Katy Pyle, Ballez, and the Virtuosity of the Queer Body
What’s your name and what do you do?
I’m Katy Pyle and I’m Artistic Director of a dance company called Ballez. Ballez inserts the history, lineage, and bodies of female assigned/identified and gender-non-conforming queer people into the ballet cannon. We make shows that we perform and we had our first full-length evening Ballez in 2013. We’re now working on a second, full, epic show.
Can you talk a little bit about your first show?
Yeah. We did The Firebird in 2013 and that was a re-imagining of the original Firebird made for the Ballets Russes by Fokine with music by Stravinsky, which was done in 1910.
We used a lot of the scenic and stage pictures, characters, and the whole original score, but we changed the gender expressions of all the characters and we changed their internal lives and what we thought it represented. We also changed the choreography to a great extent to make it more representative of the queer community and the performers who were in that particular show.
Was there something in particular that led you to choose that piece?
The Firebird was always a captivating story to me. I think the first ballet performance I was in was called The Firefly and I was a Firefly, with a bunch of other kids. We had lit up wings and the Stravinsky music was very exciting.
Also, for the past five years, I’ve been working with Jules Skloot, a dancer and performer, and he has really been an inspirational human being. He’s transgender and when I had the idea to create a Ballez, I thought of The Firebird and I thought of him, because he was just beginning to transform himself, out of his own volition and through the support of a community of people. I thought it was really incredible.
So in a totally fantastical, non truth-based way, I reflected on that self-made transformation through the story of The Firebird, which is related to the myth of the Phoenix. It’s a story that exists in different cultures, but it’s about this bird that can have a whole lifetime and then be consumed by the flames and have a rebirth from the ashes into a new body. So that particular myth, or metaphor, felt really right for Jules to play.
Did you dance in it too?
I did, I was the Princess. In the original ballet, the Prince, who catches the Firebird in the woods, has a really creepy, kind of a borderline rape encounter in the woods. It’s not very cool. He captures the Firebird and won’t let her go. So she gives him a feather and says: “Okay, I’ll give you this magical feather if you let me go.” Then she ends up saving him from an evil sorcerer and shows him how to free all these virginal princesses so he can marry one of them.
We changed this around, so I was the Princess who had just escaped from the Kingdom because she was a lesbian. She runs off to the woods to find this other mythical community that she had heard about. The mythical community that I find is an enchanted community of poly-amorous Princes who are controlled by this magical Sorceress. They’re all in play-relationships of servitude to the Sorceress, who is this really hot and powerful witch.
I’m curious if you danced ballet before you created the Ballez?
I’ve been performing since I was 5, staring with musical theater. I was always dancing, but I got obsessed with ballet to the point where I didn’t want to do anything else. I stopped singing and acting and just did ballet all the time, like 6 days a week, and rehearsed at nights. When I was 13, I was in a little company in Austin as an apprentice. Then I went to North Carolina School of the Arts to be a ballet dancer when I was 15. I left Texas and I danced ballet all day long.
The training is hard!
Yes, the training is intense and there’s an incredible amount of pressure. I think everyone knows this story, but the pressure to maintain a certain body weight and size is really screwed up—it drove me crazy.
Did you finish your training?
No. I had an eating disorder. I was perpetually trying to get my body to be smaller and smaller, which it wasn’t, it was really bad for me to be in that situation. And I remember very clearly one of my teachers telling me that I looked like a “Mack Truck.” I look at that now and I think it’s funny, because now that I’m an out, lesbian in the world, I want to reclaim that and be like: “yes, I’m as powerful as a Mack Truck and I can dance and fly through the air with force and power!” But that wasn’t the message that I received. Back then, it was not a good thing, and I was told I should have made myself weaker and smaller.
The typical narratives from ballet can be so restraining in terms of how gender roles are performed between men and women.
Yes. My teacher was talking about my body, but also about the way I was expressing the movement through my body, and I thought that was the trickiest thing about the form—it wasn’t just about having this tiny body, but also about not expressing too much effort with it.
