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This spring, Bowdoin College welcomes Katy Pyle, the Artistic Director of “Ballez” which revises the heteronormative rules of ballet to design dances that celebrate queer experiences.

Ballez was conceived in 2011, when Pyle received a grant from the Brooklyn Arts Exchange for which she began teaching “Ballez” class, a place to re-imagine ballet class for queer bodies. Since then, the Ballez company has created four ballets including Firebird (2013), Variations on Virtuosity (2015), Sleeping Beauty & The Beast (2016), and Slavic Goddesses (2017).

As a member of The Living Room Dance Collective (here in South Portland) where we often use postmodern and experimental dance practices to create work, I find the Ballez aesthetic refreshingly contrary to contemporary dance norms. While Ballez emerged from Pyle’s postmodern dance explorations, ultimately, Ballez rejects the myth of the “neutral body” usually found in postmodern dance and instead, embraces virtuosity, sexuality, and storytelling.

I had a chance to talk with Pyle about Ballez and her residency at Bowdoin College this spring, which culminates in a Dance Concert this weekend.

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Katy Pyle working with students at Bowdin [Photo by Ann Basu]

Kristen: How did Ballez come about?

Katy: I was touring with “The Untitled Feminist Show” [a utopian feminist performance piece by Young Jean Lee in 2011-12], and as I improvised, I ended up performing all this ballet vocabulary and I was like, “Why am I doing this?” I realized this stuff was still inside of my body whether I wanted it there or not. So I ended up taking a closer look. And I was talking with a group of dancer friends — who at one point had all identified as lesbian — about all of the things we loved about ballet and wondered why we left it or whether it left us. The word “ballez” just came out of my mouth because I love puns. And I love spectacular shows and stories but that was not at all what I’d been doing in the postmodern dance world — and I thought ballet could actually be this interesting place to tell the story of my community inside of this hyper-gendered, hyper-exclusionary, white, cis, hetero, patriarchal form.

Kristen: I imagine there are many paradoxes you encounter when teaching or making this work...?

Katy: Ballez is a contradiction from the get-go. That’s compelling to me. Ballet is a very codified set of postures that was designed to make people look “attractive,” in a certain Western European court system with very particular expectations for how women and men should move. The movements themselves are ridiculous, hyper-gendered costumes that you can put on to your skeleton, like drag. I’m combining those aspects in unexpected ways, for example, taking a really powerful leap and then adding this super femme hand gesture on top of it.

Kristen: So, tell me what you are doing with the Bowdoin students?

Katy: We’re working with the second act of Sleeping Beauty & The Beast, the last ballet I made, which takes place in a 1993 Lower East side, queer club. There’s a lot of intense listing between female-assigned people. Something that interests me is spectacular partnering with bodies that are not in the standard ballet pas de deaux relationship where you have a man pressing a tiny woman over his head. That’s not my reality. The other aspect of the second act is this recurring theme of dying swans because the story was taking place in 1993 during the AIDS epidemic. That was originally performed by a group of mostly male-assigned people but here I’m working with female-identified students at Bowdoin. So I’ve been trying to reimagine the context, for example, the Orlando nightclub shooting, gun violence, and Parkland. I’m trying to connect to the experience that people had in 1993 with what these young people are experiencing right now in 2018.

Kristen: Is there anything else that you want to share?

Katy: I will be offering free videos of Ballez class soon for those people who can’t make it to my class. Those videos are going to be coming out this summer, free on YouTube.

Bowdoin College Spring Dance Concert | May 3-5 | Thu-Sat 7:30-9:30 pm | Bowdoin College, Memorial Hall, Pickard Theater, 1 Bath Rd, Brunswick | Free; tickets available at Smith Union and at the door. | 207-725-3375 for more info

Kristen Stake is a dancer and choreographer who runs The Living Room with a collective of dance artists in South Portland. She curates Moving Target Portland, a weekly Sunday contemporary movement class led by visiting guest artists.

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