Ballet22 is a new pick-up company in the San Francisco Bay Area born of one dancer with extraordinarily strong feet. Growing up in Puerto Rico, Roberto Vega Ortiz longed to dance on pointe, but his teachers said that wasn’t acceptable. So he practiced in private. Obsessively. And his pointe work became very, very good.
Eventually Vega Ortiz made his way to California and began to dance conventionally male roles with groups like Diablo Ballet. But his passion for pointe work never died. When the pandemic hit, he posted footage of himself on pointe with the hashtag #maleballerina, and soon other men from around the world were tagging their own dancing on pointe. Ortiz asked his close friend and housemate, a cis-female dancer with a degree in business administration named Theresa Knudson, if this could be the start of a company. She was all for it. And so Ballet22 began. The company released its first program, “Breaking Ground,” last December, and recorded a 10-minute male-male version of “Romeo and Juliet,” titled “His Romeo” and choreographed by Joshua Stayton, in Februrary.
Some may ask whether this territory has not already been covered by Les Ballets de Trockaderos. The interesting thing is that several dancers with Ballet22, including Vega Ortiz, have also danced as members of the Trocks. Still, they say, performing in drag in order to dance on pointe is too limiting. They don’t want to dance on pointe as just a campy joke; they want to dance on pointe as themselves. In an age when “genderfuck” performers find a spotlight on Ru Paul’s Drag Race, gender-bending need not be as “bending” as before. Such a philosophy could come across as righteously indignant or chastising towards those not yet sufficiently gender-fluidity enlightened, but Ballet22’s spirit is all about fun and personal freedom. This “Spring Gala” slate opens with a montage of rehearsal and behind-the scenes footage, the men trying on tutus, sewing on pointe shoe ribbons together, laughing as they re-engineer a tricky finger-turn. You get a sense of people just doing what they love, being fully themselves. Who wouldn’t support that?
There is impressive substance to this gala, too: a world premiere, a company premiere, and four 19th -century bon bons staged by Vega Ortiz and the dancers. Perhaps my favorite of these was Vega Ortiz in one of Swanilda’s variations from “Coppelia.” He wears a long white Romantic tutu with a peach-colored button-up, collared shirt. He is a big man with robustly muscular thighs, but he dances with beneficence and teasing coyness. The fluid harmony through his neck and arms is as striking as the line of his instep. Ortiz is also especially playful in his staging of the third-act pas de deux from Don Quixote, holding an impressive balance in attitude as partnered by Joshua Stayton. This is the Alicia Alonso version Vega Ortiz has reconstructed, and it is a treat to see even if the dancers had to fit it into a cramped room.
Most of the program does not suffer this space-problem. Knudson and Vega Ortiz collaborated with the filmmakers of Concept04 to capture two-thirds of the program within the St. Joseph’s Art Society, a former Catholic church in San Francisco purchased and renovated by celebrity designer Ken Fulk and opened in 2018. The setting is stunning, with large bear sculptures and tapestries looming overhead, architectural art scattered all throughout, and a massive mural of books and marble busts behind the stage where the altar would have been.
In the works on the mainstage, Carlos Hopuy is the star. Dressed in a black mock-turtleneck with a white Petipa-style tutu, he dances Victor Gsovsky’s “Grand Pas Classique” with an impressive balance of grace and attack; his cavalier, Diego Cruz (a soloist with San Francisco Ballet) fluttered through exquisite brises vole but struggled with clean turns. Hopuy is also the star of the “Precious Stones” variations from “Sleeping Beauty,” here danced by three men en pointe and again Cruz as the cavalier. Also filmed on the mainstage was “I Will Follow You Too,” choreographed by Juilliard graduate, vocalist, and now Shakespeare scholar Jehbreal Jackson and here set on Brian Gephart. You could definitely feel the Renaissance influence, Gephart dressed in a billowy white poet’s shirt, the pointe work here integrated into a gamboling contemporary style, Gephart particularly lovely in the way he conjured an imaginary loved one he reached towards with sensitive hands.
The peak of the show is the world premiere, “Pointe A2B” by former Smuin Contemporary Ballet dancer Ben Needham-Wood. Set to Mozart, this is a tender duet for Vega Ortiz and Hopuy, dressed in tight white shorts and flesh-colored practice shirts. There’s an abundance of inventive and playful partnering, with Vega Ortiz balancing Hopuy on his raised hip, and some skillful passages of side-by-side synchrony. It is diverting, tranquil, and pleasant.
Which perhaps points to future opportunity for Ballet22. Everything on this program, including a re-run of Stayton’s “His Romeo,” has its loveliness, yet nothing quite provokes and stirs the way Ballet22’s commission from Omar Román de Jesús did on Ballet22’s inaugural program. That work, with the men in sportscoats and long tutus flailing tulle everywhere and at times even screaming, brought a postmodern jolt of unpredictability into the program. I would love to see Ballet22 commission something in that vein again, for range and contrast. But that’s a request, not a criticism. This is a company with good will, good energy, and good dancing going for it. Let the “genderfuck” fun carry on.