DDP Talks To: Katy Pyle


Photo by Yael Malka for the New York Times

What are you & the company working on?
Right now, I’m teaching Pro Ballez to beautiful queer dancers at Gibney Dance, 890 Broadway twice a week in open classes, researching for a new story-ballet, which is scheduled to premiere in 2023, and doing some exploratory rehearsals for that work. We are heading to upstate New York in early June to make some serious headway over a week of intensive rehearsals in a gorgeous, inspiring place.

You’ve talked previously about the necessity of fun in ballet. What does Ballez do specifically to “bring back the joy”?
Ballez class is explicitly aimed at embracing ourselves as full human beings, not just automated clones, and the process of waking up and enlivening requires fun! I encourage dancers to play with ballet’s inherently gendered affects, to notice when we tilt our heads certain ways and use our epaulement to represent daintiness or coyness, or when we step with power through space, and to acknowledge that and play with it! And, also, to notice that you might be doing whatever you’re doing unconsciously, and could make another choice other than what you’ve been trained to do. I encourage dancers to dance with and relate to each other during class, and creating that community – where we are not in competition, but in a mutual admiration society that’s more like a queer bar than a boring barre – is key!

We always say names (and pronouns, if people choose to share them) at the beginning of class. Then, I often make exercises where people dance facing each other so that we become conscious of the ways that we relate to each other and make conscious choices to do that in a generous and connective way. I don’t really have to cue that, usually when people start to look at each other they immediately start to laugh or smile and open up. I also always try to do very fun exercises, the jumps and turns that feel buoyant and joyful, and not punishing. Though, some people love punishment and think it’s fun! There’s also space for people to try the really difficult movements if they want to, but it’s not posited as being “better” than others, it’s just a fun thing to experiment with.

Photo by Yael Malka for the New York Times

Seems to me that Ballez offers a much more interesting, subversive take on stories that were originally powerful, frightening, and impactful, like Sleeping Beauty or Giselle. Most of what makes them resonate has been pasteurized out. You do a great deal of research; how does that all come together?
My research is really rhizomatic, I bounce around between historical research and my own fantasies and experiences and those of the dancers, which I cultivate through journaling, playing in the studio, and conversations. I guess that I also have a very intense imagination and am drawn to stories of transformation, which all the story-ballets I re-make have at their core. As a gender non-conforming person, I am always in a death/rebirth cycle with myself. I’m also always in a cycle of change based on society’s (as well as close friend’s and family’s) expectations of who I am. I have gone through periods of depression and withdrawal. But, from those dark places, I have also repeatedly found my truth. I come back with a greater understanding of who I really am, usually through my love for dance and my connection to a greater life-force, that propels me forward.

So, all that to say, I love the transformation that happens in (my version of) The Firebird, in Sleeping Beauty (with the 100-year sleep, which, in my version, actually moves the audience from 1893 to 1993), and in Giselle, which obviously centers around death and a transformation to a spirit realm, plus the great theme of vengeance! I re-make these canonical story-ballets to give hope to others who have walked through those shadowy realms. It’s to show people that there is a way forward and that there is joy and love and ecstatic dancing on the other side when you embrace yourself for who you are, as you are. And the cool thing is that the people who really love you embrace you, too.

Katy Pyle with the cast of “Giselle of Loneliness” following premiere at The Joyce

In the past, you’ve spoken about the following:  “I had so many male friends in ballet growing up who were told to be more masculine. At the same time, I’m a natural prince. I’m very butch in ballet; I can jump higher than anyone else, and I have a very commanding way that I like to move.”  Why don’t women & girls get a chance to do the more traditionally masculine jumping and turning? What would it change if women were allowed to be both graceful and incredibly powerful?
One hundred percent, no one should be limited in what kind of movement they are allowed to do because of their gender! It’s so boring! I’m just really over such binary representations of men and women. In addition to loving to jump and turn and do big movements, I also love lifting and supporting dance partners. In my experience, women do so much more lifting and supporting of their lovers/partners/spouses in real life than I ever see represented on a ballet stage. And while I’m not making ballets about straight people, someone should show the much more complex relationships that women and men have! I think what is helpful about my work (for straight people, and the rest of us) is that it’s not interested in any kind of one-sided representation of partnership. And, I am definitely not interested in limiting people to dancing ballet steps only in the way that they were socialized to.  I spend a lot of time coaching (even out gender non-conforming and trans) dancers to embrace aspects of their gender that were punished in ballet classes as a youth. It is thrilling to get to see dancers embrace a fuller range of technical and emotional communication through that process. I think that is helpful for EVERYONE, regardless of identity.

Another previous, powerful statement of yours is: “I just keep thinking about how I’m one small person in hundreds of years of silencing. But there have always been rabble-rousers and troublemakers, and that’s how I identify as well.”  This sort of pursuit can be exhausting. How do you take care of yourself, recharge, and find the energy to keep going?
I am inspired by my Dancestors, the rabble-rousers who have come before, and they do propel me on! Right now I’m researching Josephine Baker’s 1927 Le Cygne Noir?, which was a parody of Anna Pavlova’s Dying Swan. Baker was fighting against a deeply problematic, essentializing, racist culture in Paris in the 20s as an out, bisexual, Black, woman expatriate from St. Louis! Her legacy inspires me to keep going. I also have an incredibly supportive and loving spouse, two great cats, wonderful friends, and allies who lift me up. Lately, I’ve also been grounding myself by asking “can I make this fun?” Whatever I am working on, I try to ask that, because if I am not having fun, I will get burnt out, for sure.

DDP is compiling a small sub-series entitled “Two Failures, One Challenge & A Triumph.” What are some experiences of yours that initially felt like failures? Similarly, can you share a challenge you’ve faced, how you dealt with it, and then, also, a big success of yours?
It’s interesting because, as I’ve been reading the reviews of Josephine Baker’s work around Le Cygne Noir?, I see how the negative reviews reveal the ignorance of the critics and their biases. I think Ballez has struggled through that and critics have been harsh about aspects of the work that I completely adore. One example was that my “finger fairy,” played by Charles Gowin in my 2016 Sleeping Beauty & the Beast was absolutely perfect, hilarious, and danced exquisitely. But, Gowin seemed to enrage the critic from Broadway World who saw his reinvented solo as essentially blasphemous. I look at that moment and, especially with the gift of time, realize more than ever how that critic’s limited worldview of gender and what ballet should and could be completely foiled his ability to see the beauty in front of him. But, I’m glad we have that review for the historical record because it will just show future scholars how backward things were in 2016.

I think success for me is the fact that people know this work exists, that I get to lecture in major universities all around the country, and that young gender non-conforming and trans dancers can see us on Instagram and read about us on the internet and know that a future is possible, and can even be rad! I hope that Ballez can expand our networks of support so that the work we do can be accessed by our vast communities, not just online, but in theaters and classes in people’s own towns. I want to tour with Ballez and work with dancers 36-52 weeks a year, being able to provide consistent employment, and being able to make this work beyond NYC. I want to get out and play and change the culture of ballet all over!