Transcript, Episode 67: Queering Flamenco, Making “In the Heights” Dance, and Adriana Pierce

[Jump to Adriana Pierce interview]


Margaret Fuhrer:
Hi dance friends, and welcome to The Dance Edit Podcast. I’m Margaret Fuhrer.

Courtney Escoyne:
I’m Courtney Escoyne.

Amy Brandt:
And I am Amy Brandt.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Hooray, Amy! I’m doing big jazz hands right now. That’s right: We have a new co-host as of this week. I’m guessing a lot of you already know Amy Brandt. She’s the editor in chief of Pointe magazine, she’s a former professional ballet dancer, she’s just an all around superstar. But actually, rather than me introducing you, Amy, would you like to say a little bit about yourself?

Amy Brandt:
Sure. I danced professionally for about 19 years with the Milwaukee Ballet and with the Suzanne Farrell Ballet in Washington, DC, as well as several companies in New York City. And I’ve been at Dance Media working as an editor since 2013, and at the helm of Pointe since 2014.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Oh my gosh. 2014. Has it really been that long? Time is so fake.

Courtney Escoyne:
Time is fake. Also, I can remember being an intern and being incredibly intimidated by Amy Brandt. For no reason, we never spoke at that point. She was just so elegant and serious and focused on everything. And then, now, I’m like, Oh my gosh, Amy is a doll. She’s one of my favorite humans. But I do remember being terrified of you, Amy.

Amy Brandt:
I find that very odd, that anyone would find me scary! [laughs] But thanks.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Well, Amy will be swapping out with Lydia every other week as our third co-host, and we are very excited and very lucky to have her. Welcome, Amy.

Amy Brandt:
Thank you so much. I’m very excited to be here.

Margaret Fuhrer:
In today’s episode, we will discuss a wave of new ballets that celebrate queerness without centering cis gay men, who are usually the most visible queer members of the ballet community. On a not-unrelated note, we’ll talk about one artist who is working to queer traditionally conservative flamenco culture. Then, since the In the Heights film opens tomorrow, we will take a moment to discuss a few different stories about how the movie’s dance scenes came to be.

And finally, we’ll have our interview with Adriana Pierce, the dancer and choreographer and founder of the #QueertheBallet movement. You know those ballets celebrating queerness from a non-male perspective that I just mentioned? Adriana is actually making some of them. She talked about how isolated she felt as a lesbian in professional ballet, and about how she’s working to build both representation for and community among queer women and non-binary ballet dancers.

Before we kick off this gloriously Pride-centric episode, just a quick reminder to subscribe to this podcast on your listening platform of choice—or, if you’re an Apple Podcasts person, to give us a follow, they just changed that process slightly. We are also always grateful for your feedback via ratings and especially reviews. Please let us know what you want to hear more or less of, complain about and/or compliment our dance puns, all of the above. We love to see all of it.

All right, now it’s time for our weekly dance headline rundown, which is Amy’s first ever! Let’s go.

Courtney Escoyne:
All right. So a few more Broadway updates to start us off this week. The Bill T. Jones-choreographed new musical Paradise Square has announced plans to begin Broadway previews on February 22 and open on March 20, following an out of town tryout in Chicago this fall. Another musical, about legendary Motown group the Four Tops, working title I’ll Be There, is also hoping for a spring 2022 Broadway opening after a planned out-of-town tryout in Detroit. And even further afield, a Broadway revival of Bob Fosse’s Dancin’, helmed by original cast member Wayne Cilento, is eyeing the 2022–23 season. The show that launched so many choreographic careers.

Margaret Fuhrer:
So many. Doesn’t it feel like we’re getting back to sort of the pre-pandemic Broadway news cycle, in a heartening way?

Courtney Escoyne:
A little bit, yeah. We’re actually hearing about stuff that wasn’t just, Oh, this was supposed to open on Broadway and it didn’t. We’re actually getting new things announced.

Margaret Fuhrer:
It’s actual news, yeah.

Amy Brandt:
It’s very exciting. On Sunday, June 6, you may have caught it on television, the Kennedy Center broadcasted their annual Kennedy Center Honors, which in addition to country singer Garth Brooks, violinist Midori ,and folk singer Joan Baez, honored Broadway and movie star Dick Van Dyke and dance icon Debbie Allen. And they were celebrated with some great dance numbers, including a performance of Fame and Step in Time with some very recognizable dance faces, including Tiler Peck, Derek Hough, Desmond Richardson, and I believe some members of Complexions I saw out there as well. You can go check it out on YouTube if you missed it on Sunday.

Courtney Escoyne:
Also, Debbie just looked so fabulous. That dress!

Amy Brandt:
I know, I know.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Oh my gosh.

Amy Brandt:
So exciting to see her honored like that.

Courtney Escoyne:
Further honoring some dance legends: tap dancer, choreographer, educator, and all around icon Dormeshia will receive the 2021 Jacob’s Pillow Dance Award this Saturday during Global Pillow, a virtual gala. The annual award includes a $25,000 unrestricted grant. And I don’t think we can wish a big enough congratulations. So well deserved.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Such great news. And we’ll include the link to that virtual Global Pillow gala, where she’ll be honored, in the show notes so you can watch it. It’s free. Please check it out.

