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Common Language

Pre-pandemic, queerness and ballet were two terms not often put together. So, when choreographer Adriana Pierce started bringing a community of queer-identifying people together on Zoom—cis women, trans people of all genders, and nonbinary dancers—it felt like a watershed moment for many of them. Those virtual gatherings would morph into Queer the Ballet, an initiative dedicated to broadening the scope of ballet narratives.

“A lot has changed in the past few years,” said Pierce, who is QTB’s founder and artistic director. “I remember when the first Guardian article came out about Queer the Ballet and if you Googled ‘queer ballet’ then, there wasn't that much on the internet. And now, so much! I'm proud of that and I'm proud of the hand that we had in that.”

Queer the Ballet rehearses “Dream of a Common Language.” Photograph by Howard Sherman

In a few short years, QTB has produced several dance films as well as performances at the Joyce Theater and the Chelsea Factory, and grown its community through donation-based ballet classes. The team has expanded beyond Pierce and co-founder and artistic advisor Patricia Delgado to include community outreach and assistant director Minnie Lane, inclusion and belonging coordinator Emily DeMaioNewton, and director of education Rosie Elliot.

A grant from the CUNY Dance Initiative has funded their new evening-length production, “Dream of a Common Language,” premiering at Baruch Performing Arts Center, June 21-23. The title is drawn from a collection of poems by Adrienne Rich, with the dancers’ struggles to find queer community mirroring Rich’s poetry, which yearns for the same. “Dream” features choreography by Pierce, Lane, Elliott, and Lenai Alexis Wilkerson and a mix of music from composers including Eve Beglarian and Jennifer Higdon.

Pierce and I met on Zoom the week before the opening of “Dream” to talk about QTB’s evolution, unlearning and healing, and why ballet needs to broaden the stories it chooses to tell.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Queer the Ballet rehearses “Dream of a Common Language.” Photograph by Howard Sherman

Queer the Ballet started during the pandemic, and more recently there was the show featuring shorter works at Chelsea Factory and now the evening-length “Dream of a Common Language.” How has QTB continued to evolve?

Yeah, it does feel like this show is really marking a lot of growth. During the pandemic, the first person I called was Lauren Flower—who is dancing in the cast of “Dream”—and I said, ‘Why don't we all know each other? If we exist, let's talk and not feel so sad and isolated, so gay and alone.’ Basically, we started getting [a small group together] on Zooms, and just chatting about our experiences and our queerness. It was this kind of community that none of us had ever had and that's what really fueled all the rest of the projects after that. The dancers from that initial Zoom asked me to do a piece for them and that ended up as “Animals & Angels,” which was produced by the Joyce in 2021.

At that point, we had done a residency, and I had created “Overlook” for two American Ballet Theatre dancers—that went into the ABT repertoire. It was all these smaller projects beginning to think about what partnering is, and if we're making queer work, what can that look like? What are the possibilities here?

I remember from the Chelsea Factory show talkback that there was a lot of thinking about the pointe shoe itself.

Absolutely. I mean, because it's always been such a gender marker in ballet, and just shouldn't be for so many reasons. Whoever wants to do pointe and whoever doesn't want to do pointe…on a very basic level that should be allowed. But also, what people who wear pointe shoes are allowed to do or not do, like be strong, hold other people, or have agency, that's when it gets tricky. That's why I talk about pointe work as a skill and pointe shoes as a tool of possibility. Even just changing that language opens things up, there is a lot of unlearning.

Focusing on partnering was also a good way in the beginning to make real the concept of opening ballet to include broader ideas and a broader set of identities. Up until that point, at Chelsea Factory, it had been a lot of that type of work, and then also just trying to bring people in. The world has changed so much in just a few years. But back then, we were scrambling, we didn't even have all queer-identifying dancers. But those issues have really been left in 2022, because the world has changed and there's so many people who are open and talking about it in the professional space. 

Queer the Ballet rehearses “Dream of a Common Language.” Photograph by Howard Sherman

How did this collection of poems from Adrienne Rich come to be the inspiration for QTB’s new production?

We were thinking and talking a lot about narrative because I really think ballet needs to be pushing itself in its storytelling right now, really challenging what type of stories we want to tell and how we want to tell them.

When you say that, do you mean in terms of relevancy for audiences?

I think that's part of it. But if we're choosing to tell stories, we need to be thinking about narrative in ways that challenge the art form itself, to expand and to grow. We need to be telling fresh stories to breathe life into the craft, and yes, I think that will bring more people in and be more relevant to today's audiences or who we would want today's audiences to be. That's the hope, right?

We were wondering if we should choose a short story or pick a writer, but then Emily DeMaioNewton, who is the dramaturg on this project, and also our inclusion and belonging coordinator, a poet and a writer, and is in grad school for art therapy—it was their idea. They said, “I think we should like choose someone like Adrienne Rich and look at a piece of her work and do that.” She suggested this book of works from the ’70s. Immediately it was like, ‘Oh, yeah, this is going to do what we want it to do.’

Do you have a favorite poem from the collection? 

The second poem in the book, “Fantasia For Elvira Shatayev.” It's based on real life, on an all-women climbing team that died. It's the way we're starting our show. Not that it's necessarily going to be so literal, but it's this idea of this group of people who are not men, in a traditionally male-dominated sport. They have the highest stakes, it's life or death. The dancers set off on this journey together, and they have to rely on each other so wholly and deeply. There's something so heartbreaking but also relatable about how the thing the climbers love the most and work towards their whole lives is also the thing that hurts them the most. And I think that sometimes it can feel like that as a queer person in ballet. 

What do you think will be next for QTB after these performances? 

We definitely want to tour and do lecture demonstrations or community-based programming. I want to continue creating and producing new work and doing dance on film, because it's something that I love to do. But also, it's so accessible and important for young people wherever they are, if they're not safe to come out or whatever, to be able to find a video and be themselves. We've also been working towards an education branch where we can have resources available for [ballet] schools to come and ask: What can we do to be more inclusive? How can we how can we begin changing our language to create more space? 

In the process of building QTB over the last few years, what have you learned? Has anything surprised you?

I was surprised at all the healing I really needed to do in order to do this work at all. On one hand, it's so beautiful and healing to give this opportunity to other great dancers. But on the other hand, for a while, it felt really awful because I realized I had to accept the fact that I will never know what that actually feels like because my [dance] career is over. I needed a second after Chelsea Factory to process the past year for Queer the Ballet and deal with my own stuff.

I've also realized how much I don't know about ballet. I know a lot about a lot of things about ballet, mostly what I've been taught or allowed to know. But there have been queer women in ballet history, and I'm still learning about that.

Candice Thompson

Candice Thompson has been working in and around live art for over two decades. She was a dancer with Milwaukee Ballet before moving into costume design, movement education and direction, editing and arts writing. She attended New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, graduated from St. Mary’s College LEAP Program, and later received an MFA in literary nonfiction from Columbia University. She has written extensively about dance for publications like Andscape, The Brooklyn Rail, Dance magazine, and ArtsATL, in addition to being editorial director for DIYdancer, a project-based media company she co-founded.



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