Photo courtesy of St. Paul Ballet
To Billy_Ballet Shoes_Boxing Shoes
In St. Paul Ballet's new work, To Billy, four boxers from Element Gym join the ballerinas on stage for a story based on St. Paul Ballet and Element Gym's unlikely collaboration.
St. Paul Ballet dancers are athletes—no way around it. They train; they sweat; they push their bodies to the limit. In 2014, the dancers started learning a whole new way to move when the company switched buildings and became neighbors with boxing studio Element Gym. Now, a little over two years later, St. Paul Ballet Artistic Director Zoé Emilie Henrot is premiering her work entitled To Billy, based on the two communities' real life collaboration.
The ballet will get its Twin Cities premiere at the Cowles Center on March 3 and 4 along with pieces choreographed by Joseph Morrissey and TU Dance company member Darwin Black, but before that, Henrot told us a little more about the truth behind the show.
There's a clear tie to the film/musical Billy Elliot, which is about a miner’s son who also moves from boxing to ballet. How much of an inspiration was that story?
The character is definitely a nod to the story that already created such an openness to the ballet world, especially for young boys, but it’s not the story of Billy Elliot. It’s very much our story. I guess it’s more like I named the character Billy because I love so much what [writer] Lee Hall did in his work, and I think we are almost continuing that trajectory, challenging traditional gender roles and conceptions of our sports.
The story starts when you moved next to Element Gym. How did simple proximity grow into something bigger?
It was myself and Dalton Outlaw—he’s the owner of the boxing gym. We were working with one another because he subleases to us, and I kept going over to the gym, and he kept going to the ballet studio. We became curious about what the other was doing since movement is our central to our vocabulary, and we realized we could do a lot for each other. Now on Thursday mornings, the ballet dancers have boxing cross training, and on Fridays, boxers and athletes come to ballet class. I think the St. Paul Ballet has found a lot of power through our dancing because of the cross training.
So this whole relationship just grew from simple curiosity?
We could have completely gone on doing what we were doing without really incorporating each other, and that would have been easy and that would have been fine, but [the building] feels like home because we do collaborate, and we do know one another and we move with another.
Moving with people and physically touching one another can be a huge help in trust and developing relationships with people. In some ways, I think it’s what our society lacks more and more—actually being face to face with someone and dancing with them or boxing with them or working out with them. It’s almost like going face to face has become a dying art form. The amount of trust and the depths of the relationships that have happened between the dancers and the boxers and the administration of both places . . . It’s an accelerated process. We move together, talk together, develop business plans, and it shows.
You said you’ve had this ballet in your head ever since the collaboration started. As you actually began choreographing, did you turn to the boxers for help?
There were a lot of days when I was trying to do a boxer section and I’d run into the gym and go, “Dalton, I need help. Is there a traveling step or something with this rhythm?” I’d send him videos to get his opinions, and he’d work those moves into our weekly cross trainings. We actually have four boxers in the ballet, so the boxers will be doing a bit of ballet movement, too.
At the beginning, you said boxing has made you feel more powerful in your dancing. What do you mean?
Boxers do something called shadow boxing. They face themselves in the mirror and they throw punches using the mirror as guidance where their punch should go. Most of the time you’re aiming for eye level. [To me] it becomes this really meditative practice—but it’s not meditative in that it’s calming . . . well, it is calming, but you’re finding power and energy and drive and dedication all by yourself, which is very similar to ballet.
Ballet is a vey personal practice. Yes, you dance with other people, but you’re always challenging yourself. So I found this power through learning different punches and footwork that I was able to take to ballet class right after. Every time we box we do ballet right after and the pirouettes are stronger, and the jumps more dynamic. I’ve found this different person inside me from moving a little differently.
To Billy, a performance also featuring Suite for Strings and Off the Base. March 3, 4 at 7:30 p.m.; The Cowles Center for the Performing Arts, 528 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis; 612-206-3600; thecowlescenter.org.
Photo courtesy of St. Paul Ballet
A Scene from St. Paul Ballet
A scene from St. Paul Ballet's To Billy, making its Twin Cities premiere at The Cowles Center on March 3 and 4.