Amy Brandt:
Boston Ballet has announced their 2021–22 season, which includes eight world premieres. Five of them are by women choreographers, for the company’s ChoreographHER program in March, 2022. Those choreographers include Claudia Schreier, Tiler Peck, visual artist Shantell Martin, and former Cunningham dancer Melissa Toogood, as well as Boston Ballet principal Lia Cirio. Mark your calendars for that performance in March. They also announced some world premieres by Jorma Elo, William Forsythe, and Stephen Galloway—who is former principal at Ballet Frankfurt, a costume designer, and also apparently a choreographer for the Rolling Stones.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I missed that part of the press release.

Courtney Escoyne:
Two points from me, the fact that Forsythe is doing Blake Works II, very hyped for that. Also would love it if the women choreographers weren’t all sequestered on a single program, that would be really nice to just get them in the rest of the season, too, guys. But…progress. A little bit of progress.

Margaret Fuhrer:
It is progress. Yeah.

Courtney Escoyne:
The Andrew W. Mellon foundation has announced details on Creatives Rebuild New York, a three year, $125 million initiative that will offer a guaranteed income program to 2,400 artists from across disciplines with acute financial needs, and an employment program to provide 300 artists with funding to achieve employment in full-time salaried positions at small to midsize community arts organizations across New York State. The advisory board is expected to be announced July 1, and details about the funding process will come on August 31.

Amy Brandt:
University of North Carolina School of the Arts has appointed dancer, educator, and choreographer and Endalyn Taylor as its new dean of the school of dance starting August 1. Taylor is a former principal dancer with Dance Theatre of Harlem, and served as principal of its school. She’s also performed on Broadway in The Lion King, Aida, and Carousel. And she spent the last six years at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, where she teaches ballet and musical theater as an associate professor of dance. Very huge, impressive resumé. She brings a wealth of knowledge to UNCSA, and those are some lucky dancers, I think.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Absolutely.

Courtney Escoyne:
And as it begins its 40th anniversary season, Elisa Monte Dance has rebranded itself as EMERGE125, a nod to the company’s base in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. And the idea of emerging, that it’s constantly moving forward as opposed to being stuck in any one point in time. It feels like that name speaks very directly to the brilliant work that Tiffany Rea-Fisher has been doing as artistic director of the company. If you have a few minutes, please do listen to the interview we did with Tiffany back in episode…49? 49. She’s a genius.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah, really brilliant, and full of light and joy.

Amy Brandt:
And we want to honor three dancers who have passed away recently: German performer and choreographer Raimund Hoghe, who was a dramaturg for Pina Bausch before creating pieces that contemplated his own non-normative body. He died at the age of 72. Russian-born ballerina Violetta Elvin, who danced with Sadler’s Wells Ballet and was seen as a potential rival to Margo Fonteyn. She died at the age of 97. And great Italian ballerina Carla Fracci, former prima ballerina at La Scala and the American Ballet Theatre, died at the age of 84.

Margaret Fuhrer:
We need to be done losing dance icons this year, please. Can we stop it, 2021? Stop it.

Courtney Escoyne:
It’s been a lot.

Margaret Fuhrer:
All right. In our first roundtable discussion today, we want to talk about a collection of ballets premiering this month that are allowing queer women and non-binary artists to be their complete and authentic selves on stage. Siobhan Burke wrote an excellent piece for the New York Times about some of these works and about why this kind of visibility is so important and why it has until very recently been so rare. And then The Washington Post also did a story about one of the new works, Katy Pyle’s Giselle of Loneliness, for their company Ballez, which actually premieres tonight, the day that you’re listening.

Later in this episode, you’ll hear Adriana Pierce articulate a lot of the points made in these stories beautifully and thoughtfully and very personally, and we don’t want to step on her toes, so to speak. But we did want to talk a bit about the premieres themselves and about what makes them so revolutionary. Go, Courtney, go.

Courtney Escoyne:
I’m just made of excitement about this whole segment. So I’ll actually start with Katy Pyle’s Giselle of Loneliness. It was supposed to debut last summer; obviously, it was postponed due to COVID. And they have since reworked the piece to make it really work in a really cool way with the digital format. So basically the concept is, in the course of this Giselle, seven dancers who are either female-identifying or non-binary dancers are essentially auditioning for the role of Giselle. Katy talks about, in the Washington Post piece, about putting together these five-minute variations that combine all the most difficult parts of what Giselle does technically in the course of the ballet.

But what it’s also doing, particularly in the premiere tonight, is taking these dancers auditioning and then having the audience vote on who best fulfills the role of Giselle. In so doing that, it is sort of asking audiences to look at the ways that they are complicit in the heteronormativity that is inherent in ballet and particularly emblematic in Giselle, which is sort of the… yeah. Giselle is kind of the epitome of balletic femininity. She’s beautiful and frail and loves to dance and is supported by the man and all these things, very floaty and ethereal. And kind of taking that and saying, okay, but who does this leave out? Who does this legacy leave out? And it uses this ballet as a way to confront the ways that dancers who don’t necessarily fit into that, in particular queer dancers, and giving them a chance to put their stamp on it.