Were you only exposed to classical ballet in your training?
At NCSA, we were learning classical work. I mean, there was Balanchine, but—
It was cool, it was a relief in some ways, because at least there was a certain value in being strong and being able to do a lot of turns. At NCSA, I actually changed to the contemporary dance department, to do modern dance training, which felt like a huge freedom at first. We did Cunningham technique a lot, and I had a teacher from the Alwin Nikolais Company, and this other teacher who had studied body-mind centering and more contemporary forms.
But we were still weighed three times a year and fat-clamped and measured and graded by our body. I think there were still expectations that men should dance like men, and women should dance like women—
What does that mean?
Right—what does that mean? Especially when your student body is just having a lot of queers in it, and that gender representation might not feel comfortable?
There’s a huge stigma if you’re a male dancer. Everyone will assume you’re gay, but male, ballet dancers need to be powerful and athletic and have this virtuosic prowess that cannot be feminine.
What happened after North Carolina?
I went to Hollins University, which is in Virginia, and I re-conceived of myself as a multimedia performance artist. I started to create performances as a more cohesive art form where I wouldn’t be such a technical executor, but an artist who could shape this whole world into something that made much more sense to me.
I got into choreographing and I made several pieces. I also came out as a queer person, my freshman year, and I was in an an N’Sync, Drag King Band called “KitschN*Sync.”
I love N’Sync.
It was a super incredible moment. Because I was performing as a man, I could inhabit all these parts of my own gender that I couldn’t before. Hollins is a women’s college, so there’d be a huge sea of women—college students—freaking out and feeding off this sexual energy coming from our five-person boy band. We would have underwear thrown at us—it kinda blew people’s minds.
I took on this role to perform this hyper-masculinity and it helped me notice how in my performance I had not accessed this before.
Were you singing as well?
No, we were lip-syncing, but we were the only drag king band around and we were performing in the one gay bar in town and won these drag competitions. We came to New York my junior year and we got to perform with Le Tigre in this International Drag King Extravaganza, and I was like: “Oh my God, I have arrived.” It really wasn’t my goal to be a drag king, but I realized that I could use my choreographic knowledge, and my dancing, and my performance ideas, to create this bigger spectacle.
When did you move to New York?
I graduated in 2002 and came here right away. I started dancing for John Jasperse’s company, did that for several years, and I danced for Jennifer Monson. They were both queer and had some expansive ideas for me to inhabit, in terms of what I needed to represent, but their work is a lot more abstract. Even though I felt that we understood each other and we understood our identities, I still felt that an audience could watch those works and watch me do this duet with John (which we performed in many cities in the world) and they could see it as a straight duet, even though he’s a gay man and I’m a lesbian.
Do you think these companies are role models for you for what you want to do with Ballez?
Yeah, I definitely feel like I still use a lot of John’s movement work. It will still come out of me and there’s a deeper virtuosity that I relate to. Jennifer is a great improviser and taught me about authentic movement and about moving from emotional states in concert with nature and that has really shaped a lot of things for me. And then I worked for Young Jean Lee for a long time, as well. Almost 6 years now. And her process and thinking about identity and working from the experience of the people who are in her shows is definitely inspiring to me.
When did you know that it was time to do Ballez and The Firebird?
I’d been presenting my work while working with other people but it was just a really insular conversation about post-modern, experimental dance and I was frustrated by that because that was not the only group of people I wanted to talk to.
I actually really like that ballet is something that is part of a bigger conversation. Not that that many people have done ballet, but that people know a story, or a character, or they have an image of a ballet dancer and have a sense that ballet represents this super elite part of the world.
I really want to push against that because I feel that anyone can come see my show with an expectation, or this framework in their mind, and during the show I want to rip that apart and have people sit with uncomfortable feelings about how the people I’m presenting fail to meet that expectation they had. Why did they have those expectations? And is it actually useful? Is it positive? Or negative? I like to have them sift through those expectations and realities.
