Ballet Company Raises the Barre for Queer Storytelling
Like many traditional fairy tales, Sleeping Beauty is the story of a damsel in distress brought back to life by true love’s kiss. But in Katy Pyle’s ballet, Sleeping Beauty and the Beast, protagonist Aurora falls in love with a female activist at the turn of the 20th century and wakes after 100 years to find herself in 1993 coping with the aftermath of the AIDS pandemic in New York City.
“I wanted to force [ballet] to include the stories of my own history and the lineage of the people that I love and that I care about,” Pyle, founder of New York City–based dance company Ballez, told TakePart. Ballez features lesbian, queer, and transgender performers expressing stories that resonate within their community.
Pyle started Ballez in 2011, and Sleeping Beauty and the Beast marks the company’s second major performance. It’s set to make its debut during next month’s La MaMa Moves dance festival in New York. A Kickstarter campaign launched by Pyle to pay the show’s cast and crew has raised roughly $13,000 of its $25,000 goal.
Set during the Big Apple’s garment workers strike of 1893, Sleeping Beauty and the Beast features Aurora as the daughter of a clothing factory owner. She falls in love with a woman organizing a strike against her father’s company. After pricking her finger on her spinning wheel, Aurora awakens 100 years later, in the aftermath of the AIDS pandemic. Although Pyle was a teenager at the time, she spoke with queer people who spent the 1990s attending funerals and serving as caretakers. “There were a lot of different ways that queer women especially were involved in activism, and research, and caretaking,” she explained, and the ballet highlights many of these contributions.
While the ballet sheds light on the queer experience through history, the dance company also serves as a creative outlet for queer dancers who may not fit in with traditional dance companies—something Pyle experienced herself.
“I loved ballet growing up and was kind of kicked out of it when I was 16 because of my body type. I was always really muscular and strong,” she said. “One of my ballet teachers said to me, ‘If only you had been born a boy, you would have a really great career.’ ”
#TBT hi y'all. This is me, Katy Pyle, when I was 15. I had a really intense eating disorder and made sure I ate less than 1000 calories a day. I fantasized constantly about surgeries to shave down my muscles and to remove my lower ribs. I was suicidal and couldn't think clearly, much less make choreography. Today I weigh 30 pounds more than I did in this picture, am loved and supported by a community of progressive thinkers and makers, and I'm trying to CHANGE ideas about ballet and what it can and should represent. I used to be part of that world. And because of a whole bunch of reasons, including my gender, sexuality, and the size of my body, I was kicked out. I don't want you to like this image. I want you to help me change it. I want to create more space in this form and to create new images for young people to aspire to. But I can't do it alone. Support the Ballez: @kickstarter link in bio.
But at Ballez, subverting the typical ballet body type and gender norms is encouraged. “I wanted to make a space that could include more people and more perspectives,” Pyle said. “It’s really important to me that people get to be who they are—even within playing these characters. They don’t have to pretend to be something else.”
While Pyle hopes the audience enjoys the upcoming performance of Sleeping Beauty and the Beast for its skilled dancers and creative retelling of the story, she also wants to challenge how people perceive ballet.
“I hope that [viewers] have a new idea of what’s possible in how we can change forms to reflect what we value,” she said. “We don’t have to be attached so tightly to things being the way they are just because they’ve always been that way. We can really change the form and include more people.”