And also they sort of gather as Wilis, and in a way, Albrecht is, in this case, ballet itself. And so they’re like the Wilis coming for ballet itself. I love everything about this. I’m actually watching it tonight. I’m really, really, really, really, really excited about it, in case you can’t tell.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I loved Katy’s quote in the Washington Post piece about—I’m not quoting it directly, but: “The Wilis hang out in the woods and kill men for a living, and that just sounded like kind of a great time.” I mean, obviously joking, but…

Courtney Escoyne:
I’m not saying that I sent that to a group of friends immediately after reading that, but I might have.

And then the other piece that was sort of focused on in these two stories was by Adriana Pierce, who we’ll be hearing from later. And she created a duet for freelance dancer Cortney Taylor Key and Washington Ballet Studio Company member Audrey Malek. It’s called Animals and Angels. It’s going to be a duet for two women en pointe who are in love. And Cortney Taylor Key talked about, in the New York Times story, reaching out to Adriana and saying she wanted to do a duet with another woman; she wanted to do it with Audrey because she’s another Black woman; and she wanted it to be a Juliet and Juliet, which is the point at which I started crying, reading this New York Times piece that Siobhan wrote so beautifully.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I love that this work trying to break down the gendered aspect of ballet technique is choreographed by somebody who has spent her life training intensively en pointe. So it’s an artist with a deep understanding of pointe work itself, rethinking pointe work as a tool for expression instead of a gendered thing. I think that’s really exciting stuff. And Adriana’s earlier duet that she choreographed for two dancers from American Ballet Theatre was a partnered pas de deux en pointe, it also explored many of those same ideas. And she talked about that in her interview as well.

Amy Brandt:
It’s not related to queerness, but I’ve seen some really interesting women on women partnering. I’m interested in seeing what Adriana is… in seeing her work, and to see the possibilities that are coming out with how women can lift each other, use weight transference. I am really excited to see a new story in addition to how women can partner each other. I’m interested in seeing that new perspective of a love story, basically, between two women on stage. I think it’s exciting, and I think it’s opening up the ballet world so much more to new possibilities. There are going to be some people who are resistant to the idea, but there’s so much space for more.

Courtney Escoyne:
I think we’ve talked about it before: even if we aren’t necessarily in ballet using these choreographic conventions to tell queer stories necessarily, I think that regardless of what kind of story that you are trying to tell, embracing the possibilities inherent in taking away those gender distinctions, at least just to find new choreographic approaches and voices, I think it can only enrich ballet. And I think the more open… And I maintain this for society in general, as well as for the arts: I think the more open we can be to different gender expressions and different sexualities and different perspectives on the world and what that lends, I think the more rich and nuanced work and art is going to come out of it.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Hear, hear—and that segues directly into our next round table topic of discussion. We’d like to discuss a feature that ran in The New Yorker this past week about flamenco artist Manuel Liñán. He is the subject of the new documentary Flamenco Queer, which follows his efforts to disrupt conservative flamenco culture. Because flamenco, like ballet, is built along the gender binary. There are rigid rules about what women and men “should” be doing in terms of technique and costuming and performing. And Liñán is a flamenco dancer of great expertise who does not play by those rules. He dances in drag. He does “female” steps. He finds ways to express his truest self through this art that he loves, but wants to see change.

And just a caveat here before we start a discussion: none of us are flamenco experts. So we’re really just encouraging you to go read the story and watch the accompanying film to get a more complete picture. But we did want to highlight Liñán and his work, because flamenco’s LGBTQ community is so chronically under-covered, even in dance-world media.

Amy Brandt:
I agree. And I found the film so interesting, and I saw a lot of parallels to ballet, actually, just even in our own ballet training. We have men’s class. We have pointe class, which has traditionally been for women. And I’ve seen in my own career and training and experience, dancers be discouraged from performing steps a certain way. I remember I had one director who used to tell the men, “You look a bit minty,” when he wanted them to be more weighted and “masculine.” So, I just saw a lot of parallels to ballet and that in this film.

There was a quote in the article, I’m not quoting it directly, but something like, art must evolve with society to stay relevant, but it takes artists to make those changes. And it was kind of referencing how flamenco was this very classical art form in Spain, it is very steeped in tradition, but that society and culture is changing and evolving all the time, and if the art form itself does not evolve with it, then it risks being lost. Yet at the same time, you need brave artists like Manuel to take those steps.

And you see his fear and his trepidation a little bit in the film. He talks about being nervous about exposing himself this way. But I also thought it was interesting—we see him teaching a class of young students, and he’s showing them these hand gestures where they’re rotating the wrists. And he’s saying, “When I was growing up, they told me it had to be two fingers pointed down, and that’s the way it had to be.” He’s like, “But I didn’t like that. I liked to use all of my fingers.” And he says, “You have a choice.” And so he gives his class—mostly girls, but I think there’s one boy—he’s like, “You have a choice, to choose which way you want to do it.”