Is there something that you’re aspiring towards or trying to create while doing that? How do you know you’re approximating what you think “Ballez” is?
I think I’m using myself as a source in a major way. I trust the part of me that was trained as a young person to believe in fantasies. This very childish side of me loved ballet and loved the world of it—the costumes and music. I’m using that part of me as a starting place to then reckon with myself, with the person I actually am, and the people I actually love, and the people I actually think are beautiful, because it doesn’t always match up with what I thought I would love.
I’m not just trying to create confrontation, I’m trying to create beauty, and the only reason it’s a confrontation is when you come with an expectation of beauty that is outside of what I am trying to do, which is different, because my work has a different set of values.
Can you talk about how physical performance or movement is beautiful to you?
As a starting point for Ballez, there’s this idea that there’s virtuosity in being a gender-queer human being. And there’s a way that the people around me and with me have developed a way of interacting with the world and creating meaning with their bodies—with their physicality and their energy—that is in opposition to expectations.
This tension is there and by working with people (I only work with queer performers, some of them have training in dance, others have a lot less) I feel that the way they perform and project their gender and their sense of themselves through the materiality of their own body is an outstanding performative state to witness.
I learned this a lot more from the post-modern dance world because we’re always playing with performative states and energetic performances that transcend our bodies. I looked around me and I was like, “wow, there’s a lot of people who haven’t learned that practice, but they’re really, really beautiful to watch.”
And it’s interesting because I also work with people who have more dance training and it’s often with these folks that there’s a necessary undoing. Trained dancers are real people but their performing selves cover them up. They’ve learned how to perform straight or they’ve learned to represent masculinity or femininity.
When I work with people who have more dance training, I’m like, “how do we remove that and find how you represent yourself in other spaces you love—community spaces where you feel safe and held, where you’re out?” That space and internal energy is physical. I want to put that on a stage for other people to witness.
Can you share a little bit of what’s next for you?
Yeah, we are working on Sleeping Beauty and the Beast. It’s a two act, two theater Ballez, which has an entr’acte that takes place on the street outside the theater. It’s set in 1893 in New York City’s garment factories and resets the narrative of the Sleeping Beauty as this young girl, in the context of the industrial revolution, and these lesbians who work in a factory, who are not upset about working in the factory because they get to live with each other outside of the social rules of having to be married.
The workers organize a union and bring out their spinning wheels as part of their demonstration and Aurora, who is the daughter of the factory owner, shows up and pricks her finger on a spinning wheel and falls in love with the leader of the union.
Then we go out into the streets for a protest outside of the theater and watch the protest transform from a garment workers’ strike into an AIDS activist march, loosely based on Act Up and the work of Lesbian Avengers in 1993.
How have you been putting it together? Did you know from the beginning that this was a story you wanted to tell?
I knew it was going to be this 100-year gap and I kinda randomly chose 1893 and 1993. Sleeping Beauty premiered in 1890, I skipped to 1893, and 1993 was a big year for lesbians in America. That was also the moment when I was a 13-year old in Texas and became aware of lesbians, so I chose those dates and then I got into the research.
I went to the Lesbian Herstory Archives and found a lot of information about 1993—the first dyke march, Melissa Etheridge, KD Lang, and Indigo Girls were on top of the charts. Cindy Crawford was shaving KD Lang in the cover of “Vanity Fair.” There was this big media moment that on the first pass seemed very glamorous.
Then I started talking to people who lived here at that time. I interviewed Nicole Eisenman, Pamela Sneed, Daphne Fitzpatrick, Lori E. Seid and others… and learned more about their experience living in the war zone of AIDS and in tremendous grief, as they were caretaking and losing their good, good friends. Hearing their stories, I shaped a narrative and characters over time. I sat with things. I’m still sitting with them, and still have certain aspects of the story that I’m trying to shift.
When I saw your workshop of Sleeping Beauty and the Beast at BAX, I noticed that there were moments in which the dancers were engaging directly with the audience. How do you play with ballet’s relationship with the audience?
