The Les Ètoiles gala in Rome (30 and 31 January 2022) will present some usual gala fare with the Don Quixote and Swan Lake pas de deux, and as always with this annual event there will be contemporary pieces mixed in with the 19th-century showstoppers. But this year there is also a rare ingredient: a homosexual pas de deux. It was choreographed for two men, but doesn't show two mates dancing together, or two warriors flaunting their machismo, but two men who are in love.
Times are changing and, especially from the US, we've seen same-sex duets like Lauren Lovette's Not Our Fate and Justin Peck's The Times Are Racing, both created for the New York City Ballet, the Ballet Boyz danced Craig Revel Horwood's Yumba vs. Nonino over a decade ago, Joshua Beamish created burrow for The Royal Ballet with Matthew Ballet and Nicol Edmonds, and there have been several other works over the last 20 years. Contemporary dance, of course, has been ahead of the curve, presenting such works for decades, yet ballet companies (with the weight of tradition that they have to carry) are slower to add gay-themed works to their repertoire. Some of the most acclaimed choreographers currently working are British and gay, yet as the former dance critic of The New York Times, Alastair Macaulay, has written, “Despite a few short-lived exceptions, British ballet has remained heteronormative to a peculiar degree. Since same-sex marriage has become widespread across the western world, why have certain gay British ballet choreographers been excluding it from their ballets?” It's a theme that he has returned to several times.
In fact, the piece that will be performed during Rome's Les Ètoiles gala comes from the other side of the pond. The ten-minute duet, with music by Woodkid and Ennio Morricone, was choreographed by Christopher Rudd for the American Ballet Theatre. It was created and filmed in quarantine and received its world premiere as part of the ABT Today virtual gala on 23 November 2020 where it was danced by Calvin Royal III (as Adam) and João Menegussi (as Steve). Sergio Bernal will join Calvin Royal III to dance the piece in Rome.
I asked the choreographer Christopher Rudd how the idea to create Touché came about.
I had wanted to create a homosexual pas de deux for some time. I even pitched the idea to other companies with no success. So little success that I stopped trying. But in 2019, ABT Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie offered me an opportunity to create a pas de deux for the company and allowed me to “get to know” the dancers by watching them in class, in rehearsals, and performances.
I was very fortunate to observe ABT's Halloween class where the dancers wore costumes, allowing me to see a bit of their personalities as well as their mastery of the form. Corps de ballet member João Menegussi, who originated the role of Steve, dressed as the Black Swan. Observing both his power and queerness on that stage reignited my desire to create a gay work.
Why do you think that even today's gay choreographers hardly ever create same-sex duets?
It's hard to say as I'm sure there are many reasons. I was afraid to even ask to create Touché. I debated with myself the wisdom of this being my first piece on a major company. Will I be known as “the gay” choreographer? Will this be my last piece on a major company? Is the ballet audience ready for this? After much debate I decided to be brave. I decided to at least try to create a work that my soul needed. If it was going to be my only piece on a major ballet company, it was going to be a piece of which I could be proud.
So what are you trying to say with this choreography?
The mission of Touché is to normalise gay love and lust in society. Touché simply depicts that we, homosexual people, exist and that our love is as beautiful and valid as any other. My hope is that everyone walks away witnessing the magic and necessity of love and connection. Of course, I wish for Touché to have a larger ripple effect on the rights of and dignity for homosexual lives globally… but I know these things take time.
A press release from the Les Ètoiles organiser, Daniele Cipriani Entertainment, grabbed my attention, as it said that you would like for the Pope to see the piece.
The universal language of dance speaks directly to the human soul. I strongly believe that dance has the power to change the world. While society has come a long way in terms of human rights for homosexual people, we still have far to go. I believe there are at least 13 countries where you can be put to death for being gay. LGBTQIA+ youth seriously contemplate suicide at almost three times the rate of heterosexual youth and are almost five times as likely to have attempted suicide.
After seeing how Touché has been received by members of the LGBTQIA+ community and non-members, I would urge the people in positions of influence to come and witness the power of dance. I have great respect for the Pope and the eternal weight of his wisdom. Understanding the longevity and reach of his influence in this realm, I would like for him to see this work that authentically depicts our love and our struggle in hopes emphasizing our shared humanity and the universality of the human condition.
Why did you want an intimacy director on board if it is a duet that can be seen by children?
Intimacy direction helps make the process of dance-making healthier by empowering the dancers to speak and having more agency. Choreographing intimacy makes dance safer, more visceral, and more authentic. But Touché isn't any more pornographic than what children are already seeing in other ballets or in their everyday lives.
From the day we are born people are exposed to heterosexual love/lust and homosexual love/lust is censored. That has a detrimental effect on ALL people; members of the LGBTQIA+ community and non-members alike.
Do you think, then, that intimacy directors would be a good idea for all passionate pas de deux?
Yes. Absolutely. I encourage all dance-makers to take a serious look at intimacy direction and how it could help both their work and the dance culture.
Why do you think it's important to create a piece like this one and for audiences to see them?
The first time I saw a complete run-through of Touché I heard a voice inside me say, “I needed to see this”. I nearly bawled because I recognized that voice as the little boy that I used to be hiding myself from myself and the world. Isn't it important to feel connected and that we aren't alone on this planet? Doesn't seeing the kind of love that we yearn for help us feel connected to other people sharing this time and space? Doesn't recognizing the beauty of love in all its forms give us perspective?
I needed to see this piece and I don't think I'm alone in this.
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.