Courtney Escoyne:
Which is a gender distinction in flamenco, because for the women you use the whole hand to articulate.

Amy Brandt:
Ah, I was wondering about that.

Courtney Escoyne:
To my knowledge, based on the very little flamenco that I’ve done. Whereas, the two fingers would be a more masculine presentation. There’s less flair in the fingers, even though they are actually basically identical wrist movements that you would do.

It’s actually another similarity to ballet, is that there are basics that you learn regardless of your assigned gender, and then a lot of what is just focused on and emphasized and the performance quality of flamenco comes in and has these very gendered distinctions. If you’re looking at traditional flamenco, which is what you would see in a tablao—so if you go to Spain and go to a cafe or a restaurant and it’s a tablao and they’ll have flamenco performances, it’ll be very traditional, with the singer and the flamenco dancer and very gendered distinctions about what exactly is done. There’s also traditional sequences of dances that you’ll learn as you’re coming up. Those can be repeated.

But there’s also another thread of flamenco, which is absolutely fascinating, which I think Manuel actually kind of does a good job of bridging the two. There’s another side that’s very contemporary flamenco, that is very concerned with innovation and very concerned with, okay, what can we use this form to say? And there are a lot of really brilliant flamenco artists out there, both within and without the queer community, who use the form as a way of questioning, okay, well, what does femininity mean? What does masculinity mean?

Rocío Molina is someone who does incredible work in this vein, and tours all over with it. And I think, watching the footage of Manuel, it was really interesting because he, dancing in drag, is wearing something that is very much from that traditional flamenco side, but traditionally worn by a woman. And so it’s this fascinating commentary that comes out then, of what does it mean for a man in drag to be doing these traditional steps in this traditional costume?

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. I kept thinking about Rocío Molina too, because I think she’s part of the nuevo flamenco movement that you were referencing. Her movements are—modern isn’t the right word, but her works are more transgressive, I guess, than Liñán. She’s operating, often, fully outside of that traditional flamenco framework.

But, Amy, what you were saying about the parallels to ballet—and I’m sorry to center ballet in all of our conversations, it’s just this is the world I came up in—but yeah, the first thing that I thought of, watching Liñán, was the Trocks. And I do think there’s an overlap there in that Liñán and his dancers and the Trocks earn respect because of their extensive expertise in their respective forms. The obvious skill and the knowledge that they all have lends them authority. But Liñán, what he’s doing—not that it’s without a sense of humor, but it’s not a farce the way that the Trocks’ performances are. It’s instead a subverting of tradition because that’s what feels most right and honest to the performers, which I think is really beautiful.

And yeah, I mean, just like as we were saying with other works by queer performers in ballet, how exciting are the possibilities that that kind of thinking opens up? The world is ready for this.

Courtney Escoyne:
Also, flamenco is so much about duende, about spirit. And I think opening and allowing queer artists to be who they are authentically on stage, again, is only going to enrich the form.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. Theme of the episode. Alrighty. Last on the docket today, we have the premiere of the In the Heights film, which is finally happening this weekend. A few different recent stories have gotten into how choreographer Christopher Scott used dance to bring the musical to life on screen, because dance is such an important part of this work’s storytelling. And then Warner Bros. actually went ahead and released the whole first eight minutes of the film on YouTube this week, too. And that clip includes this massive dance scene, part of which appears to be filmed in the reflection of the bodega’s window, which is bananas. I mean, there’s a lot to talk about here.

Courtney Escoyne:
I mean, I watched that eight minutes this morning and I was smiling the whole time and then also tearing up simultaneously, and if that doesn’t summarize my feelings about this movie finally coming out, I don’t know what does.

Margaret Fuhrer:
That is pretty much it.

Amy Brandt:
I agree. I actually lived in Washington Heights for many years, so I am very excited to see this. I can’t wait. I keep looking for landmarks I recognize, streets I recognize, businesses I recognize and whatnot. It’s been really fun to see it. It’s such a great area of New York, too. It is so rich in culture because there’s a huge Dominican population, and there’s also a big Jewish population, and there’s also a lot of performing artists that live in the area as well. So there is so much authenticity to that neighborhood, is the only thing I can think of. I cannot wait to see this movie. I’ve been waiting all year for it to come out.

Courtney Escoyne:
And it’s Lin’s neighborhood. And this was his big breakout Broadway musical. And then they filmed it in the neighborhood. And like Christopher Scott talked about in his Dance Magazine interview, getting all these performers set up on site sometimes had inherent challenges, like, oop, there’s a huge crack in the middle of the sidewalk that we have to figure out how we’re going to dance around. But we wanted that energy. We wanted to actually be there. Which totally has precedence in the Jerome Robbins West Side Story movie. That was the first major movie musical that was actually shot on location in New York City. And they went twice as long as they were supposed to, and the budget was insane, and Jerome Robbins was like, “I have no idea if this is going to work, but we’ll see.”