I feel like we are opening up the space to being more of our authentic selves, in relationship with each other, and that includes the audience. I want the audience to feel seduced, drawn in, and worried, and I want them to feel like they’re in a relationship in which they also have to bring themselves to the table—they don’t get to sit back and absorb in a blank way; they are complicit.
The work has a lot of humor even though the subjects are loaded, heavy, and politicized. There’s humor to it; is this work fun for you?
It’s fun. It’s definitely soul-wrenching and difficult and arduous, but ultimately that’s what I’m attracted to doing in my life. There’s such tremendous joy that comes out of pushing through something and also really inhabiting shame and despair. For me, when I get into it, I think it’s funny. It’s so ridiculous that we have these ideas about ourselves and sometimes I think I’m making something really serious and people laugh hysterically.
I think of the “Swan” section in Sleeping Beauty and the Beast. I never thought it was all that funny—I know that it comes across as funny, but it’s painful to me, and I think that actually there’s this kind of shaking that happens when we hit these moments that are deeper. That shaky part is sighing and laughing, and I do want to create a space in which we can be in that experience together and have it move through our bodies.
I found that moment particularly very sad and also very interesting. You were referencing Swan Lake but when the dancers fell and were carried away because they were ill, it made me remember that behind the AIDS crisis there were so many lesbians taking care of gay men. It made it very clear to me that your intention was not only to subvert forms but also to expand the scope of what we’re seeing and make a certain part of our history more visible. I think that’s the moment where I was like “I think I really get it” but that’s also because that’s the part of this history that I could most relate to.
Yeah, I hope that there are different moments for different people to relate to. I don’t want to exist in isolation. When I was a young person I was like, “I’ll be a lesbian separatist!” but I don’t really want to live that way. I want to make more space for conversations for more people, witnessing for more people, more pathways to actually connect. I don’t want to be alone. And I don’t want the people around me to be alone and to think that their stories will be forgotten.
Sleeping Beauty and the Beast has been in development over a 2013-2015 residency at Brooklyn Arts Exchange and will premiere Spring 2016.
Katy Pyle is a multimedia performance artist whose works explore fantasy, transformation, queer failure, and the lineage of performance. Pyle began studying ballet as a child, and was often sneaking into men’s class to do all the cool jumps, turns, and soaring leaps. She became a company apprentice with Austin Contemporary Ballet at 14 and furthered her studies at North Carolina School of the Arts. At 16, she diverged from ballet because of the limited gender representations and narrow ideas about bodies. She went on to study modern dance at NCSA, and then post-modern dance and Multimedia Performance Art at Hollins. Since moving to New York in 2002, her performance works have been presented at Brooklyn Arts Exchange, Danspace Project at St. Mark’s Church, PS122, La Mama, Dance Theater Workshop, Movement Research at the Judson Church, and the Bushwick Starr. She has been in collaborative performance processes with Ivy Baldwin, Faye Driscoll, John Jasperse, Karinne Keithley Syers, Xavier Le Roy, Jennifer Monson, Anna Sperber, Katie Workum, and is currently touring the Untitled Feminist Show, which she co-created with Young Jean Lee Theater Company. She has received creative support from Brooklyn Arts Exchange (BAX), Dragon’s Egg, Rockbridge Artist’s Exchange, and Mount Tremper Arts. Katy has appeared as the Lesbian Princess in The Firebird, A Ballez and Princess Aurora in Sleeping Beauty and the Beast.
Kyoung H. Park is the first Korean playwright from Latin America to be produced and published in the United States. He is author of Sex and Hunger, disOriented, Walkabout Yeolha, TALA, and many short plays including Mina, which is published in Seven Contemporary Plays from the Korean Diaspora in the Americas by Duke University Press. He is Artistic Director of Kyoung’s Pacific Beat, a peacemaking theater company, which is currently Artist-In-Residence at the BRIC Arts Media Center and will produce PILLOWTALK this September.