A nonbinary swan, on pointe

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A nonbinary swan, on pointe
Ashton Edwards, an apprentice at Pacific Northwest Ballet, during rehearsals for ’Swan Lake,’ in Seattle, April 8, 2022. Edwards is part of a rising generation of gender nonconforming dancers questioning ballet’s rigid gender roles. Meron Tekie Menghistab/The New York Times.

by Margaret Fuhrer

NEW YORK, NY.- Ashton Edwards’ ballet dreams were dashed at age 6. Raised as a boy in the Midwest, Edwards, who is nonbinary and now uses they/them pronouns, had hoped ballet would allow them to explore their truest self. “I wanted to be one of those beautiful, ethereal people on pointe,” they said, referring to the reinforced shoes that allow dancers to stand on the tips of their toes.

But not long after starting classes, Edwards learned that only women danced on pointe. “It was crushing,” they said. “I would search and search for footage of ‘Swan Lake’ with Baryshnikov as the swan. And it didn’t exist.”

Now Edwards has resurrected that childhood dream. Last fall, they became an apprentice with Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle, where they have been dancing traditionally female roles. An extraordinarily gifted and versatile performer, they are setting an important precedent: an artist assigned male at birth working routinely on pointe in a classical ballet company. This month, Edwards joins the ensemble swans in the company’s production of “Swan Lake,” a pinnacle of balletic femininity.

Edwards, 19, is part of a rising generation of gender nonconforming dancers questioning ballet’s rigid gender roles. At Béjart Ballet Lausanne in Switzerland, dancer Leroy Mokgatle, 22 who is nonbinary, recently performed a solo on pointe created for a woman. Maxfield Haynes, 25, another nonbinary performer, has danced on pointe with both Complexions Contemporary Ballet and the drag company Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo. And, remarkably, Edwards isn’t the only nonbinary member of Pacific Northwest Ballet’s apprentice class: Zsilas Michael Hughes, 20, though not performing on pointe, also has the option to dance female roles with the company.

“There is an entire book of ways that ballet still has to grow,” Haynes said. “But when it comes to gender, it does feel like we’ve started writing a new sentence.”

Early in ballet’s history, at the 17th-century court of Louis XIV, men predominated and sometimes performed female roles. Yet over the past 200 years, classical ballet has become synonymous with a fairy-tale ideal of femininity. Gender roles have been enshrined in its technique, particularly with pointe shoes (women dance on pointe, men don’t) and partnering (women are lifted, men do the lifting).

Many of ballet’s repertory staples date to the 19th century, featuring the dainty heroines and princely heroes of the Romantic era. “In ballet, gender roles are distilled, pure, turned up to 11,” said journalist Chloe Angyal, author of “Turning Pointe: How a New Generation of Dancers Is Saving Ballet From Itself.”

Men occasionally dance female roles in classical ballet, but only for humorous effect, like the stepsisters in Frederick Ashton’s “Cinderella.” Since 1974, Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo — the all-male comedic troupe whose dancers do both male and female roles — has been a haven for artists assigned male at birth hoping to work on pointe. Its often technically brilliant performers, however, appear as drag characters rather than themselves.

Edwards’ role at Pacific Northwest Ballet would have been nearly unthinkable even a few years ago. In 2018, the gender fluid dancer Chase Johnsey — a former member of the Trockaderos — made headlines when he performed in the female corps of English National Ballet’s “Sleeping Beauty.” But after his history-making moment, he found himself shut out of classical ballet.

“I got a couple of movie offers and a couple of reality TV show offers and about a million documentary offers,” said Johnsey, now 36. “Every ballet company that I tried to go to? Nothing happened.”

As a student coming up in that climate, Edwards envisioned a small career on professional ballet’s male track. After COVID-19 immobilized the ballet world, their perspective shifted. By then an advanced student at the Pacific Northwest Ballet School, Edwards started to grapple more honestly with who they were, onstage and off.

“I’d accepted until then that I couldn’t be myself if I wanted to be successful,” they said. “But there was so much more to me than what I was presenting.”

During the shutdown, Edwards began training independently on pointe. Wearing an old pair of shoes provided by a friend, they pored over the ballerina Kathryn Morgan’s YouTube pointe tutorials. They also began experimenting with fashion and makeup. “The whole summer of 2020, I was playing — with pointe work, with gender expression, with self-expression in general,” they said.

In August 2020, Edwards approached Pacific Northwest Ballet’s artistic director Peter Boal about studying pointe as a student in the school. Boal said yes. And that conversation led to further change at the school and in the company, where gender designations have been removed from some classes, and students can train in classes that align with their identity and preference.

“Sometimes you need a catalyst, and in this case that was Ashton,” Boal said. “We’ve been going through our whole handbook to really ungender much of what we offer.”

Still, Edwards wasn’t sure the career they were beginning to envision was possible. Receiving their Pacific Northwest Ballet apprenticeship in November of 2021 “was like a huge exhale,” Edwards said. From the beginning, Boal and Edwards established that Edwards could perform either male or female roles, including roles on pointe.