And then now, here we are 60 years later with this magnificent looking film. And in this opening scene, we see so many dancers just out on the sidewalk doing their thing. They’re in unison, but everyone has their own verve. And just—Christopher Scott did such a great job pulling out choreography when choreography needed to be pulled out and then pulling it back and keeping it subtle whenever you really needed to listen to the lyrics, because we all know Lin-Manuel loves a complex rhythm, and just…mm!

Amy Brandt:
I also read, I think in the Daily News, how they did dance auditions in both L.A. and New York City, but it was very clear that they had to use New York City dancers because the difference was so huge. Dancers in L.A. were very polished, were very professional. And the dancers in New York just had a totally different vibe to them, a rawness to them, that really captured the culture and the neighborhood that they were trying to harness there.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. I kept thinking, watching that clip, about how deftly Christopher Scott—and actually the whole team of choreographers, we should acknowledge that it’s not just Chris, but also Ebony Williams and Dana Wilson and then Eddie Torres Jr. and Princess Serrano, it’s a whole group of brilliant artists—they played so deftly with scale in a way that was especially camera friendly. Some of the most effective bits of choreography are when they pull it back because the lyrics are doing something crazy, and it’s just these ingenious ways that Usnavi and Sonny are throwing cans around the bodega and stickering them. And then you pull out to this epic dance number in the streets with what appears to be hundreds of people. That impact is going to hit you full in the chest on a movie theater screen.

Courtney Escoyne:
And I love how they transitioned us into that, because the shot is at first of Usnavi looking out the window and he’s singing to the camera, but you see in the reflection dancers doing choreography, and it’s…I need to see this on a big screen!

Margaret Fuhrer:
I love that as a sort of cinematic play on the musical theater idea of daydreams manifesting in reality. You see the reflection in the bodega window, and it’s like, is he just just imagining this? And then you pull out and it’s like, Oh no, actually there are literally hundreds of dancers in the street.

Courtney Escoyne:
Oh, no. It’s there! Also, shout out to Anthony Ramos for killing that unison choreography at the end. I didn’t fully process like, oh no, that’s him doing that. Okay.

Margaret Fuhrer:
He’s a dancer.

Courtney EscoyneAnd r
I can’t wait for him to just do all the things. He’s going to blow up. Everyone’s going to have a crush on him after this. And rightly so. Like, mmm, get it.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I feel like that’s the only way to end, is just by saying yet again: Anthony Ramos is going to be—he is a star. He’s going to be a bigger star, and we can’t wait.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yes. Just you wait.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I wasn’t going to do it! But you went there, and I love it.

Courtney Escoyne:
That was actually completely the wrong melody. It’s fine. [laughter]

Margaret Fuhrer:
Okay, we’re going to take a break, because we’re way over time. When we come back, we’ll have our interview with Adriana Pierce, so stay tuned.

[pause]

INTERVIEW WITH ADRIANA PIERCE

Margaret Fuhrer:
All right, dance friends. I am very excited to be here now with dancer and choreographer and activist Adriana Pierce—and her cat! Hi, Adriana.

Adriana Pierce:
Hi!

Margaret Fuhrer:
Thank you so much for coming on today.

Adriana Pierce:
Yeah, it’s a pleasure.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Adriana danced for seven seasons at Miami City Ballet before leaving to focus on choreography and musical theater—you will see her as a Jet in Steven Spielberg’s upcoming West Side Story film. And she’s also the creator of #QueertheBallet, which is a movement that aims to increase queer visibility, especially the visibility of queer women and non-binary dancers, in classical ballet. And we’re going to talk about that work in much more detail today. But first, Adriana, would you start by telling listeners what you think they should know about your dance story—your relationship with dance?

Adriana Pierce:
Yeah. I started dancing very young and it was clear, early on, that it was something that I loved to do and did well and wanted to pursue. Actually, I grew up wanting to do musical theater—I wanted to be on Broadway as a young person. Ballet wasn’t really ever on the list. I, somewhat defiantly, would say that I was only doing ballet to help my jazz technique.

But yeah, then one of my teachers recommended that I audition for the School of American Ballet. And so I went, and it kind of opened my eyes to this whole new, beautiful world of Balanchine. And I kind of fell in love with ballet, and went on that track. And then I did my apprenticeship with New York City Ballet. And like you said, I was in Miami, and now I’m back in New York, doing musical theater and whatever comes my way in addition to pursuing my choreography.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Oh, I didn’t know that—I hadn’t realized that your work in musical theater now, that’s a full circle moment, instead of a departure. That’s kind of lovely.

Adriana Pierce:
Total full circle. Yeah. It was really exciting—especially when I did Carousel on Broadway, working with Justin Peck, it was, I felt, a perfect transition, working within a movement sphere that I was comfortable with, but also finally getting to realize this other dream that I also had. So I’m very lucky.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah—like the middle of your Venn diagram of interests.

So, you’ve talked in some other interviews about some of your experiences growing up as a queer female in the ballet world. And, if you’re willing to talk about this, what sort of messaging did you get about gender and sexual identity as a ballet student, and as a young ballet professional?

