The words “ballet” and “gender-fluid” don’t often appear in the same sentence. In ballet’s early years at the court of Louis XIV, men danced in roles depicting women, but by the 20th century, gender entrenchment had set in. Princes and cavaliers were men, swans and sugar plums were women; men lifted, women danced on the tips of their toes—you get the idea. At some point in the mid-1900s, men began performing roles representing female characters like Madge, the grotesque witch in La Sylphide, and vengeful Carabosse in The Sleeping Beauty. For some productions of Cinderella, men danced on pointe as caricatures in the roles of the ugly stepsisters. Do we have to laugh when a man dances on pointe? Does ballet need to be so gendered?
As a new generation of dance makers challenges ballet’s traditions, we find welcome change. Justin Peck’s The Times Are Racing premiered in 2017 for New York City Ballet where Justin serves as Resident Choreographer. Robert Fairchild led the first cast and Ashley Isaacs stepped in as the second. Peck was exploring firsts, with a male and female performing a central duet. An alternate cast offered two men. These casting choices were not made in a way that was defiant or performative, but in a way that was normal to a new generation. At Pacific Northwest Ballet, same-gender duets are common enough that we just refer to them as duets. We’re endeavoring to remove gender indications in casting, and pointe work is now an option in our School for anyone who would like to study on pointe. In Caught, Elle Macy and Kuu Sakuragi alternate. Multiple casts of The Times Are Racing align with our new normal. There will be a day, hopefully quite soon, when these topics and these Director’s Notes are more of a footnote in our history and evolution.
We welcome Robyn Mineko Williams back for her second creation with PNB. Robyn’s work feels exploratory even in performance. We can almost watch her mind shifting through shapes and points of contact. Her work draws us into a private meditative space. Adding singer/composers Sima Cunningham and Macie Stewart into the mix is thrilling. Our orchestra loves a challenge and Macie and Sima have brought one.
David Parsons’ Caught still feels freshly minted, but this arresting solo is now entering its fourth decade. I remember David performing this piece in New York like a true rock star. PNB dancers promise to do no less. Crystal Pite is not like the rest of us. Her brilliance is above and beyond. Plot Point takes us to the edge of our seats, unravels expectations, and creates a world of its own. Having stager Eric Beauchesne and Crystal in-studio guiding the reconstruction process offered valuable lessons in clarity and intention. Closing the program is The Times Are Racing, staged for us by Craig Hall with Justin joining us for key rehearsals. It may signal a new generation, with Dan Deacon’s pulsing score and Humberto Leon’s bright designs alongside Peck’s signature rhythms. This choreographer is at home in a pair of sneakers. Dancers love this work. It speaks to their generation. You are part of this generation too. We all are. This rep offers us a chance to celebrate where we are today, and how we will embrace tomorrow.
Featured photo: Elle Macy and Joshua Grant rehearsing Crystal Pite’s Plot Point in 2017, photo © Lindsay Thomas.
Photo: Robyn Mineko Williams working with PNB dancers, photo © Lindsay Thomas.