Edwards immediately jumped into the company’s run of “The Nutcracker,” where they danced in the female Snow and Flowers corps de ballet. That’s a grueling rite of passage for any dancer, even more so one with less than two years of training on pointe.

Sarah Pasch, a veteran member of the company’s corps, said the ensemble women embraced Edwards — and offered them a crash course in the tips and tricks of ballerina-dom. “We were all working together to help Ashton not get injured,” Pasch said. “Because they are so talented, but they haven’t had the extensive pointe experience that a woman coming into this usually has.”

Edwards worked relentlessly, eager to prove that they deserved their spot. “I knew I couldn’t let anyone question why I was in the room,” they said. A swirl of media attention over the spring and summer had intensified that pressure. Before the “Nutcracker” run ended, Edwards was out with a stress reaction in their left leg and a stress fracture in their right.

They felt, they said, “like a failure as a dancer and a failure as a representative nonbinary member of a ballet company.” The injury kept them offstage for three months.

Edwards is not only a gender pioneer, but also — like Haynes, Hughes, and Mokgatle — an artist of color in a predominantly white field. For these dancers, the pressure of representation is multiplied.

“I definitely want to be an activist for the next generation, and I also want to be a light for them, to show them that it gets easier on the other side,” Edwards said. “But the days aren’t always so easy.” For several months, Edwards took a break from press coverage. Their recovery period became a moment to focus not only on physical but also mental health.

About a month ago, Edwards made an electrifying comeback, dancing the principal role originally created for ballerina Tiler Peck in Justin Peck’s “The Times Are Racing.” Now they’re performing in the female swan corps and as one of the four famous “little swans” in “Swan Lake.”

Ballet is an exceedingly competitive field for women, who outnumber its men by a significant margin. But Boal doesn’t believe Edwards is depriving a female swan hopeful of a spot. “Ashton was the best person for the job,” Boal said.

Johnsey noted that the number of gender-nonconforming dancers in high-level ballet is tiny. “If there’s only a handful of us anyway, what are people worried about?” Johnsey said. “You’re not taking anything from anybody if you can barely get in.”

While queer women and gender-nonconforming dancers assigned female at birth are beginning to find safe spaces in professional ballet, few have been able to pursue traditionally male roles. For those trained and socialized in ballet as women, the pressure to conform can simply be too overwhelming. “If you’re not going to adhere to the strictures of femininity, there are 12 other girls who will, and they’re standing in a line right behind you,” Angyal, the author of “Turning Pointe,” said.

Even in progressive ballet environments, dancers hoping to break gender conventions are often expected to meet rigorous physical standards. That Edwards is 5’5” and Mokgatle is 5’3”, and that both are extremely slender, may have smoothed their professional paths. The 6-foot Haynes, who uses they/them pronouns, said they found greater acceptance in contemporary ballet, where rules are generally looser.

“Ballet is ultimately still so body focused,” Haynes said. “I do appreciate the larger push for actual recognition of diversity, but it remains incredibly rigid.”

Whether Edwards and their peers are an aberration or the beginning of a wave will partly depend on ballet training’s approach to gender, and some schools have begun to evolve. Three Boston Ballet School students assigned male at birth, for example, are now training on pointe. Joshua Grant, a soloist at Pacific Northwest Ballet who also danced with Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, recently opened a dance studio with his partner that aims to be fully gender inclusive.

In the professional ballet world, companies beyond Pacific Northwest Ballet are beginning to show more openness to gender-neutral casting. At New York City Ballet, “The Times Are Racing” has featured several gender-swapped casts, and Jessica Lang’s “ZigZag” for American Ballet Theater includes two roles that can be performed by either men or women.

New gender-inclusive ballet companies have also begun to emerge. After Johnsey’s frustrating experiences with established troupes, he helped found Ballet de Barcelona in Spain, which welcomes dancers of all identities and is developing ballets that interrogate conceptions of gender.

Edwards’ first professional performances on pointe, in December 2020, were with the then-brand new Ballet22, created by former Trockadero member Roberto Vega Ortiz and dancer Theresa Knudson. The company offers artists assigned male at birth a place to dance on pointe, without comedy or caricature; it performs a mix of new works and existing repertoire, including staples of the classical canon.

For Edwards, who now has full command of both high-level “male” and “female” ballet technique, the possibilities seem endless. They have mastered the virtuoso sequence of 32 fouetté turns on pointe that bedevils even experienced ballerinas — and they like to add a bravura male step called a double tour to the knee at the end for good measure.

Several dancers said they are eager for a day when their gender identity is so widely accepted it’s no longer a topic of conversation. “It’s really one of the least interesting things about me as a performer,” Haynes said. “It’s like, I’m nonbinary. OK, and I have elbows.”

Edwards said they’ve been happy to speak about their experiences as a nonbinary dancer. But they hope that their gender — a fundamentally personal issue, no matter how body focused the workplace — doesn’t end up overshadowing their art.

“Hopefully, next time we talk,” Edwards said, “we’ll just talk about my dancing.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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