Adriana Pierce:
Well, I think the biggest thing is that I just felt this overwhelming sense of isolation. And I think that that is the overarching theme that I felt. I thought I was the only one like me. I didn’t have any example, or anyone to look up to, or any sort of sense of community. And so when I did come up against—whether overt homophobia or homophobia that might’ve been a little more subtle, mixed in with the sexism that just happens as a woman in the world, but also in our field—I didn’t know how to handle it.

And I think that that was the biggest thing for me: feeling alone, feeling like I didn’t have a sense of community. And I would try to find ways to cope, but not necessarily understand how to do that. And ballet is beautiful, but it’s also a difficult field to work in. It’s very hard. It’s tiring. Working in a ballet company has a whole set of politics and things. And so I often felt as though I was working in a world that didn’t see me, and I constantly felt as though I needed to navigate or negotiate the parts of myself that I let ballet have, or let ballet see. And that was my way of, I think, protecting myself.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, there was no way for you to be your complete self in this space. You’ve started answering this question already, but what is it about ballet, both its technique and its culture, that makes it an often-unwelcoming space for queer female and non-binary artists in particular?

Adriana Pierce:
Well, ballet, first of all, exists very solidly on the gender binary. It relies on it in a lot of ways. And I think that that’s partly—no, mainly—it’s tradition, where it came from, and the relationships between the men and women on stage and how they connect with each other and interact with each other. That’s inherent in ballet’s history. So I think that that plays a really huge role. But I think that there’s also a cutthroat element to ballet. I mean, it’s so hard, it’s so elite, and you want to succeed. And so you want to fall into whatever categories already exist in order to be successful. So I think that the reliance on gender norms and the gender binary absolutely play into it.

And we also are socialized in very different ways. We treat our young dancers in very specific ways, if they are a girl, if they are a boy, and then they’re on this track. And there’s very little wiggle room there. And I think that then we get into a situation where those dancers are adults and in the professional world, and they have been so carefully conditioned to fit in these types, that it’s very difficult to break out of them.

But for me, it’s always been that, in my own body, I feel that I encompass a lot of feelings and adjectives and movement. And so part of my work now is wanting to try to reconcile that feeling that I have when I dance that’s so freeing and beautiful and joyful, with that remembering how it felt to kind of only show or be part of myself in order to fit into that world. And I truly feel that my being there in that world is evidence that says that a ballet can be more, because there are people like me, so many different types of identities, and people with all sorts of different gender expressions that can do ballet, and get so much joy out of it. So there has to be a way to reconcile both of those things.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. Ballet contains multitudes. People contain multitudes. There should be space for all of that within the art.

Adriana Pierce:
Exactly.

Margaret Fuhrer:
And actually, things that you were touching on in that last answer lead into my next question, which is about the differences between how queer female dancers are seen and how queer male ballet dancers are seen. Because all of them are facing uphill battles, and yet queer men occupy a very different space in the ballet world. And I think that’s connected to the sense of exceptionalism for boys in ballet, because there are so few boys starting out that they receive—that they’re just treated differently. And that then affects what happens down the line as well.

But I don’t know why I’m talking about this. [laughter] I’d like to hear what you think about how that all plays out.

Adriana Pierce:
Well, yeah, but that’s definitely part of it. I mean, you’re right. It’s like, we allow men certain leeway that we just would never allow women because—well, you don’t want to do this, or you aren’t good enough? Well, we’ll find another [woman] down the street to take your place. And so there’s always this feeling of being expendable. And I think that as a woman…this is what I always say, is that it’s the addition of the sexism, along with the homophobia, that makes it so much more difficult to be a queer woman in a ballet space. And the men don’t experience sexism because they’re men. So they move about this space in a very different way.

And I have a lot of gay male friends who I love and adore, and I cherish that friendship, because when I did feel so isolated and alone in ballet companies, at the very least, I did feel as though I could talk through some of what I was feeling with them. But we could never fully meet there. I remember when one of my friends in the company said to me, “Well, do you ever feel as though, when you see discrimination against the gay men in the company, again, whether it’s overt or more subtle, does that at least make you feel like, at least you’re not the only one?” And I was just like, “Well, no, because I’m not even considered.” It’s so separate from my experience. We can’t even like share in our own experiences of discrimination because they’re different, and they look different, and they sound different.

Part of my struggle as a queer woman is having to convince people that women are sexual beings who have like very complex identities, and gender expression, and sexuality. It’s very difficult for people to accept that women could exist beyond this box that we put them in, and men don’t come up against that same wall that women do.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. And especially in ballet, because ballet has been positioned in the mainstream world as this, like, pinnacle of traditional femininity. And if you’re in ballet, of course you want to wear tutus and you want to be perceived a certain way, and you have a certain vision of womanhood. But that’s all just projected onto dancers. That’s not necessarily who they are.

Adriana Pierce:
Right. And it’s not necessarily who they are, and it’s not the only way that ballet needs to be.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Right. Yeah. And projected onto ballet from the outside, often, or from institutions within the art form.

