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Adriana Pierce, Remy Young, Lenai Alexis Wilkerson (lifted), and Sierra Armstrong in “Brick by Brick” by Adriana Pierce. Photograph courtesy of #QueerTheBallet

Identity Embraced

#QueerTheBallet at Chelsea Factory

Performance
#QueerTheBallet
Place
Chelsea Factory, New York, NY, April 5, 2022
Words
Candice Thompson

During the artist talkback after #QueerTheBallet’s April 5th show, as part of the Joyce Theater’s season at the new Chelsea Factory, artistic director Adriana Pierce proposed a thought exercise: consider the gendered nature of the pointe shoe, particularly in reference to partnering. The person not on pointe is able to be more grounded, and that stability and connection to the floor necessarily confers agency to that dancer. That agency is then often utilized in an unequal relationship with the dancer in pointe shoes, who has less friction with the floor and is set up best to be manipulated (turned, lifted, swooped) by their more grounded partner. Regardless of narrative or stage direction, Pierce warned of the power dynamics embedded in the physics of ballet. She then posed a question:

Are we comfortable with this person [without agency] always being a woman?

The evening of short dances by this new collective, led by Pierce and producer Patricia Delgado,  played with this idea of agency in partnering to mixed results. When it was at its best, pointe shoes were not in play and power was more equitably distributed between partners. In “I Am Enough,” a duet for Devon Teuscher (American Ballet Theatre) and Miriam Miller (New York City Ballet) choreographed by Pierce, both women don slippers. The dance was full of embraces, some of them architectural, others sensual. In one striking phrase, they used a high fifth position port de bras to trace over one another, arms interlinked. Their equal connection to the floor created a sense of ease in this consensual exploration that was smooth and celebratory: a generous use of plie allowing their torsos to move with more abandon and fluidity in transitions, their easy smiles contagious. Less was certainly more here, and absent were some of the combative tendencies of more binary contemporary ballet partnering.

Likewise, in “Animals & Angels,” another pas de deux by Pierce for Cortney Taylor Key (Konverjdans) and Lenai Alexis Wilkerson (Ballet Hispanico), care and delicacy between the dancers, rather than pyrotechnics, channeled the excitement of new love unfolding. The realness of their stage presence conveyed the rush of discovery. Back to back, their hands found each other and their bodies sensed one another; face to face, they slow danced. And while there were lovely sequences of unison dancing that showcased more technical prowess and inventively updated menswear costumes by Sylvie Rood, the partnering in this work felt more tenuous. Both women were on pointe and therefore, they were not always able to adequately leverage the other’s weight. In telling this particular queer love story, perhaps some of that tenuousness and instability was an intentional choice.

Lenai Alexis Wilkerson and Cortney Taylor Key in “Animals and Angels.” Photograph courtesy of #QueerTheBallet

For “Pulse,” a new work by Pierce for Naomi Corti (NYCB) and Teuscher, slippers were worn by the former and pointe shoes by the latter. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this combination seemed to hold the most potential for playing with weight sharing and upending the rules of agency. But the short work felt like a sketch of a chance encounter and the dancers’ rapport lacked a visceral feeling the set up needed.

In general, the works were all too brief and the vignettes left me wanting more in terms of character and relationship development. There was much worth investing in and more to explore from here.

That said, this was not the first time I have seen a queer ballet story or women on pointe partner one another. Last summer, the Joyce Theater premiered Ballez’s “Giselle of Loneliness.” The women of New Chamber Ballet, led by artistic director Miro Magloire, have been partnering in pointe shoes in his abstract ballets for nearly a decade. The unique line #QueerTheBallet’s mission walks, merging overtly queer narratives and using pointe shoes, not only brings up the aesthetic questions surrounding such partnering but layers it with questions about such plots: who gets to be held, who does the holding, and how to show it? Does it make sense to express sincere queer stories, including love stories, with tools that were invented for a cis-heteronormative narrative?

The fact that #QueerTheBallet is more than just a dance project—that it is the outgrowth of a real LGBTQ+ community that came together on Zoom during the pandemic and is significant in allowing queer women and nonbinary dancers to be seen—makes it a generative space for engaging with these questions of content and form. The community aspect was also woven into the format of the evening, as the eight short dance works and one film were strung together with overlapping transitions that gave the dancers opportunities for connection.

Particularly moving, were the entrances and exits surrounding the three solos of the evening. In “The Beech Tree,” Fleming Lomax (director of Asheville City Ballet) journeyed from pain and isolation into seeing herself, literally and fully, and finding that self mirrored in others. Near the end, the faces of her community began multiplying in small boxes on the backdrop she faced. But she was not left with the cold comfort of the screen. Felix Bryan (HIVEWILD) walked on and gave Lomax a hug before they began the next work with two other dancers, Sierra Armstrong (ABT) and Remy Young (ABT) . That trio—which featured bigger lifts and strong partnering, and notably all done in slippers—eventually became a quintet that floated Wilkerson overhead, gently placing her onstage for her solo “Q.U.E.E.R.” In the silence of their exits, and seemingly buoyed by their support, she felt for her surroundings with a probing and confident port de bras. Choreographed by Wilkerson, this dance demonstrated freedom in the pointe shoe, using its slipperier aspects to better slide and turn.

Adriana Pierce in “Party of One” choreographed by Pierce. Photograph courtesy of #QueerTheBallet

The evening culminated in “Party of One,” a solo Pierce choreographed for herself. Pierce, who began her dancing career with NYCB and Miami City Ballet before moving on to Broadway and film, has been choreographing in tandem for many years. In what was clearly a frustrated love letter to ballet, Pierce found a gorgeous moment of clarity in a simple first position as Brandi Carlisle sang, “I love you.” She wrestled with this love, throwing herself into new directions with each sissonne. Ultimately, she picked herself up off the floor and found herself enveloped by the affections of the entire cast. The parade of hugs quickly melted into bows.

The talkback that immediately followed the curtain call felt like an essential component of the show as it illuminated the intersecting issues underlying the mission and gave insight into the work ahead. Lomax unpacked the compounding factors of isolation and ageism. Young talked about disassociating from parts of her identity until recently. Wilkerson described being more fully herself, a Black queer woman, in the studio now. And Pierce was honest about the challenge inherent in choreographing for two women on pointe. All waxed optimistic about the promise of how this new community might keep innovating and changing lives as it has already changed their own. Of its ambitions beyond these performances,  #QueerTheBallet has a goal of infiltrating the larger culture of ballet companies, allowing more queer dancers to stand in their power right where they already are.