In February 2012, artist/writer/curator Marissa Perel spoke with dancer/choreographer Katy Pyle about the development of her dance form, "Ballez," and the early stages of her piece, The Firebird. Here, they rejoin with members of the cast to discuss each performer's background and experience of Ballez, alternative approaches to the idea of failure in queer performance, and motivations for the piece, which was presented at Danspace Project, May 16-18, 2013.
Marissa Perel: I am talking to Katy Pyle about her show, The Firebird. We’re here with Jules Skloot, who plays the character of the Firebird, Cassie Mey, who plays the Sorceress, and 4 other members of the Ballez, who perform as princes in the piece. Katy, I interviewed you last year when you showed an excerpt of this piece at Dixon Place. What I remember most is your remark that this is the kind of ballet you wish you had seen growing up. Could you expand on that?
Katy Pyle: I wanted to see (and am now seeing through creating this) different kinds of bodies than the classical super small body that we’ve seen in ballet. In this work, I see people who have radically different gender embodiments than what we’ve seen in classical ballet, people who are different sizes partnering with each other. The female-assigned people partnering with each other in general is a big deal. I didn't see any queer ballet at all and certainly not a story ballet. Maybe there was some contemporary dance that was “gay,” but I didn't see women dancing together period. If I did it was in an experimental context, it wasn't a classical story ballet, so thats something I wanted to see. I wanted to see people take the theatricality of these structures and the playfulness of them and put that forward at the front of the experience. I would always watch these ballets with amazing costumes, amazing lights, amazing dancers, but I felt they were just doing the technical elements. I was like, “You're a fucking fairy, man! Why don’t you care?” It felt like a consideration of the way things are embodied was last on the list, and yet the potential for fantasy was so present in my mind -- what I wanted to see, but was not there. It seemed almost disconnected from the performers intentions.
Photo of the princes by Hedia Maron
MP: To realize this, you've been teaching Ballez. You have a class that’s been part of the rehearsal process and you've been teaching it to dancers and non-dancers. I’ve actually never been to a class, but I’m curious about this issue of embodiment and how dancers who are technically trained but maybe not trained to embody their sexuality can do that in this dance, and then how people who aren’t trained as dancers can execute dance and embody their sexuality at the same time.
Jules Skloot: That’s a big question. In thinking about structuring the classes, we spent time talking about the importance of making it a welcoming place, and energetically prepared ourselves as teachers to welcome people.
MP: Were you seeking to create a different environment from a stern, judgmental technique class?
JS: As you can imagine going into a more formal ballet setting, there are assumptions of what people know about the code of how to be in a dance class, and the code does not necessarily include eye contact, or smiling at each other and saying hello, and it certainly doesn't include, “What is your name and your preferred gender pronoun?” That is something that we include in any Ballez class. I like that it’s built in so people coming to their very first class have the experience of being asked that question and understand it is a relevant question to the space, and for folks coming week after week to know their answer can change.
MP: So fluidity is a value in the class structure. You can change pronouns, and still be identified as you want to be and dance.
JS: Right, that’s actually part of the class. We get to take these forms and play with them, experiment with them, and be fluid in ways that maybe we wouldn't outside the class. We all hold onto parts of our identity for various reasons: for safety, for our well-being, for expressing who we are. It can be a really good experiment to jiggle up our sense of ourselves, how we wear ourselves and embody ourselves, even if it’s not something we want to do everyday or in public walking down the street. You can learn a lot from trying different things on.
MP: Is what it’s like for you to be part prince . . .
KP: . . . part bird, part firebird, part tranimal? Jules is always fluidly shifting roles.
MP: Did you [Jules and Katy] collaborate on how Jules would embody the Firebird? How much of the character comes from your own process?
JS: It was very much a collaboration; talking about the story and taking this vision of what a Ballez class and a Ballez company could be. As the story of The Firebird emerged, we thought about how the story would shift from the traditional Russian folk tale. Katy and I have been working together for a long time in a dance conText, so there’s a lot that we know about each other, and quite naturally parts of me got entwined with the character of the Firebird. Katy knows the places that might be harder for me to go to, which are vital for embodying the character of the Firebird. So, she’s been able to coach me into the places and physicalities that aren't as natural to me, or that are even disturbing or scary and also exciting.
Photo of Katy Pyle by Alex Escalante
MP: Are those places that are scary and exciting gender places, a dance places, or a combination of these?