So let’s talk about the beginnings of #QueertheBallet. What inspired it? Was there sort of a lightning-bolt moment, or was it more a culmination of all these years of experiences?

Adriana Pierce:
Well, I think the pandemic affected all of us in so many ways. I spent the first half of it, I would say, just feeling so despondent. I mean, I lost a lot of work. It was very difficult to see any sort of way forward, both for myself and for the world. I mean, I just definitely sat in that low place for a little while. Not really knowing how to pull myself out of it.

But then something that happened over the summer, was that I started finally connecting with other queer women and non-binary dancers from all over the world. And so, I always felt as though I was the only one, but the reality is that we’re all over. We do exist. We just don’t know, and the community doesn’t ever talk about it. So I finally, along with a couple other dancers, was able to connect with all these queer artists. And we started getting on Zoom together and having like little Zoom parties. And for the first time, I was able to connect on a level that was truly meaningful. And we shared our experiences. A lot of them were very similar, and that sense of community was so overwhelming for me. I was so inspired by it.

And so when one of those dancers came to me and asked if I would choreograph a piece for her, and one of the other dancers, I said, “Well, of course.” But I just didn’t want it to be a one-and-done thing. If I was going to do that, I wanted it to be a larger conversation. I wanted to contextualize it in a way that kind of opened the door for this really important discussion that we needed to be having. Because people need to know we’re all here. We are having Zoom parties. We are creating community. We are here, we are doing it, and we’re all creating and trying to advocate for ourselves.

And so that’s kind of where it all happened. It was this one idea, from this overwhelming sense of community. And I’m so grateful for that feeling. And my work with #QueertheBallet, I want everyone to be able to have that feeling, whether they are in professional ballet right now, whether they are training, whether they want to be, or whether they used to dance and don’t anymore, but remember how much joy they felt, or people that have no idea what ballet is. The ballet can be a space for them and is a space for them. And there are so many of us queer artists who are doing everything we can to be loud, and proud, and create meaningful work.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I feel like you kind of did just sum up the mission of #QueertheBallet, but now I’m going to officially ask you anyway: How would you describe the mission of the ballet? How do you hope to change both what ballet looks like, and how people inside and outside of dance think about it?

Adriana Pierce:
Yeah. I mean, I think that the big thing is visibility. I want to create and foster visibility and authentic representation in our art form, and that means inclusive representation. I want to lift up other queer artists and other underrepresented identities in ballet, because it’s not just me. It’s not just queer women. There are so many people who deserve to feel seen by our community. And so I’m going to do whatever I can to lift them up. I think that there’s a lot of different ways that this can happen, and it can be accessible. Live performances are important. So I’m going to continue to be pushing for that.

I love dance films because they’re so accessible. And it reminds me of when I was a young queer person trying to figure out who I was, and I would just like scour the internet for any movies or film or little clips on TV of queer women, any sort of representation I could even find. But yeah, so I think that having dance films are incredibly important, because they are accessible to a lot of different types of people. But then I also want #QueertheBallet to contribute to the conversations that we need to be having about education and the way we train our young people, and the way that we train in the studio, both with technique, but also with partnering work.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. Actually I want to discuss pointe work in particular, because for so much of ballet’s history, pointe shoes have been this clear dividing line: women wear them, men don’t, or if men do wear them, it’s to be funny, it’s a joke. So how are you hoping that dancers, and choreographers, and educators, too, can re-imagine pointe work outside of that gender binary?

Adriana Pierce:
Well, I think it’s very important to think of pointe work as a skill and a technique, as opposed to something that is very gendered. It shouldn’t be a gender indicator. So if we think about it in that way, I think it’s a lot easier to create partnering work that’s more equitable. And also we need to be thinking about the type of work that is being created on dancers who are on pointe. The reason why I’m saying that is because, as someone who has danced on pointe is very proficient in pointe work, the way that I am going to approach choreographing for someone on pointe is very different than someone who has never been on pointe before. And I think we need to honor the skill, the profound, beautiful skill that these dancers have perfected over years, and years, and years of their life. It deserves to be honored in that way.

But I also think it needs to be open to whoever wants to pursue that skill, just as early on as, traditionally, girls begin. Whatever gender—if you want to be on pointe, you should be able to be on pointe, and if you don’t want to be on pointe, you should be able to not be on pointe, no matter what gender you identify as, and then still have a professional career.

So I think that we need to be thinking of pointe work as not just a woman thing, but as a skill that can be mastered, and think critically about the way that we use that skill on stage and in choreography.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. It is a tool in a dancer’s toolbox. Totally.

Adriana Pierce:
Yeah. I think ballet’s use of gender is problematic. And historically, I mean, if we look at where ballet comes from and why it is the way it is, its relationship with gender is problematic. I’m not saying that we should do away with the pointe shoe. I truly believe that there is a way to move forward in a more equitable and respectful way.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. Well, clearly you can do—I mean, you made this beautiful duet for two women on pointe, these two incredible dancers from American Ballet Theatre. Let’s talk about that a little bit about this residency that you had at Bridge Street Theatre, where you developed this pas de deux. How did you explore new ways of thinking about ballet and identity in that piece? What questions were you asking and trying to answer through that work?

