The pointe shoe is instrumental and symbolic to ballet.
As a tool, pointe shoes extend a dancer’s line and create a sense of physical lightness. As an emblem, the pointe shoe is associated with ballet’s strict gender roles: The shoe is worn by women, not men.
Similarly, female ballet dancers are expected to execute delicate and precise movements and male dancers are expected to display strength by effortlessly lifting and supporting their partners. George Balanchine, one of ballet’s most influential choreographers, likened female dancers to “a garden of beautiful flowers” and described male dancers as “the gardener.”
Since its founding in December 2020, Ballet22 has been questioning these gender normative traditions.
Ballet22, which performs Friday through Sunday at San Francisco’s Great Star Theater, choreographs male-identifying dancers on pointe and amplifies queer voices by reimagining classical ballets such as “Swan Lake” and “The Nutcracker.”
Usually males on pointe elicit laughter. Productions such as “Cinderella” and the all-male Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo ham up choreographic jokes by putting their male dancers in pointe shoes. Roberto Vega Ortiz toured with Les Ballets Trockadero in 2017, and got to dance on pointe, but said he felt “there was still something missing because it was comedy, you’re in drag and you have a wig on.”
During California’s stay-at-home order in early 2020, Ortiz, 25, posted videos to social media of himself dancing on pointe with the hashtag #maleballerinas. Reactions were so overwhelmingly supportive that Ortiz and a close friend, Carlos Hopuy, decided to offer Zoom classes teaching men how to dance in pointe shoes. With a substantial social media following and a push from Theresa Knudson, Ortiz’s close friend and roommate, Ballet22, a troupe of male ballerinas dancing on pointe but not in drag, was founded in December 2020.
For Knudson, the company’s executive director, Ballet22’s work separates the history and culture of ballet. “Ballet is really old and it’s held on a platform and pedestal of tradition, which is beautiful. Many times that sternness to uphold tradition means that certain things like racism, ageism, ableism, sexism … get stuck in the web,” she said.
The company uses a “dancers first” approach that gives performers the freedom to express themselves on stage. While the classical ballet world enforces a uniform look of clean-shaven faces and tight buns, Ballet22 has no interest, allowing dancers to wear beards, braids and mustaches. “We don’t want to see you change how you’re presenting for a show. In fact, double down on it,” said Knudson of Ballet22’s performers.
Trevor Williams, who trained with the Louisville Ballet, was drawn to Ballet22’s subversion of the art. “There is a fine line and blurred energy between masculine and feminine in this company that I love. It’s something that you can’t find anywhere else,” said Williams, who joined Ballet22 specifically to dance professionally on pointe.
Philip Rocamora, a dancer recruited for the company’s 2022 gala performances, was first introduced to pointe dancing in 2012 through a friend in Les Trockadero and immediately fell in love with the style. Male dancers typically wear ballet slippers, so there was a learning curve for Rocamora. “Dancing on flats and dancing on pointe are like up and down. It’s so different,” he said. “Even if you’re good, when you put the shoes on, it’s like you’re learning from the start because pointe is a different technique.”
Ballet22’s dancers have spent the last few weeks tapping their pointe shoes against Marley floor mats in an Oakland studio. This weekend, they migrate to Chinatown’s Great Star Theater for their first live performance of the year. The program will feature scores from classics like “Swan Lake,” a world premiere by Durante Verzola and the duet “Symbiotic Twins” choreographed by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa.
Knudson believes Ballet22’s future is bright and a means for LGBTQ+ dancers to unleash their creativity. “I think all of us are wanting to see a more independent woman or want to see more queer stories. We want to see our real lives and not just fairy tales,” said Knudson. She says that while “the fairy tales and the traditions should be preserved,” those in ballet must also ask themselves: “How do we make this field move forward?”
Ortiz views the modernization of ballet in increments of 10, comparing the field’s progress from a decade ago to where it is headed in the coming years. “I can’t wait to see what has changed and what has happened and what will happen with other companies because I hope we’re not the only one,” said Ortiz. “We are the first one, just kind of setting the example.”
IF YOU GO:
When: 7 p.m., Feb. 25 & 26, 3 p.m., Feb. 27
Where: Great Star Theater, S.F.
Tickets: $20 to $600
Contact: (415) 735-4159, https://www.greatstartheater.org/ballet22-gala