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Visiting Ballez teacher Katy Pyle challenges conventionality

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Ballet is often associated with delicate fantasies of princes and princesses, not BDSM butch lesbians. Katy Pyle defies these conventions with Ballez, a performance company and community she founded in 2011. Pyle, a lesbian multimedia performance artist, gave a talk called “On Queerness and Performance,” on Thursday, Oct. 27 at 7:30 p.m. in Richardson auditorium.

Pyle began dancing at age 3, and always “jumped with the boys at the end of class.” In ballet classes, boys and girls are kept separate. The boys are trained to jump higher, an example of the ways in which she found the ballet world reinforces a narrow view of gender and sexuality. She was an apprentice with Austin Contemporary Ballet at age 14, and went on to attend the North Carolina School of the Arts. She left ballet at age 16, finding the culture stifling and oppressive, limiting gender and bodily expressions. Her body size was scrutinized, and she felt isolated as she was coming into her queer identity. After ten years, she came back to ballet, being repeatedly drawn to it in her dreams.

According to its mission statement, Ballez, based in Brooklyn, N.Y., aims to “[r]e[write] the narratives of story ballets to tell the history of our lineage as dancers and as queers”. Through this work, she aims to break down the traditional image of the ballerina as white, cisgender and heteronormative, part of an elite femininity based on fragility and helplessness. Female ballet dancers are trained to be physically strong, but they use that strength to act weak, she argued, while male ballet dancers are allowed to showcase their strength by saving the female dancers.

Ballez is all about “reimagin[ng] archetype characters to reflect multiplicity of identity desire and expression.” Each dancer’s “virtuosity” is channeled to showcase different body types, abilities, gender expressions and sexual identities, creating room for a nobility independent of society’s norms. She aims to celebrate the lives and experiences of lesbian, gay, queer and transgender people. Everyone is invited to participate in Ballez, whether they are queer or not, and she particularly welcomes those who have “failed” somehow or had a negative experience in the ballet world.

The company debuted with The Firebird in 2013, a new take on the classic 1910 ballet piece choreographed by Michel Fokine with music from Igor Stravinsky. In Pyle’s version, the Queer Urban Orchestra plays the soundtrack, and the cast consists of lesbian and transgender dancers. Pyle played a purple-haired lesbian princess who falls in love with the Firebird, who is part animal and part prince.

The company’s second show was Sleeping Beauty and the Beast, a two-act, two-theatre performance that Pyle developed when she was the 2013-15 Arist in Residence at Brooklyn Arts Exchange. Two fantasies are combined, their narratives dramatically altered to center the Garment Workers strike of 1893 and AIDS activists of 1993. Over 20 queer artists performed with music from the Queer Urban Orchestra, which played excerpts of Tchaikovsky’s “Sleeping Beauty.” It was showcased in numerous New York City venues, including a world premiere at La MaMa ETC as part of the La MaMa Moves! Dance Festival in spring 2016. A giant spinning wheel was a central motif in the show, inspired by Pyle’s own passion for fabric arts.

Pyle was 13 growing up in Texas in 1993, an important year for lesbians in popular culture, which had a strong influence on Pyle’s own personal identity. She was struck by the August cover of Vanity Fair which showed Cindy Crawford shaving K.D. Lang’s face, which helped to validate her own identity as a lesbian.

In addition to teaching the weekly “Adult Ballez” class through Brooklyn Arts Exchange, often with assistant director Julies Skloot, Pyle has also brought the class to Movement Research, the Allied Media Conference in Detroit, CounterPULSE in San Francisco, University Musical Society in Ann Arbor, Mich., Irreverent Dance in London, Parsons, the Beyond Tolerance Youth Conference, Yale University, and Sarah Lawrence College.

Students auditioned last week to be part of workshopping one of Pyle’s new works, which will be performed at December Dance. She also held an open ballet class on Saturday, Oct. 29 in Hendricks.

Pyle hopes to spread this work around the world and make it possible for everyone to enjoy ballet, especially if they identify as queer or transgender, or if their body does not fit traditional expectations. Her work resists assimilation to expectations, creating alternative representations with new values, as her mission statement reads.

It is “radical” she said, when, as the mission statement states, “Dancers claim our inherent nobility and belonging within around and on top of a form that has historically excluded us.”

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