Katy Pyle, a smart Texan kicked out of ballet class at sixteen because she was too sturdy, has imagined, for her Brooklyn-based Ballez ensemble, a mash-up of Sleeping Beauty and Beauty and the Beast. The opening act in this year’s La MaMa Moves Festival, it’s a serious bid to view ballet tradition and Lower East Side history through a queer lens.
One problematic aspect is the actual dancing — or rather, the lack of it. Pyle teaches classes friendly to any body, but grand performance visions of this sort require more rigorous technique, and few of the cast members actually display that.
In Act 1, set initially in 1877 and then in 1893, baby Princess Aurora is feted at her christening by a male trio, identified in a program note as designers who work for her father, the owner of a garment factory. For this act, the Queer Urban Orchestra, conducted by Julie Desbordes, plays Tchaikovsky’s original score for choreographer Marius Petipa’s 1890 production. The “faeries” — danced by Chris De Vita, Charles Gowin, and Chris Braz — are some of the best movers on the Ellen Stewart Theatre’s huge floor, yet the gifts they lavish on the heroine’s cradle, while described at length in the program, are hard to interpret in actual choreography.
The same thing happens with Carabosse, identified as the “outcast dyke cousin” and the tale’s wicked fairy. In the role, dazzling comedienne Deborah Lohse performs classic dance mime, which purports (again in a note) to be a reading of the child’s natal chart and a prediction of her eventual fate. But Petipa never made a ballerina explain in gesture that Aurora has Libra rising and a Scorpio moon, or that she’ll come out as a dyke on her sixteenth birthday and fall for a leather-clad stone butch (a solid Jules Skloot, the show’s co-choreographer).
A highlight of the work, otherwise awfully somber, is that literal coming-out. Aurora (Madison Krekel) sheds her pink, polka-dot shepherdess drag and glories in a masculine frock coat, performing a gender-switched pas de deux with De Vita’s Lilac Faerie and choosing as her prince the butch Beast, who’s been leading a labor uprising in Dad’s factory. The garment workers (who seem to have arrived out of a 1930s Martha Graham dance rather than a nineteenth-century ballet) carry placards and ultimately stage a die-in, ending the first act.
After intermission we find ourselves in 1993 — a hundred years of slumber later — relocated to a gay club (in La MaMa’s new Downstairs space) during the AIDS crisis. In a scene initially more reminiscent of a middle-school prom than the dance palaces of 25 years ago, the dykes clump awkwardly, except for Aurora, whose Beast hoists her up a wall, burying her face in the royal crotch. Surrounding the dykes are eight Dying Swans wearing only their tighty whities and uttering raucous fowl sounds. The group circles in a tentative grand right and left around the fallen body of the Lilac Faerie, who is about to succumb to AIDS. The Beast lip-syncs Roy Orbison’s “Crying” then puts an arm around Aurora. They follow the funeral procession out the door, as the audience cheers wildly.
The overlay of American labor history and gay politics on this hybrid story is less than fully realized; without the program notes we’d be lost. But the array of body types and gender roles, way more diverse than your average Lincoln Center show, offers hope for the future — and maybe a new float for the Pride parade.
Sleeping Beauty & the Beast
Directed by Katy Pyle
Ellen Stewart Theatre and The Downstairs
66 East 4th Street
Through May 8