How do you choreograph an intimate pas deux in the depths of a pandemic? And how do you then make history with a romantic story of two gay men, Adam and Steve, tailored for dancers from American Ballet Theatre, that’s both erotic and heartfelt? Choreographer Christopher Rudd has the answers with his landmark ballet Touché that celebrates the inclusion and visibility of the LGBTQIA+ community. Touché will have its world stage premiere on October 26 at the Company’s Fall Gala, followed by performances at ABT’s first-ever Pride Nights, October 27 and 30, during the Company’s Lincoln Center Fall season.
“I thought society was ready to confront and to grapple with our need to touch and our need to connect with each other, things we have all suffered from a deficit of,” says Rudd, the director of the New York–based dance company RudduRdance, which merges contemporary dance, ballet, and aerial arts to examine social issues. “Frankly I wanted to create a work that, despite what the audience was accustomed to seeing, would make viewers want to root for this romance. I know the majority of people in my circle root for Adam and Steve, but I wanted to really respect people who have not been exposed to homosexuality in a way that they still see it as so foreign that they might not lean in. I wanted to bring them into the story in a way that made them go on a journey they could empathize with.”
Rudd had auditioned several works for ABT Incubator, a choreographic lab begun in 2010 to cultivate new choreographic ideas and approaches, without success. But in 2019 Rudd received an unanticipated email from ABT Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie asking for a meeting. “At the time I thought it was a scam,” says Rudd. He met with McKenzie, who greenlit the idea of a gay-themed pas de deux for an upcoming program. After watching an ABT Company ballet class on Halloween (the dancers celebrate by wearing their choice of costumes), Rudd cast Principal Dancer Calvin Royal III and corps de ballet member João Menegussi (dressed as the Black Swan, sporting pointe shoes).
Then the Covid-19 nightmare hit. After months of sheltering in place, ABT eventually resumed rehearsals by forming “ballet bubbles,” groups of masked dancers and staff members with constant Covid-19 testing and strict protocols. Rudd and the dancers sequestered in upstate New York at the Silver Bay YMCA Conference & Family Retreat Center, and ABT constructed a sprung floor suitable for rehearsals.
Rudd began the choreographic process with the three men revealing their life stories. “We sat down and talked about coming out, our experience of being a gay person,” says Menegussi. All three men had suffered from traumatic, homophobic incidents. The Jamaican-born Rudd says that “in the western hemisphere, Jamaica is one of the hardest places to be gay.” In Brazil, Menegussi had few gay role models in a country that has backslid into harsh social conservatism. Royal had a tough journey of gay self-acceptance. “When I finally built the courage to share [my sexual orientation] with my mom and my Grandma, it was harder for me to say the words than to hear their actual response,” he says.
Rudd recruited his friend, intimacy director Sarah Lozoff, to mitigate discomfort around the disturbing memories of homophobia, the physical intimacy, and the risk-taking choreography for the pas de deux that begins in a tentative simmer and heats up to a roiling boil of passionate partnering. Paradoxically working via Zoom, Lozoff helped the dancers navigate through green and red zones of the body. “I would take Calvin’s hand and run it over the entirety of my body and say, ‘these are green areas I feel comfortable with that you can touch,’” says Menegussi. The men also indicated the red zones with an off-limits signal.
Away from the distractions of the city, says Rudd, “it was the magic of unfortunate events that led us to being able to truly focus and spend time inside and outside of the studio thinking, unraveling, discovering, questioning, and experimenting.” A video of Touché, choreographed to film scores by Woodkid (Que Te Mate el Desierto) and Ennio Morricone (Giuseppe Tornatore Suite from Malena), received its digital World Premiere on November 23, 2020 as part of the virtual program ABT Today: The Future Starts Now.
With its emphasis on physicality, ballet has broken barriers around sexuality throughout its history. In 1912, Vaslav Nijinsky, with the Ballets Russes, scandalized Paris by getting kinky with a nymph’s scarf in Afternoon of a Faun. When Diana Adams, a white ballerina, and Arthur Mitchell, a Black principal dancer, performed the pas de deux in George Balanchine’s Agon with New York City Ballet in 1957, it was shocking to some—an interracial couple sensually intertwined on stage ten years before Loving v. Virginia, the Supreme Court decision that struck down laws banning interracial marriage. And in 1993, ABT premiered its first male pas de deux, the duet from Concerto Six Twenty-Two by Lar Lubovitch, which referenced male companionship at the cruel crescendo of the AIDS crisis.
Royal looks forward to the ABT Pride nights. “It’s an exciting way to celebrate queer love that’s going to be presented on the stage, and not only reserved for Pride month in June,” he says. “Having these two nights in the fall brings more awareness, progress, and visibility to what’s happening on ballet stages.” He points out that future dancers will be able to perform these previously non-existent roles that reflect their true lives. “That’s powerful,” he says, “and it’s such a gift to all of us that are involved in it.”
Former ABT dancer Joseph Carman writes about the performing arts for Playbill and other publications.