JS: More a dance place, but the lines are really blurry around that. We’ve been talking a lot about the Firebird’s focus being very direct, almost pointing in a straight line. As a mover, I tend to spiral and swirl with an internal focus, so it’s been exciting and hard to learn how to shift my focus and take on this character.
MP: Does aggression play a role in your dancing?
JS: Sure, there’s aggression. It’s more direct action and taking on an animal -- the wildness of it. Maybe Cassie has something to say about that.
Cassie Mey: My background and much of my performance history is in the realm of abstraction and using technique in an embodied and present way, so coming into this process and having to take on the role of a character, I had to find the dominatrix within. She’s really powerful and magical. She embodies wisdom. She’s all-seeing and all-knowing, but she is immature emotionally or she doesn't have an open heart in the way that she needs to experience. It's her heart-wisdom that evolves through the piece. She’s very clear and focused and direct, but also cold and withholding, which creates this power dynamic.
MP: And she needs to be worshipped?
CM: She needs to be in the power position, but maybe not worshipped. We’ve talked about her relationship to the princes and the garden; they are consensually adding to this fantasy together. She’s creating the land around it, but it’s a consensual journey -- the princes want to be taken care of in this realm, they want to have all the fruits of this experience as the sorceress gives it to them. They're willingly residing in the garden as a polyamorous community that, as Katy puts it eats, shits, sleeps, and fucks together.
KP: All within a classical ballet genre. That’s the fantasy to me of what that was.
Photo of Katy Pyle by Alex Escalante
CM: As a performer, it’s been interesting to express my sexuality in dance. Dance and sexuality have occupied separate realms my whole life and this is the first convergence of that. Being seen as queer in a dance realm is exhilarating and terrifying. It brings up a lot of emotions and helps me investigate my relationship to the queer community, to being out, and to exposing the way I feel sexual in the world. Exposing those fantasies for the world is exciting and empowering. The first time I saw Katy and Jules dance in Covers I freaked out; I had never seen anything so hot and moving and sad and funny all at the same time because I felt myself reflected for the first time in a piece, I felt that whole part of me.
MP: So now we can pass this around to the princes -- briefly talk about what your background is, if you have dance training or not, and not only what the process has been like for you, but what you feel you bring to your role as a prince uniquely within the group?
Sam Greenleaf Miller: My performance background is varied -- I danced a lot as a kid and grew up going to queer clubs, so I have that very much inside of me. I'm also a classically trained musician and toured as a musician for a number of years, so mostly my performance background is musical. In the last 5 years, I’ve collaborated with Vanessa Anspaugh and Geo Wyeth, who is a musician and performance artist. So, I’ve been moving away from standing onstage with a guitar and singing, to moving, which is very much a part of my life in another realm. It’s been exciting to start this process with Katy and to learn about my body in all sorts of new ways. I started taking Ballez class this winter and it was my first time doing any sort of ballet movement. It was intense because I’m 35 years old and I was a beginner at something again, which was a humbling and totally fun experience. I realized that I really like the form and it somehow suits me (at least Ballez, I don’t know about ballet). I felt like I could bring parts of my gender, sexuality, experience, and the way that I move in the world into the form and have the form help me refine it. I don’t totally know what I bring to my role. I think I bring a lot of exuberance, play, and care for my other princes and the company.
Lindsay Reuter: My background is a lot of dance training growing up, studying dance in college -- all abstract in the same way that Cassie mentioned. I’ve never been asked to have a face when I was dancing, let alone that my face be genuine and reflect my body. For me, it’s really important to have a fluid gender identity where I can present whatever I want at any time, and there’s room for that in Ballez. Reinventing yourself all the time is celebrated and never questioned. I’ve been thinking about who I am as a prince in the piece, and there’s a quality of earnestness that’s really important to me. For example, just trying really hard (which I think is kind of how I am all the time). I’m the person who never gets sarcasm because I take people at face value; there’s this sweet childish, big eyes, big heart. [Laughter] If I titled my prince, I’d be The Prince of Wanting It, and that’s relationally important in the dance. I’m never a prince by myself; I’m always a prince with other people, and I really want to foster that.