Adriana Pierce:
Yeah, so pretty directly, I was trying to answer the question, how do two women on pointe partner with each other? Because that automatically is going to allow us to challenge us to question gender and to question gender identity in that space. So I went about in actually a very practical way. Each day I had kind of a different goal. And so the choreography kind of reflects that.

So if you watch the piece, the first time they touch was actually day one. I added the intro kind of at the end. So when they touch, their hands, was day one. And then you can see the progression of what we did. And basically what I did was break down, partnering work into five, I call them pillars. So there’s five kinds of different pillars of the physicality of partnering work. So that’s lifts, turns, any sort of weight balance or counterbalance, promenades or things that happen in multiple movements on pointe, and then physically the way that they interact or the way that they present, whatever connection they may or may not have onstage.

So those were my kind of pillars. And then, so each day I would come in and say, “Okay, so if you’re going to lift each other, how’s that going to be? How can we do that? What’s our answer to each of these things that feels authentic to ourselves and our body, and not only that, but the story that we’re telling?” Because I also think that we need to be tailoring the movement and the way that two dancers are interacting to the story that they’re telling. It’s not just like we’re fitting them into some rubric that already exists. Because, I’m not going to have two women dancing together in a tender, affectionate way without giving them their own language to speak. Otherwise, it would feel…

Margaret Fuhrer:
Arbitrary. Yeah.

Adriana Pierce:
Yeah, it wouldn’t be right. So it really was just this very kind of practical approach of each day tackling one of these things. What’s our answer? How do we translate that?

Margaret Fuhrer:
That piece is on YouTube now, and we’ll link to it in the show notes so everybody can watch it, because it really is beautiful.

Bigger picture, what advice do you have for dancers—maybe students, maybe professional dancers—who are struggling to figure out where, or if, they fit inside ballet, they fit inside ballet’s technique, they fit inside its norms? What would you say to them?

Adriana Pierce:
Yeah. I mean, it’s not advice necessarily, but I first want to say I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry that it’s so hard. And you don’t deserve that. No one deserves that. And I’m so sorry.

But you’re not alone. And it’s such a simple thing to say. But I think, as a young person, and at SAB, the thing that I think could have made me feel so much better was just knowing that I wasn’t alone, and that there are other people like me who are successful and doing the work, and there is a community. We are here. So you’re not alone. And keep going. And we’re here if you need us, basically.

And I’m not going to stop. It took me a long time to get here, to feel like I can claim my queerness in a confident way, in a graceful way, in this space. And now that I’m here, I’m not going anywhere. And I want everyone to be able to do a quick little Google and find a whole multitude of beautiful, wonderful queer artists doing amazing things so.

Margaret Fuhrer:
More people to have Zoom parties with, if you need them.

Adriana Pierce:
Yes! All the Zoom parties.

Margaret Fuhrer:
So finally, can you talk about—I know you have some exciting things coming up. What is on the horizon for you and #QueertheBallet that listeners should know about?

Adriana Pierce:
Well, coming up, I actually am excited to share that I have a dance film that’s going to be premiering as part of the Joyce’s virtual spring season on June 21st. I’m really excited about it. So that is coming up right now.

I am going to continue moving forward and continuing to create work and collaborate with other amazing queer artists. And…yeah.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. We’re so excited to hear more. And where can listeners go to keep up with you and everything that you’re working on?

Adriana Pierce:
Yes, @queertheballet pretty much everywhere—Instagram. And also queertheballet.com. And it’s a hashtag, #QueertheBallet, because, first of all, it’s bigger than me. It’s bigger than us. I don’t own the hashtag. The hashtag is for everyone. Everyone can use it. But also it’s very easy to find, easy to connect, easy to find content. Community, community, community, as accessible as possible.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. One Google search away, #QueertheBallet. But we’ll also link to all of your pages in the show notes so people can find you that way too.

Adriana Pierce:
Great.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Adriana, thank you so much for your candor and for all the work that you’re doing. It’s greatly appreciated.

Adriana Pierce:
Thank you.

[pause]

Margaret Fuhrer:
Thanks again to Adriana. We actually recorded our interview a few weeks ago, when she wasn’t sure how much she could say about her upcoming film, but now that cat is officially out of the bag. So, just a little bit more information: As she mentioned, it’s premiering as part of the Joyce’s virtual season on June 21. The piece is called Animals and Angels. It features dancers Cortney Taylor Key and Audrey Malek, aka Juliet and Juliet; they’re both dancing en pointe. And you can find out more about that work at joyce.org. We’re so excited to see that one.

All right. Thanks everyone for joining us. We will be back next week for more discussion of the news that’s moving the dance world. Keep learning, keep advocating, and keep dancing.

Courtney Escoyne:
Mind how you go, friends.

Amy Brandt:
Bye everybody.