Empowering queer women in ballet: #QueertheBallet

Digital work in process streaming
February 25, 2021

David Mead

It’s impossible not to agree with choreographer Adriana Pierce’s observation that LGBTQ+ women and their stories are conspicuous by the absence from the ballet world, both onstage and off. She says, “When I speak to queer women ballet dancers, the number one dream they (we) all have is to do pas de deux work with other women. This is simply not a common practice in ballet choreography, and, when it does occur, it’s generally accomplished merely by using the physical partnering codes which already exist within ballet’s binary gendered movement system.”

In a project as part of a dance residency initiative at Catskill’s Bridge Street Theatre, from February 14-26 this year, she set out to remedy that. Over the two weeks, with American Ballet Theatre dancers Remy Young and Sierra Armstrong, she created #QueertheBallet, a duet for the couple, the idea being to show an authentic relationship with its complexities, and all the varied ways the two women connect and communicate.

Sierra Armstrong and Remy Young in #QueertheBallet by Amelia PierceStill from film
Sierra Armstrong and Remy Young in #QueertheBallet by Amelia Pierce
Still from film

Pierce says that she wants “people to see that ballet can be more than a man lifting a woman in a tutu.” Although that may be how ballet was historically, and indeed how it is still perceived in some quarters, especially in those parts of the world where it has a more conservative outlook, the reality in most places is that ballet away from traditional storytelling and modern-day choreographers have moved on. Same gender pas de deux are far from unusual these days, although Pierce does have a point when she says it’s unusual to see them created for two women, let alone on pointe.

From the film of the work in progress, Pierce is clearly well on the way to making a pleasing, if cool duet that recognises the fact that Young and Armstrong are two women. Accompanied by music from Canadian cellist and composer Julia Kent, she draws well on their movement styles and physiques, although the vocabulary is largely traditional. The partnering too, in which supporter and supported frequently change, is of the sort that has been seen in dance for a long time. In that sense, the duet could never be described as cutting edge. But equally, it won’t frighten anyone off, and that is seriously important.

Remy Young and Sierra Armstrong in #QueertheBallet by Amelia PierceStill from film
Remy Young and Sierra Armstrong in #QueertheBallet by Amelia Pierce
Still from film

Watching on film probably doesn’t help, but what is really missing for me is much in the way of personal connection or meaning, however. That’s surprising given the work’s starting point. While there are strong choreographic connections in the use of unison, canon and counterpoint in the dance, any relationship between the pair as individuals, as two women, remains largely hidden. That relationship could perfectly well be what is sometimes called ‘queerplatonic’, it certainly doesn’t need to be romantic, but I do feel it does need to be something.

Interestingly, that connection does seem to be there in much of the beautifully-shot three-minutes introductory behind-the-scenes footage that precedes the five-minute duet. Perhaps the fact it feels so relaxed is the key.

Given Pierce talks about seeking to move away from traditional codes, having Young and Armstrong in pointe shoes is an interesting choice. While more men are experimenting with pointework, if anything identifies woman in ballet, that is probably it. Wisely, Pierce’s choreography avoids the usual supported promenades and turns of male-female duets (lifts are avoided too), although on the odd occasion when Young or Armstrong support the other on pointe, there is clearly a height issue. However, there is no attempt to redefine pointework either. When it does come, and it’s not as much as you might expect, it is quite traditional.

But let’s not be overcritical. The dancers are learning to use their bodies differently. They and the choreographer are discovering what is and is not possible. #QueertheBallet is a starting point. It is an experiment. It may still be a little overcareful, but it very much deserves time to grow and develop. Give it time because there are certainly huge possibilities here; and anything that that helps empower ballet’s queer women and other non-binary dancers, that raises awareness and visibility, should surely be welcomed.

#QueertheBallet can be watched via Bridge Street Theatre’s web site, Facebook page, and YouTube channel until March 11, 2021.