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Courtney Taylor Key and Audrey Malek in “Animals and Angels” by Adriana Pierce. Photograph by Leigh-Ann Esty

Animals & Angels

A new pas de deux from #Queertheballet

“Animals & Angels,” the new pas de deux by #QueertheBallet founder Adriana Pierce, is so pretty and easygoing you almost forget how radical it is. The piece is under five minutes long and features two women, Cortney Taylor Key and Audrey Malek, wafting joyfully around an airy white loft. They beam affectionately at each other as Joy Oladokun sings the opening line of her song, “Animals & Angels:” “Would you like some coffee with a side of cream?” Suitably, Key has a on a cream-colored shirt with latte brown high-waisted pants, Malek sports the inverse. It’s all so pleasant and tender; it seems like how these ladies take their coffee may be the only care they have in the world. But to anyone familiar with the realm of classical ballet, a romantic pas de deux for two women in pointe shoes is uncharted territory. The fact that it appears so natural makes it an unqualified success, as well as a perfect Pride Month offering from the Joyce Theater.

In the Q&A session after the premiere, Pierce, who is an alumna of the New York City Ballet and the Miami City Ballet, said of queer women in ballet: “it’s not a conversation that is being had.” This is an understatement. Ballet companies have long been a safe space for gay men (though they seldom make it into leadership positions—but that is a topic for another time), but other members of the LGBTQ+ community have been excluded or invisible. Ballet instruction is bifurcated along conventional gender lines from the very beginning, with boys’ and girls’ classes held separately for even the youngest students in most schools. At a certain point, their paths diverge further when the boys begin weight training and the girls commence pointework. At the pre-professional level and higher, men’s classes are heavier in the upper legs—with an emphasis on big jumps and ballon—while women’s classes focus more on lower-leg and foot strength for pointe. Usually, the two sexes (there is absolutely no protocol for people who do not fall into these binary categories) only meet up for pas de deux classes.

Cortney Taylor Key and Audrey Malek in “Animals & Angels” by Adriana Pierce. Photograph by Leigh-Ann Esty

Pointework and partnering, therefore, are highly specialized skill sets that are not shared across gender lines. This is starting to change. Famous male dancers like ABT Principal James Whiteside have begun posting videos of themselves dancing on pointe. But the logistics of adding pointe to one’s training are complicated. Pointe shoe subsidization—which is common at the elite schools—is usually only available to girls, and likewise pointe classes. And pointe shoes are incredibly expensive, at roughly $100 a pair. A student may go through a few pairs a week, a professional may go through a pair a day. Still, even with the odds stacked against them, some resourceful male/trans/nonbinary dancers have managed to learn how to dance sur la pointe, as the wonderful Trockaderos have been doing since 1974. Ashton Edwards, a nonbinary student in the pre-professional division at the Pacific Northwest Ballet School, made the news this year when he got special permission from Artistic Director Peter Boal to take pointe classes in addition to his men’s classes. But women learning how to partner is an even rarer occurrence, which brings me back to “Animals & Angels.”

Men have begun partnering other men in the big ballet companies recently, and they have been doing so in modern troupes for a while now. But women partnering women, especially while both are in pointe shoes, is relatively unheard of. It was exciting to behold. There were no big overhead lifts in “Animals & Angels,” but the dancers took turns supporting each other for turns and floating each other in assisted jumps. Though Malek is much taller than Key, she did not assume a traditional male partnering role. Physically, it was a relationship of equals. There was a nice manège in which the ladies swirled around each other and Key lifted Malek in mid-height splits. I liked when Malek slid Key to the floor slowly along her pointes. There were no rough grips. There was no, er, manhandling. Perhaps the most surprising aspect was how chivalrous it appeared. Their touch was exceedingly gentle, courtly. Some of my favorite choreographic passages, however, were the ones performed in unison. Pierce used a lot of rolling through the torso, flat-footed pivots, and sustained arabesques. The title was half apt: with both partners up on their toes, gliding and circling each other in the white room, they did indeed appear angelic.

Cortney Taylor Key and Audrey Malek in “Animals & Angels” by Adriana Pierce. Photograph by Leigh-Ann Esty

But the word angel is loaded in women’s rights, ever since Virginia Woolf declared it her duty to kill the Victorian ideal of the subservient wife: “the angel in the house.” And rippling under the surface of this happy flowy dance was something more pointed—from the updated menswear costuming, by Sylvie Rood, to Oladokun’s lyrics about the challenges of queer love and identity. (“Let’s stop pretending, let’s get things straight,” was an arch line.) There was a sense that even though everything between the pair in that loft was love and light, the women had firsthand knowledge of isolation and darkness. They cradled and rocked each other sometimes, their touch was probing but also soothing. Patricia Delgado, a producer of the ballet and the sunny moderator of the artist discussion, described even the choice of camera lenses as “holistic.”

Delgado asked Pierce why she wanted this project to be a film, when most people right now are eagerly shifting to live performance as the world opens back up. Pierce answered emphatically that it was about accessibility. She and her creative partners—Key, Malek, and the director of photography Emma Penrose—all spoke about how isolated they felt as queer women in the dance world. Key mentioned that the choreographic process for “Animals & Angels” made her realize how she had a wall up with every other choreographer, and that with Pierce she felt she could be fully trusting. Pierce, who has the confidence, silky blond hair, and blue eyes of a cheerleader or a Fox News anchor, spoke eloquently of how she’d had to hide or compartmentalize her true identity in the past. She was smiling and positive, magnanimous rather than angry, as she declared that “audiences who love ballet deserve to feel seen.” It is a noble message, and I am eager to see what she does next. Ironically, Pierce said that it was Covid that prompted queer and nonbinary ballet artists to seek each other out. It took the pandemic, the most isolating period the modern world has known, for Pierce and her peers to feel a sense of community.