Effie Bowen: I grew up doing theater and went to college for dance. It’s been rewarding having a dance process where I feel like I’m always right when I’m in it. I like pretending that I’m good at ballet, so I think I bring that. I started ballet really late and I can’t really finish a traditional ballet class. In Ballez I can pretend I’ve been doing ballet my whole life and I’m amazing at it. It affords me a confidence that I’ve never had. This is the container where I can put on something and escape into a fantasy that I wouldn’t normally go to. Regular ballet underscores how I’m failing at this thing I'm striving for, but in Ballez I already have it. In Ballez I’m Nijinsky.
Francis Weiss Rabkin: I am a writer, a poet and a playwright, and my relationship to performance has been as far from the stage as possible for most of my life. As a child, if I ever had to perform in a class play, I played inanimate objects. One time I played the hill on which the billy goats grazed. I’ve been dancing with Katy ever since the first work-in-progress showing at BAX, and that was my first time dancing in a stage context. I used to only dance at dance parties and at clubs, so I was interested to hear Cassie say that performance dance was never sexy to her. I’ve only experienced dance as sexy, as a space where I feel hot and there’s the fluidity. My most intense dance partners have been gay men; that queer fluidity of attraction between a female-assigned person and a cis-gendered gay men, feeling seen in that world. To bring only that experience to a performance setting is very strange because there is something very protected about queer dance parties; you're communicating so much, but in a closed world. Bringing that energy to a mixed, critical audience through performance is a leap.
Photo of the princes by Christy Pessagno
What I am bringing to this experience is that I’m the “Prince of Going Through It Right Now.” Most of my life I’ve felt really disconnected from my body; as a child I thought I was literally invisible. In the time I’ve spent working on the Ballez, this relationship to visibility has become about being seen, being seen again, being seen some more, and being seen more accurately and more deeply, as well as emotionally experiencing the range of the excitement of being seen and the terror of it, holding those feelings for as long as I possibly can, and then going onstage with them. I bring a lot of language around emotion, and I’m willing to talk about the complications around emotions and share that in rehearsal and outside of rehearsal. I have the capacity to dwell in and be stable in hard feelings.
MP: I’d like us to talk about some hard feelings. I was was disturbed by how The Firebird was listed in the New Yorker. I felt that is was minimizing Katy’s conceptual artistry and her choreographic mastery both because of the amount of quotations around the nouns, and that last line, “recently divorced lesbian who goes into the woods to figure herself out.” There is something really matter-of-fact about the way this language. When is the practice of art making divorced from “figuring oneself out?” If this was a write-up for a male choreographer making a queer dance about his identity, I highly doubt that the New Yorker would describe the work as “figuring himself out.” I was surprised because of how I have seen the press praise the concepts and narratives of certain choreographers, but this sounds slightly mocking or ironic.
KP: I got a lot of great comments about the New Yorker write-up on my Facebook page. Our acting coach, Jibz Cameron had the best line, “Too bad your ‘ballet’ isn’t making ‘sense’ to the ‘writers.’ You’re too advanced creatively for their ‘brains.’” [Laughter]
MP: I noticed in your piece description, you mention “queer failure.” I’m wondering if this kind of mis-reading, or marginalization of your talent in the New Yorker speaks to that concept. I’ve been thinking about the term a lot, and what it might mean in the context of the Ballez. I learned of this term from Jack Halberstam's The Queer Art of Failure, but it seems to have pervaded many cultural contexts quite suddenly.
KP: I am taking on these monolithic cultural structures and putting these really incredible, beautiful embodied humans inside of them to show how the structures fail to hold us. If you’re looking at this as a ballet and judging it from a classical set of terms, assumptions and value systems, then we are failing at every single fucking thing we do. We’re not doing any of it right. We try to do these things and we do them wrong. But, the ways we do them wrong are actually worth looking at and interesting to watch, and shows how the world is actually failing us.
FWR: I’m thinking about the ways in which the world can fail us, and can fail so many kinds of people -- it fails even the most normative people. I think there are two painful things that happen for a lot of us in Ballez: pain from the way that growing up in the tradition of ballet has shaped one’s sense of self, and pain from being gender-nonconforming in a world that really wants you to be. And then, there are people who have both. I think about the ways in which I feel super lucky that I didn’t have ballet training as a child, I don’t have that pain at all because I haven't fit in since being a little baby.
MP: Is that lucky? That doesn’t sound lucky, that sounds like a lack of permission that you felt.
FW: Maybe, but I didn’t want to go to a class that told me I was fat or clumsy. No one saw me at all, so I didnt get that judgment, I just didn’t get seen.
MP: I identify a lot with that for myself. “If you can’t see me, I can make up who I am.”
