Ethereal visions of swans, sylphs, shades, and sugarplums? A way of moving that puts the court in courtesy and curtsy? Our best attempt at embodying Euclidean geometry, Newtonian physics, and musica universalis? An art combining Olympian strength with the image of waifish fragility? A science of movement? An unforgiving discipline? The patriarchy, if the patriarchy were a dance? In a recent episode of The Process, dancer Tuli Bera reveals her love, her hate, her shame: ballet. “As a Brown body, a body that isn’t the stereotypical ballet figure, why do I love something that hates me so much?” she asks. Host Alyssa Gregory concurs with a laugh of recognition.
They are not alone in their consternation—and their determination to find space and joy in an art form originally defined by white aristocracy. Now Bera serves on the board of Contretemps Contemporary Ballet, a new, self-described “feminist, anti-racist, anti-patriarchial, pro-worker, LGBTQIA+-affirming” company founded and directed by MaryAnn McGovern with the mission of creating opportunities for those with bodies and identities historically excluded from ballet.
“I grew up dancing classical ballet in a body that was not considered ‘acceptable’ for that form,” says McGovern. In addition to not conforming to an ideal she describes as “that Balanchine body: a very small frame, long limbs, typically white or white-passing, cis-identity,” she cites a skeletal structure that caused her to be injury-prone in the exacting technique. Though seriously devoted to her studies, by the age of 17, McGovern was encouraged by her teachers to study modern and contemporary dance instead. “I was feeling so defeated at that point that I was like, ‘Oh yeah, sure. You’re right.’”
McGovern began to pursue other forms of dance as a student at Columbia College. “I was drawn to release-based techniques because it was the first time I ever felt at home in my body,” she says. “It felt safe, it felt free, and it felt open. Making that pivot opened up a lot of possibilities for me, movement-wise. I stayed in that field for most of my professional career. I was very much a release-based contemporary dancer and maker.”
Though she had transitioned to other forms in her own dancing, McGovern found herself continuing to work in ballet-dominated environments. “I was working as a dance administrator at a couple of different dance schools the past few years,” she says. “And I was sort of retraumatized because I was around these young ballet dancers who wanted this so bad but they were being told by directors and whoever that they weren’t going to have a future in ballet because something was wrong with their body. I had dancers of color who were receiving microaggressions in the classroom. And there were times when dancers would come into my office and just cry about it. I just couldn’t shake the feeling that there needed to be space for these dancers to do what they wanted to do in ballet. So eventually I said, ‘I guess I have to do this!’”
The company began rehearsing in early 2020, with the intention of premiering a work by Shannon Alvis in April of that year—but lockdown halted the plan only a few rehearsals into the process. “I didn’t have the intention of making work for this company, since it’s so outside my area of expertise,” says McGovern. “But at the end of the day our budget was our budget, and I decided to step up to the plate and give it a shot myself.” Her initial foray into choreographing in a ballet idiom has led to questions on what characterizes the form.
“I was feeling a bit like an imposter, trying to enter this world asking it to change,” she says. “I was watching Crystal Pite videos, William Forsythe videos. What I was noticing was that this was ‘contemporary ballet’ but I don’t see any traditional ballet vocabulary happening on these dancers. I was looking at the work I was doing in the studio and also seeing that. I started to wonder, are we calling that work ‘contemporary ballet’ because it’s being set on these ‘ballet bodies?’ Are we more able to make that call because the lines we’re seeing are more familiar to us? That realization made me feel more free to do what felt right to me and the dancers I have, and we’ll call it what we want to call it. We’re reclaiming it.”
McGovern began the work by asking the dancers each to show 16 counts of their favorite ballet choreography. “It was an exercise in remembering for me because I’d been so far removed from ballet for so long. It also helped me understand what felt valuable for each of them within this form—and what made them feel good,” she says. “We built a big phrase around that. That became a seed for a lot of this piece.” Her background in release technique also contributes to the work. “I was looking at this phrase and thinking, ‘Something is missing—I don’t know what it is. And I realized it was the torso shaping. So we spent a lot of time making torso dances that we began to plug around different parts of the choreography.”
Contretemps Contemporary Ballet’s premiere performance, Heat Lightning, presented three Saturdays in August in the parking lot of the Drucker Center, is “about post-truthism,” says McGovern. “In my life, I experience a lot of self-doubt because I am a survivor of narcissistic abuse. I have been gaslit in my life to the point where I don’t know what’s true or what’s real, to the point of doubting myself. I feel that’s related to what’s happening culturally: there’s this cultural anxiety and hopelessness that I think is the result of not knowing who to trust. There is an element that spans across those things for me, of learning to stand in my truth for myself as a dancemaker and what I know to be real.”
“One of the translations of contretemps that I learned growing up is ‘to beat against time’” says McGovern. “This idea of being against or going against the history of ballet and trying something new is what it was about.” v