Oregon Ballet Theater’s ‘Fluidity of Steel’ reckons with masculinity and gender

Oregon Ballet Theater’s 2021-22 season is coming to a close this weekend and next at Newmark Theater as the company performs “The Americans: Take Two,” featuring a world premiere of Michelle Manzanales’ “Mirror Mirror” and the return of two audience favorites : Ashley Roland and Jamey Hampton’s “Big Shoes” and Darrell Grand Moultrie’s “Fluidity of Steel.”

“Fluidity of Steel” originated as part of “Man/Woman,” a 2018 program dealing with gender stereotypes. “Fluidity,” as company dancers and staff call it, represents a departure from traditional notions of masculinity — both in ballet and society at large.

Peter Franc, interim artistic director, says the work “explores male stereotypes and traditional gender expectations with each movement of the ballet, nodding to different stages of development and self-acceptance.”

Moultrie, who has created works for ballet, contemporary and theater companies as well as big names like Beyoncé, says his piece deals with male-presenting artists grappling with restrictive ideas about what masculinity “should” look like.

“Growing up was like, ‘Play these roles: Boys do this, boys wear this,'” he says. “The world was putting labels on me, and it felt like jail.”

With “Fluidity,” Moultrie hoped to express openness and the “radical freedom” that comes from masculine expression, tenderness and vulnerability.

“Fluidity of Steel” features what Moultrie calls an all masculine-presenting cast, though not all the dancers identify as male (and as apprentice dancer Cameron Pelton says, “A lot of us are in touch with our feminine side”).

Traditionally, corps de ballet work is a sisterhood: Most classical and neo-classical ballets call for a large feminine corps of dancers, but it’s unusual to see groups of men dancing together. Pelton says the rare opportunity to do corps work creates a feeling of unity.

“Everybody’s in the same piece, everybody’s getting ready in the dressing room, everybody’s getting off stage, and you had this moment together,” Pelton says. “That’s community.”

Company artist Alex Barbosa, who identifies “primarily as a dancer” and as genderqueer, appreciates the ballet’s emphasis on tenderness between “men” (they use air quotes). “As an Afro-Brazilian dancer, I was always told not to show affection and emotion,” says Barbosa.

Pelton agrees: “Being emotional with other men onstage is something that’s very different.”

“Fluidity” grew out of what Lisa Kipp, the rehearsal director, calls the Tutu Trio. It’s an excerpt from another Moultrie ballet in which three men dance wearing tutus. The tutu, Kipp says, has historically been “such an absolute representation of femininity.”

“So there’s something about these men in tutus that makes them look more fragile, vulnerable,” Kipp says. “It’s exquisite.”

An apprentice dancer with the company, Pelton says the Tutu Trio is the most emotional section of the piece. The dancers are almost crying on stage. “They’re in tutus, and they’re expressing their emotions, so it’s feminine,” Pelton says.

“But I think the piece makes a counter argument where it’s like, these people are human, and they are sad. They don’t need the tutus to say this. But maybe you need the tutus to see that they are allowed to say this.”

In the four years since Moultrie first choreographed “Fluidity” for OBT, the dance world’s approach to gender has evolved, Kipp says.

“Ballet is pretty entrenched in gender, in gender roles,” Kipp says. From differences in costuming to the dichotomous emphases in training and style of movement, classical ballet epitomizes the gender binary at its most rigid. And Kipp says it’s hard for some people — whether they’re artistic staff or audience members — to let go of “what they see as the value of tradition.”

Barbosa says that masculinity never fit them well. “I’m not that. I don’t identify with that.” But for the most part, when it comes to the potentially uncomfortable experience of being cast as a “male-presenting” person, Barbosa says, “I’m used to it — the fact that I signed up to be a ‘male dancer. ‘”

As a whole, the ballet’s history, dancers were forced to choose one or the other. But Barbosa likes that OBT is working to change this. Staff have offered Barbosa the opportunity to do more pointework, to dance feminine parts, to use a gender-neutral dressing room.

“It’s the bare minimum,” Barbosa concedes. “But as a classical ballet dancer, you don’t expect a lot when it comes to these things.”

Breaking down ballet’s gender binary isnt easy, but Kipp says Oregon Ballet Theater staff are doing their best to promote inclusion. “For grand allegro, I used to say, ‘Men, finish with a double tour; ladies, finish with chainé, chaîné, chaîné.’ Now we say, ‘Here are two possible options.'”

Because dancers have performed disparate steps according to their gender for centuries, this way of approaching grand allegro endings is an act of resistance.

In departing from norms that restrict people who identify as male in ballet and society, “Fluidity” can be seen as an act of resistance, too.

“’Fluidity’ is about being OK with who you are, and challenging how you can be,” says Kipp.

And for those who want to come be a part of it, “Lean into it. When you’re sitting in the house and the lights are out and you’re watching this piece, nobody’s watching you, so let your walls down and really see,” Pelton says. “Because we’re trying to show you a side of us. And a side of you too.”

Adam Hartley and Christopher Kaiser performing Darrell Grand Moultrie’s Fluidity Of Steel, one of three ballets presented in Oregon Ballet Theater’s “The Americans: Take Two” June 3-11 at the Newmark Theatre. Photo by Randall Lee Milstein.

“The Americans – Take Two”

Opened 7:30 pm Friday, June 3. Continues 2 and 7:30 pm Saturday, 2 pm Sunday, June 4-5, and 7:30 pm June 9-11, Newmark Theatre, 1111 SW Broadway; tickets $29-$103; obt.org or 503-222-5538.

— Zella Hanson, zhanson@oregonian.com

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