ISSUE 1 Fall 2020
Remy Young, photographed by Sophie Schwartz
REMY YOUNG FINDS FLEXIBILITY AMID PRECISION
The physicality of Remy Young’s job demands her strict adherence to order and classical form. A dancer with American Ballet Theater, Young begins each day with a ballet class that progresses through a specific series of movements: at the barre, she starts with pliés and finishes with grand battements; in the center of the studio, she moves from adagio to grand allegro, concluding with révérence—a ritual bow meant to demonstrate her respect for the instructor and the art form. Class and rehearsal culminate in the performance of “story ballets” with choreography dating back to the nineteenth century. Tradition is at the very core of Young’s profession.
In January, the PIQUE editors visited Remy Young at the American Ballet Theater studios in downtown Manhattan to discuss how she finds freedom and individuality within the confines of her chosen artistic discipline. The interview has been edited and condensed.
PIQUE Describe your early ballet training at the Charlotte School of Ballet.
Remy Young I basically grew up at the studio since my mom and my grandma were my teachers. When I was 2-years-old, an older girl—probably in her teens—would go through the studio’s lost and found, steal old leotards, and dress me up. I started sneaking into ballet class; dancing has always been my choice.
PIQUE What was it like having your mom as your teacher?
RY Well, if I acted out, she would kick me out of class. I went through a phase in middle school where I got kicked out of class at least once a week.
PIQUE How has your relationship with your mom changed since you’ve started dancing professionally?
RY Like any teacher, she went from being critical of and hard on me to showing me that she’s proud of me. If I find myself creating bad habits, she’ll help me through anything technically, but she also respects when I want to go home and not talk about ballet.
PIQUE At what point did you realize you had the potential to dance professionally?
RY Probably when I was 13 or 14-years-old. At that point, I decided there was no turning back in terms of my training, and I started doing online school. By my junior year of high school, I moved to New York to go to the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, the school of American Ballet Theater.
PIQUE While a student at JKO, you were accepted to the ABT Studio Company; a year later, you were selected for an apprenticeship with the main company. How was that transition?
RY When I joined the Studio Company, I was the youngest, and I was really intimidated. The following September through January, I was with more of my age group—people I had gone through the school with, gone to summer intensives with. That January, I got the call from Kate Lydon, the director of the Studio Company, that I was selected for an apprenticeship. I was sitting in a grocery store parking lot at home during Christmas vacation, and I was choking on my words. It was probably one of the happiest moments of my life.
PIQUE Once you joined the company, you started working alongside people you have idolized your whole life as a dancer. What was that like?
RY Definitely surreal. I was most surprised by the sense of camaraderie among the dancers, but I definitely felt pressure to prove myself. Studio Company does allow you to familiarize yourself with how the company works because you get to tour with the main company for Nutcracker, and you take company class every Saturday throughout the year.
PIQUE How did you navigate being thrust into a professional environment as a full-time employee of the company when you were just 18-years-old?
RY Going from such an intimate group of students in the Studio Company, and being critiqued to a T everyday in class, to just sort of being lost in the sea of dancers was definitely not what I was used to. Luckily, there’s a mentorship program for the new apprentices, and my mentor Lauren Post, a senior corps de ballet member, really helped me through that year.
PIQUE How do you find a sense of individuality while also maintaining the necessary unison and uniformity that comes with being in the corps de ballet?
RY Ballet traditionally is restricting and limiting, so you have to figure out how to make it your own while being “correct” and technically precise.
PIQUE Having your fingertips in line.
RY Exactly. The key is dancing the choreography and not forgetting that it is a performing art. It’s critical to have intention behind the movement because that’s where your artistry develops. When you zoom out and look at the greater good of the ballet, and the greater good of the performing arts collectively, you realize your responsibility as an artist, which you fulfill by being onstage 8 shows a week, for 8 weeks, a different ballet each week.
PIQUE What’s your favorite performance memory?
RY I definitely have a least favorite performance memory! In 2017, during my second year of Nutcracker with the company, I was dancing in the “Snow Scene,” and my shoulder dislocated. I did two pas de chats with my arm out of its socket, and I ran offstage when we changed formation. I was on the ground, suddenly surrounded by our physical therapist, every single ballet master, and my artistic director. They had to call an ambulance, and my ballet master took off my pointe shoes while somebody was trying to get me out of my costume.
PIQUE That’s a vulnerable position to be in.
RY Yes. Especially as a new corps member, it’s important to be an asset to the company, in terms of being consistent and reliable. I remember apologizing for not being able to go back onstage. My ballet mistress went to the hospital with me, and I had to get surgery. I was out for the next seven months.
PIQUE What is your dream role in the company?
RY That changes, depending on what I am going through or what message I want to express with an audience at a given moment. When I was younger, I used to say Myrtha (the “Queen of the Wilis” in Giselle), because she’s a badass. We’re preparing for Giselle right now, and I’m seeing my colleagues rehearse the role. It’s so hard, especially in terms of stamina.
