Lockdowns have been crippling for dancers and dance companies, but many have eagerly sought out silver linings and the enforced time out has given opportunities for reflection and reinvention.
A new company, Ballet22, searches to ‘break gender normative traditions' guided by values of inclusivity of body type, gender identity, and race. Its founders, Roberto Vega Ortiz and Theresa Knudson, decided to form the company in 2020, not the ideal moment with an ongoing pandemic, though paradoxically it was also the right moment.
“During quarantine,” says Knudson, “Roberto Vega Ortiz and Carlos Hopuy began teaching pointe classes on Zoom to mxn around the world. Bringing together a community of dancers who have historically been left out in training and performance opportunities was a realization that we had an opportunity to take action and create the kind of dance company we wish existed.”
Vega Ortiz adds, “Ballet22 exists to push the boundaries of what is possible in ballet by breaking gender stereotypes, specifically by presenting men, mxn, and non-binary artists en pointe.”
The pair, and the company blurb, use ‘mxn' as well as ‘men'; Vega Ortiz explains: “Ballet22 artists are a diverse group of mxn and non-binary artists. While the majority are queer, there are several straight cis gender men that have collaborated with company. Artists and audiences are genuinely excited about the uniqueness of the work and how presenting mxn en pointe will positively contribute to the dance landscape.”
All the members of the company have experience of dancing on pointe. “Our dancers,” says Vega Ortiz, “have a unique story of resilience that has brought them to this company. With varying degrees of support from family, friends, teachers, directors, etc., the dancers have trained on the side, in private, or on their own time during their conventional ‘male' training years and careers. A few dancers, including myself, have performed with Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo as well.
‘The Trocks' have been performing on pointe since the 1970s, but drag and comedy are not what Ballet22 is about. It wants to commission new works ‘that give representation to mxn dancers en pointe', as well as works that ‘amplify queer voices'.
And although the dancers sometimes wear tutus, they are not used for comic effect. “Similar to pointe shoes,” says Vega Ortiz, “tutus should not be gendered. The garment is iconically female, but there was a time when pants were only for men. The tutus worn in Ballet22 pieces are done so out of a drag context.”
Fundamentally, the company has created a respectful and safe place where its dancers can work, though none of its dancers are women. Knudson says, “Mxn and non-binary dancers are underrepresented and underserved when it comes to opportunities to train and perform en pointe. Women are the status quo when it comes to pointe work, and they have safe spaces to train and opportunities to perform. While we would like to collaborate with women in the future, it is important for us to create this space for mxn and non-binary dancers as it presently does not formally exist.”
So is Ballet22 aiming to change what it means to be a ballet dancer or ballerina? “The artists of Ballet22,” says Knudson, “have incredible technique and facility, as well as a fire and drive required to excel in the art form. Male assigned dancers are just as capable as articulating and being graceful as female assigned dancers.
“Like with women, proper training and opportunities are key. In conventional companies you will see contemporary choreography that demands more aggression, attack, and athleticism from the women beyond the dainty and ethereal characters women used to only portray in classical and romantic ballets. As the contemporary field demands more equality in capabilities, we are excited to be contributing to that change with the repertoire Ballet22 is presenting and commissioning.”
“We are dedicated to commissioning works that amplify the queer voice in ballet,” says Vega Ortiz. “We are excited to be supporting choreographers making works that otherwise would not have been created.”
The company, based in Oakland, California, was obliged by Covid-19 to start showing its work online before appearing before theatre audiences, but now the company is touring to Santa Barbara and San Francisco.
A work that the company will perform at the beginning of September in San Francisco is Ramón Oller's Carmen, created in 2003 and now reimagined for Ballet22, together with a new piece by Oller commissioned by the company.
Oddly, Carmen in not a ballet with pointe shoes. Knudson says, “Ballet22 works first to break gender stereotypes, with a specificity of use of pointe shoes, so although Carmen will be presented on flat shoes, the work presented on mxn brings a completely new lens to this ballet.
“The ballet is intimate, raw, and at times violent. Carmen in its original presentation touches on themes of individuality, power, toxic masculinity, abuse. Seeing this ballet reflected through the perspective of a cast of all mxn is incredibly moving.” So, in a way, it serves as a metaphor for the lives of many of the company's dancers? “People battle with their assigned masculinity and femininity, and what society expects them to do and act, so when you shift this ballet from a cis gendered, straight cast to an all mxn cast, you realize you are left with the same emotions.
“Experiencing the complexity of life that we all deal with no matter their orientation, race, sexuality, or gender is the power of this ballet; and the representation that Ballet22 brings to the casting is truly special.”
After the Carmen performances, Ballet22 is planning a new show in November and a Gala in February 2022, and its directors are planning on developing the educational component of the company to include educational presentations, pointe workshops and classes. “We envision Ballet22 increasing the contract length of the season,” says Vega Ortiz, “performing a regular home season in the San Francisco Bay Area as well as going on tour. Ballet22's dedication to commissioning new works will continually keep the company fresh, pushing the boundaries of partnering, pointe work, and choreographic expression, and amplifying the queer voice in ballet.” Long term plans include having a formal school: “It will provide a safe and serious place for mxn and non-binary dancers to train en pointe.”
“Ballet22 is different,” adds Vega Ortiz, “as each dancer is encouraged to present as their authentic selves, and not as a drag comedic character. It is freeing for the dancers and this emotionality, joy, and honesty is absorbed by the audience.
“Our audiences, which include both the LGBTQ+ community and allies, have been moved by this representation and feel inspired by the experience of seeing the dancers express their true, authentic selves.”
Cisgender (often shortened to cis) describes a person whose gender identity matches their sex assigned at birth. It is the antonym of transgender.
Gender assignment is the discernment of an infant's sex at birth.
LGBT is an initialism that stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender. LGBTQ adds the letter Q for those who identify as queer or are questioning their sexual or gender identity. LGBTQ+ encompasses all spectrums of sexuality and gender.
Mxn: A gender that is both man and agender/genderless. You can be a man and agender/genderless at the same time, go between them, or fluctuate between feeling like a man and feeling genderless.
Non-binary is an umbrella term for gender identities that are neither male nor female, i.e. identities that are outside the gender binary.
Queer is an umbrella term for sexual and gender minorities who are not heterosexual or are not cisgender.
The Best of Ballet22 will take place 27 August 2021, at 7.00 pm GMT at Center Stage Theater, 751 Paseo Nuevo Center in Santa Barbara. Tickets start at $23 and are available at https://centerstagetheater.org/show_detail.php?id=821
Carmen will take place 3 September at 7.00 pm, 4 September at 3.00 pm and 7.00 pm, and 5 September at 3.00 pm, GMT at The Great Star Theater, 636 Jackson Street in San Francisco. Tickets start at $35 and are available at https://www.greatstartheater.org/shows/ballet22/carmen.html
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.