird. Yes, the firebird. There was a Reiki session going on in the corner on someone’s twisted ankle. Someone else was doing a past life reading/ritual. Someone else was processing a bad break-up, and eventually the whole scene devolved into an ecstatic dance party in the woods, snow on the ground, a shooting star, hip hop blaring from someone’s small, but effective iPod speakers. There was a wildness in everyone’s eyes, their physical fatigue turned inside out and manifest as endless laughter.
My original (failed) essay was defensive, fraught with a fortress of impenetrable language. Without knowing it, I was trying to defend or protect the Ballez and myself within it. So many representations of queerness are intrinsically defensive, formed in reaction to that which is deemed normal or “right.” But the Ballez is not defended, nor does it require defense. It unabashedly exists as an open-hearted, vulnerable expression of queerfeminist intimacies. This intimacy is a fortunate residue from all the immense partnering exercises devised by Pyle: gazing into each other’s eyes every day, standing at the barre again and again, cutting each other’s hair, cooking for one another, and playing Scrabble. In this Ballez world, opportunities for intimate connection are multiple, making this performance a symbol for the ever-extending queer family that created it.
In rehearsal the following morning in March, Pyle and performers talked about queer coming-of-age traditions like softball, clubbing, and sex and found ways to have those things inform their movement, their manner, and their embodiment. In this overarching physical inqueery, Pyle has altered balletic movement to account for and incorporate two female-assigned bodies. Physical strength, power, and position are more equally distributed amongst the dancers, breaking from the more traditional gendered movements found in ballet. Inspired by modern ballet formulations, she and her dancers are working to discover and refine a kind of physics-based partnering that allows female-assigned people, of various sizes, to lift one another. Throughout this process, questions arose about how queer experience creates alternative alignments, movements and patterns of interaction within bodies, thus creating a kind of re-imagined choreography that showcases the imperfection of untrained, queer bodies.
Lesbian feminist writer, Monique Wittig, refers to society’s heteronormative schema as the “Straight Mind” whereby all social and psychic phenomena are interpreted through a heterosexual lens. Ballez is a direct challenge to the “Straight Mind” but also to what we could term the “Straight Body.” Pyle uses Ballez to explore the alternative idiosyncrasies of the queer body. These are bodies “trained” and shaped via other, marginal means, revealing a virtuosity and grace, perhaps not legible through a normative gaze. Pyle wanted to know,
What does ballet look like inside of a genderqueer body?
What does ballet DO in a queer body?
These bodies are sly and slouched. They have binded breasts and a calculated way of hiding their hips. They are masculine, but petite. Years of living as sexual minorities manifest as a kind of armored resiliency, a learned toughness and campiness that is revealed in every one of their off-beat movements.
This Firebird has a campy, Do-It-Yourself, basement feel to it. It features Hedia Maron’s video installation with silhouetted, cut-out, paper figures traversing an enchanted forest and Mikki Olson’s costumes, which have both a homemade and grandiose quality to them – paper mache hats and red-painted football pads. And there are 15 queer bodies in a space together, approaching the problem of being in a ballet, while not being fully equipped to perform its original expectations. What ensues is beautiful, funny, and devastating. Ballez features many different body types, each with varying degrees of dance training and yet Pyle has managed to incorporate them all into semi-coherent patternings. But when these dancers move together, there is a striving for something that cannot be fully realized. When they stand next to one another, the lines are loose and incongruent. Uniformity is attempted, but heart-breakingly impossible. Pyle has intentionally allowed for the discrepancy between actualized formalism and the lack of dance training to be evident, front and center. What emerges in a different kind of vocabulary, where lifts are not as high, lines are not as straight, timing is less exacting. The rigor of formal ballet training is replaced with the failure to meet these standards.
BUTCH PRINCE REALNESS:
Yet, in this failure, there is a contagious, charged energy that pervades the Ballez space; not that everyone is sleeping together, but that they could be. And that, maybe you would want to join them. Ballez challenges the heteronormative gaze by bringing queer desire to the fore without any apology or reticence, without any covert coding that keeps everyone safe from discomfort or inquisition. The femme-top lesbian princess desires the tranimal in all of his various incarnations and in-betweeness. She reaches out to him in his fire red, fringe-leather jacket, and pulls him close, before lifting him up near her head. Later, with her dark, severe eyebrows and long lean body, the sorceress is like a dominatrix who loves all the princes in a crazysexycool, sado-masochistic manner. They obediently hold her up above them while she punishingly pushes them away. And finally, all the freshly shorn, spandex-clad, polyamorous princes lust after one another, unapologetically.
In one scene, The Corps de Ballez — the cast of twelve “butch princes” enter the stage after the opening solos, with fruit/phallus in hand. They proceed to dance in a line, touching each other’s fruit, picking it up and dropping it in each other’s tights, smelling, tasting, affirming one another’s desire. The first time I encountered these princes, I was overwhelmed with both excitement and pangs of grief because it is such a rare experience to see female masculinity afforded so much space and attention. The princes are soft, handsome, funny, and full of faggotry. They are adoring and adored. They exert a gentle strength, holding one another’s heads, lifting, carrying, and attending to one another. The princes’ choreography inscribes a kind of tender, vulnerable masculinity that at times takes on maternal qualities. In this welcoming tenderness, this Corps de Ballez offers a soothing, pedestrian relief to an otherwise intense story of love and loss. They function like the queer commons; it’s a place to see ourselves reflected back with a kind of kinetic mirroring and twinship. Yes. We are all princes. We are all Ballez.
It is through this unmitigated eros and community recognition that Ballez undermines the normative, buttoned-up, ethereal aspirations of traditional ballet and replaces them with queer elements of perversity, marginality, fluidity, and failure. Queer challenges the strive for universalities and disrupts the order of things. It is antagonistic and provocative. It complicates the ease in which we come to “know” things. Queer is the failure to adhere or assimilate to social mandates. It fails. Queer is already always failure. And Pyle and company have created an epic spectacle of this queer failure. These performers fail time and time again at balletic expectations. The fail at compulsory heterosexuality. They fail at socially constructed gender binaries. And they fail at normative, narrative resolution. Ballez performs on its own failed set of terms while also revealing the failures of the forms that try to constrict it.
After failing at my original essay, I then felt empowered to write whatever I wanted. Similarly, Pyle and company are free to create something different, something way out of bounds. This is the unsanitized queer experience. Failing so good, together forever.
Wittig, M. (1992). The Straight Mind: And Other Essays. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.