Talking with Katy Pyle, a pioneer in Ballez

Katy Pyle is a lesbian choreographer whose works explores her own conflicted and complicit relationship to the cis hetero patriarchal form of ballet. Pyle’s company, Ballez, is inserting the herstory and lineage of lesbian, queer and transgender people into the ballet canon, through the creation of large-scale story ballets, open classes, and public engagement. She is currently in residence at Whitman, teaching some of the Ballez repertoire to Whitman students in preparation for Fall Dance Concert SPACING.

Nhi Cao: How did you come to accept the invitation to attend Fall Dance Concert at Whitman?
Katy Pyle: I have known Renée Archibald [Whitman’s Assistant Professor of Dance and concert director of SPACING] for 21 years; we actually went to school together in North Carolina School of the Arts which is a conservatory high school. I was there, studying ballet and Renée had also studied ballet there, so we had this history and she had known me for a really long time. I left ballet behind when I was about 17 and did contemporary dance, and I have known her through the years, and she was interested in Ballez and the work that I was doing now, so she invited me to come and share some of that work with students here.
NC: Can you tell me a little bit about the upcoming performance? Does it have a title yet?
KP: Yeah, so we’re actually performing excerpts from existing Ballez’s repertoires, pieces I have done before. We’re doing a short section from The Firebird, and it’s a duet between the Firebird and the lesbian princess, where they meet in the woods and kind of having a romantic rendezvous, a seven or eight-minute section of that. Then we are doing 3 duets from Sleeping Beauty & the Beast, and those come from the second act, which is the club scene, so those three duets take place in a 1923, queer, mostly lesbian club  that is sort of based on actual historical clubs that I have researched, but probably our version of its own.

Choreographers for Fall Dance Concert: Guest Artist Katy Pyle, Professor of Dance
Peter de Grasse, Professor of Dance and lead choreographer of SPACING Renée Archibald

NC: Is there such a thing such as a choreographer’s block?
KP: Yes for sure, because I am dealing with ballet, I have to continually confront my own shame, fear and anxieties, interpreting my own values and belief system inside a form that is sexist, hetero, patriarchal, kind of racist, that for so long has only been representative of a really narrow part of the world, and you know came out of a very particular Western, European culture and has upheld certain ideals about what that should look like. I’m really curious about the way that ballet upholds gender, ideas, and how those things, even while I was learning them as a young person, didn’t always match up with who I was, but I tried to fit myself into those boxes, and I learned how to perform hetero activities in relation to those cultural ideals of what people should be, and so when I go into making my work, I’m very curious about how I don’t fit in and how I fail to fit in and how the people I’m working with fail to fit in. Sometimes that’s very generative, that failure, but sometimes it’s debilitating too; it throws me back to some of those questions that are inspiring to me. So it’s like this double-edged sword. What’s difficult about it also is inspiring to me, but it also goes in fits and starts.
NC: Many people would agree that “effortlessness” is an imperative value of ballet. What is your take on that?
KP: I’m just kind of into struggles and effort. I think so much of the effortlessness is also a sign to femininity, and how women should be in receiving everything and just like be graceful about it, and just allow ourselves to be thrown around, and controlled. I’m interested in fighting back and struggling for equal power, which I think happens among the bodies that are dancing together even if they’re both the same assigned gender, we still have these struggles within us, and I think that’s more reflective of actual human relationships that we have conflicts and we have moments of transcendence, maybe where we do come together and we achieve something together, but the struggle within that is also cool to me. It can also lead to transcendence in a different way, acknowledging the actual struggle that is there and coming together in a more truthful way, and we can achieve more. I’m also into finding connections and having a feeling of effortlessness through that real connection.

A collage of movements from Ballez’s works featuring Whitman student dancers Rebecca Wertheimer and Eva Sullivan during rehearsal

NC: So with this piece being performed in this context of this college in Walla Walla, what connection do you want to make?
KP: I try to offer certain images, characters, or narratives so that people can connect to what we’re doing. I use costumes and fairytales so that there’s something that everyone might be able to relate to, so it’s not as abstract as other kinds of dance, so I want to offer this kind of entry points for every person and then I really want people to see the dancers in their truths, and in their connections, and in their beauty, and to see for this concert female-assigned people dancing together and also see that when they dance together, they can lift each other, they can support each other, that they can do these beautiful lifts. I’m very into lifting, and that way of dancing doesn’t have to be just the realm of male-assigned people; we can do that too. I really want the audiences to be able to see that these kinds of relationships are also noble, and beautiful, and have complications, intricacies, interests, that’s just as compelling as a typical heteronormative relationship that we are used to seeing everywhere in dancing, in theatre and all these other places.
NC: Recently, I watched a music video featuring a gay high school couple, and seeing LGBTQ friends in such a classic image of youthful innocence unexpectedly brought me to tears.
KP: Yeah, to see ourselves represented, I think it’s really important and I really feel passionate about it because I think that suicide and depression really affect queer communities and I think that’s partially because we can’t check in and recognize ourselves in the media that we are seeing, so we feel alone, and we don’t have to feel alone if we can in some other ways of recognizing one another.
NC: And, do you encounter any criticism with the work you do?
KP: Yes, I do. I think that there’s a lot of generosity from audiences, and pleasures in what you express, also people are really excited to see themselves represented, and also their friends represented, their community represented, but because I’m working with ballet and that’s a very classical, very regulated, with strict setups and rules that people abide by and those rules have been maintained for a long time. It’s a very particular culture that I grew up in, so it’s like very close to my thinking but…*laughs* now I forgot the question.

Whitman student dancers Rebecca Wertheimer and Eva Sullivan during rehearsal with Katy

NC: How do you imagine an ideal audience for your work?
KP: Yeah, I think that generosity is really important. I like to play this game myself when I’m walking through the streets, where I look at people and I say to myself in my mind “nice style” to every single person that I see. So that kind of changes the way I’m thinking, looking at people and I’m like “oh nice style” and I look at your outfit and “wow, you made some really cool choices today” and I start to appreciate that person, every single person that I see. It changes what I think of as beautiful because I’m trying to put myself in their position of what this person also chose for themselves and what they like. That’s my ideal sort of audience.
NC: My final question is whose work interests you right now?


KP: I like some of musicians, you know like I play Le1f in my class and the internet there’s this rapper called Young M.A that I’m really curious about, and I go to see a lot of drag shows when I’m in New York so I like RuPaul’s Drag Race. I’m mostly interested in how people are playing with gender and using kind of known forms to say something different inside of it, and there are a lot of artists in New York whom I love also that are maybe lesser known but I think they will be coming up. Bushwig, Becca Blackwell, Erin Markey, and Marisa Perel to name a few.
NC: I have never been to New York and talking to you really makes me appreciate it. Thank you so much for your time and dedication!

Guest Artist Katy Pyle talking with her Whitman student dancers Rebecca Wertheimer and Eva Sullivan during rehearsal

Fall Dance Concert – SPACING –  Lead Choreographer – Renée Archibald
November 9 – 12, 2017—Alexander Stage
SPACING features new choreographies by Whitman faculty members Renée Archibald, Peter de Grasse, and New York based guest artist Katy Pyle. Pyle brings to her dancemaking nuanced analysis in the creation of new queer ballets which retell and reimagine traditional ballet narratives to reflect the multiplicity of gender. Made in collaboration with Whitman students, each choreography invites critical reflection.
Come join us on this journey by getting your tickets at Harper Joy Theatre box office or on See you!