PIQUE You’d choose Myrtha over Giselle?
RY I prefer to look at near-sighted goals, so I have my eye on various soloist roles. Which would I like to do in the next couple of years? That’s where I tend to look.
PIQUE The ballet world is mostly populated by girls and women—and therefore, the competition is inherently more intense for them—but men greatly outnumber women in positions of authority and leadership. What do you make of this discrepancy?
RY I actually see the ballet world as a quasi-utopian society where women rule. Men, in ballet, are primed to be behind the scenes. They’re meant to make us look better, lift us higher, perfect our lines, hold us up. When I was an apprentice, my director met with me because I looked “too thin.” He told me he wanted “to see men and women onstage,” which I understood to mean he wanted women to look strong and healthy and powerful.
PIQUE What was that conversation like, having your male director directly comment on the way your body looked?
RY The conversation began with our physical therapist who expressed concern over my health. Honestly, I took the feedback as my director showing he cared about me.
PIQUE Ballet is one of the most gendered artistic disciplines. Women wear pointe shoes and are partnered by men. Training is divided by gender from an early age, with boys’ and men’s class and pointe class for girls and women. Where do you see room for progress that reflects the equity women are striving for in other sectors of society while maintaining the integrity of the discipline?
RY That’s a really difficult question. . . There’s a non-binary dancer in the company, and they asked company leadership to not distinguish our two technique classes by gender; it’s “technique with pointe” and “technique” now.
PIQUE That’s a radical change, no?
RY Well, it’s a small step. While we are taking away the gender identifications, we are not changing the steps that are given in the respective classes (which have gendered associations). The men still take “technique” and do not wear pointe shoes. They still work on their tour en l’air, while we still work on say, fouette turns.
PIQUE Casting, I’d imagine, still happens along traditional gender lines.
RY Exactly. I don’t think we’re going to reach a point anytime soon where we cast a Sigfried and an Odette (from Swan Lake) as the opposite genders of what they were originally intended.
PIQUE What made you decide to be open about your sexuality at work?
RY I was dating a girl when I was in Studio Company, and she joined the company before I did. When I joined, we went on tour with the company for Nutcracker. We intended on hiding our relationship, but my friend didn’t realize and talked openly about it. Everyone found out, and it was fine. I think people were sort of intrigued… They thought it was “cool.” We broke up two years later when we were on tour in Paris, and she’s no longer with the company. I guess it was just like any other relationship in the company; there was nothing really to it.
PIQUE From an outsider’s perspective, that’s surprising, given the complete lack of representation of queer women in ballet. Nowadays, many dancers have large social media presences, and you see various male dancers being vocally out about their queerness online, whereas you see nothing of the sort with queer women in ballet.
RY Stereotypically speaking, ballet is a feminine art form. The stereotype of gay men being affeminate sort of matches that.
PIQUE What you’re saying is that perhaps there’s more space for that kind of expression because it matches society’s pre-existing expectations of male dancers. What is it like being one of the few openly queer women in the industry?
RY I don’t think about it that way. I have struggled with my sexuality and labeling it more generally. . . I think the hardest thing is explaining to people that I’m not going to be some freak in the locker room, but nobody’s ever confronted me about that.
PIQUE There’s recently been coverage of queer ballet dancers and choreography for major ballet companies that incorporates same-sex partnering, but the focus has almost exclusively been on queer men and partnerships between men. Why do you think that is?
RY There is some choreography out there. At Vail Dance Festival this year, two of my friends—two women—danced together. James Whiteside, a principal dancer at ABT, choreographed a ballet called “New American Romance,” with a section featuring three women. Personally, I interpreted them as empowered, queer women. . . I think, generally, it’s unusual for people to see two men dancing together, whereas it is not perceived as abnormal to see two women dancing together; it’s viewed as just two women “having fun.”
PIQUE Well you have various examples of women dancing together in the history of ballet, but the choreography is all sort of silly and fun—it’s not meant to be romantic, unlike the new choreography that’s cropped up with men dancing together in overtly romantic pieces.
RY Art is a vehicle that can be used to spread whatever social message you want. . . To that end, there’s a lack of choreography.
PIQUE What kind of culture shift, if any, have you seen since joining the company?
RY Well, it’s only my fourth year.
Sophie Schwartz is a photographer based in New York. A graduate of Brown University’s Media and Modern Culture program, Schwartz provided exhibition research for Proof: Photography in the Era of the Contact Sheet at The Cleveland Museum of Art. Her solo exhibition Bridged was held at the Riverview Welcome Center in Cleveland
Remy Young is a dancer in the corps de ballet of American Ballet Theater. A graduate of the ABT Studio Company and the ABT Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, Young created a featured role in Praedicere, which premiered at the Metropolitan Opera House in May 2018.