CM: I definitely get prickly around the ‘queer failure’ banner. I understand what it’s trying to do, I think. I don’t feel like a failure, so that is hard to identify with. I feel more empowered. Reclaiming the word failure seems like an easy out and I think we’re worth more than that. As artists, we are very seriously making a piece about liberation and freedom. So no, we’re not failing! It’s almost a sassy retort to say, “Okay, you think we suck so we’re just going to fail harder,” but I think we’re beyond that irony.
Drawing by Jibz Camero
SGM: I want to say something different, not in defense of the word failure, but that we use it in response to success. I’ve been slamming up against the realization that I’m not following a path that leads to “success.” I’m not thinking about babies, marriage, and a career in these very stable ways and I’ve had to come up against my own internal sense of being a failure, taking that inside myself and actually loving it, loving the ways that I’m failing. Artists have failed society’s expectations for centuries, and we are good at it. It’s our job.
MP: Even normative heterosexual artists have been failing society’s expectations, but there’s more permission or choice about it. There isn’t the added layer of enforced otherness or alienation, as there is with the queer label.
SGM: Artists are total freaks and failures. No, I don't think there's anything wrong with me. No, I don’t think I’m failing, but I am a person of this culture, I am made of it, and those narratives are inside of me. Especially as I get older I am smack up against my peers, choosing not to do these things that would make me much more legible and more accepted. I am thinking of failure as a means of liberation.
EB: I think the idea of failure is fine as long as it’s not an excuse to stop trying. We are not trying to fail but we can acknowledge the presence of failure without giving up.
SGM: It’s not our participation in the work that is dealing with failure, we are not as artists trying to fail.
MP: What about the function of irony and humor in the Ballez? It’s definitely a part of The Firebird.
KP: I feel like I am often put into a category of being ironic and funny, and honestly, it’s serious to me. I am a different kind of human than a lot of other humans and I see the world differently. Whether that is from having five concussions [laughter], I don't know what it came from. What makes the material I work with funny is that it’s so real, and that is actually what I want to see. I am an extreme person by the regular standard of the world, and people think it’s outright humor, but it is actually playfulness. I think playfulness is a huge value to me, and it’s important to show that on the stage, but it’s not fake. There’s nothing fake about it. The fantasies that I have are extreme, and that’s what I’m putting out there. People laugh because they’re uncomfortable, because they want it too, but they don’t want to say so. I think laughter is cracking open a space where we can all acknowledge that we want these things that are beyond what we are allowed to want. That’s the function of humor in general. I have several friends who are comedians. I see them performing their truth onstage and people laugh, and it’s heartbreaking to me because it’s sad, it’s intense, and it’s real for them. I think as performers and makers we put ourselves in a vulnerable position of really showing our truth, and people respond in all kinds of crazy ways. I’m not trying to keep people from laughing, and I want to create a container where you’re allowed to laugh, cry, cheer, shout, have a response. But irony functions as a cultural code to keep people safe by keeping the unfamiliar at a distance, and then emotionally reacting or not reacting from that distance.
MP: Right. It’s about what we can understand now. For instance, does your personal truth align with the cultural values of the moment for it to be accepted? You don’t have any control over it and it’s a totally artificial way to look at art or at a person’s work, like, “It’s okay to talk about this now so I’ll talk about it.” Or, from the perspective of the reviewer or presenter... “It’s okay now, but it wasn't five years ago, or maybe it will make more sense five years from now.” Do you see your creation of the Ballez as a new dance form? Do you intend to continue to teach Ballez or make more things with this group of people? Where do you see the future of this work?
KP: This is something I absolutely want to continue, and I want to continue with these people. I think it’s powerful. People who are coming to class have had really profound experiences. There’s something we’ve stumbled upon that I want to keep doing. We’re supposed to be teaching classes this summer and I have a residency at Dixon Place next year to work on a new Ballez, Sleeping Beauty and the Beast. I feel like the thing that is hard is the money part of it, and the large-scale company model obviously doesn’t fit into the current economic structuring of dance, which I think is unfortunate because there’s a lot of power and potential that can come from a big group of people. There’s a greater diversity of ideas and responsibilities. This is a whole field of research there that is really powerful and important, but we have to figure out how to keep it alive!
ballet, ballez, dance, Danspace Project, embodiment, failure, Katy Pyle, Marissa Perel, PDF, performance, queer, The Firebird