An Interview with Roberto Vega Ortiz and Theresa Knudson of Ballet22
BY EMMALY WIEDERHOLT
Founded in 2020 by Roberto Vega Ortiz and Theresa Knudson, Ballet22 is a ballet company in the Bay Area that seeks to break gender normative traditions by producing and presenting works ranging from classical to contemporary ballet. Here, they talk about how Ballet22 got started, how they hope to change representation in the ballet field, and how they are challenging stereotypes of who dances en pointe.
Note: In this interview the term “mxn” refers to both men and male-identifying people.
Can you share a little about your dance histories and what shaped who you are today?
Roberto: I’m born and raised in Puerto Rico, which is a very conservative environment, especially in dance. I was trained in classical ballet, and when I started dancing en pointe, I was the only male. My teachers had already decided my path for me. That was hard to break, and ultimately I left after I graduated high school. I went to Miami City Ballet School and from there got jobs at Nashville Ballet and with Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo. I finally made it to the Bay Area two years ago and danced with a regional company before Theresa and I created Ballet22 last year.
Theresa: I grew up in Orange County and was trained in classical ballet. My teacher was this fierce woman who ran her own business and had her own ballet company in a time when women weren’t supported. She is now in her late 90s. She even created her own work and commissioned her own costumes. It really informed me to work under her and influenced me to be creative, to not take no for an answer, and to make my own path even when people try to hold me back. I moved to the Bay Area about six years ago and have been freelancing since. And in 2020, Roberto and I started Ballet22.
Why was Ballet22 founded and how did it get started?
Roberto: It all started with the pandemic. My best friend Carlos Hopuy – also a former Trock and one of our Ballet22 dancers – and I started doing this training online to stay in shape dancing en pointe. There were others who wanted to join as well. It started with a platform called Male Ballerinas and grew. We had people from all over the world Zooming in, which was pretty amazing. We did a video project, and Theresa suggested we try to make an actual company.
Theresa: Being in quarantine really forced us to think about what was important to us and what we were waiting for. There was so much repertoire that Roberto wanted to tackle en pointe and presenting male, which you can’t do with the Trocks or with any other company really. Seeing the community that Roberto and Carlos built, it was clear it wasn’t just a hashtag on Instagram; it was something that could impact representation in the field. Roberto and Carlos made this community real, and it was inspiring to be part of starting the company.
Roberto: I love to dance en pointe, but dancing drag and comedy like in the Trocks didn’t really resonate as much as just wanting to dance as me. I knew that early on, but there’s only one company for men to dance en pointe, the Trockaderos, and I made it into the company. It was hard work and so much fun, but I didn’t feel like I fit in, and I know I’m not the only one. At the end of the night, I was playing a character, and with Ballet22, the dancers can be characters, but we can also tackle contemporary works where the dancers are just themselves. The Trockaderos emulate that old Russian style, but Theresa and I wanted to bring mxn dancing en pointe into the present.
What have been some of the biggest obstacles in the past year since Ballet22 was founded?
Roberto: I would say we’ve been really lucky, but then there’s the budget.
Theresa: Yes, money is always the challenge. The creative side is so fun. Roberto is a creative genius and has so many ideas; we have years of work in the queue. His programs are always so carefully thought out. Every little detail he has in his mind. It’s so fun being his business partner. It’s such a joy to put together a program and call the dancers and ask if they’re available. We really love this work, but we have to find money for it.
Roberto: Since we started the company during the pandemic, we just made it work. All the dancers got tested for coronavirus before and after flying, and we all quarantined together to make our first video. We rehearsed and filmed with masks. Now we’re performing live, but we still live and work together during the rehearsal process. And of course the pandemic is still happening. Other companies have had to shut their doors, but we’ve just moved ahead and been creative. That would have been the most challenging thing, but we managed to tackle it.
Theresa: Starting the company during a time of crisis, we’ve gotten used to little fires coming up that we deal with. Now as more crises come up, we’re good at taking it one day at a time. We love to say, “Solutions only.” We’re small and nimble, so when something doesn’t work, we do something else.
Can you share more about your recent season?
Theresa: Our Santa Barbara show on August 27th was our first time performing outside the Bay Area. We performed excerpts from Carmen as well as pieces from other shows we’ve done.
Roberto: The performance was called The Best of Ballet22. In addition to Carmen, there were excerpts from Giselle and Le Corsaire, as well as the contemporary works Juntos, I Will Follow You Too, and Heartbeats. Heartbeats was our own commission. And then September 3rd-5th, we presented Carmen in full as well as a new commission by Spanish choreographer Ramón Oller.
What do you hope audiences took away?
Theresa: With all our shows, we want people to feel joy and to celebrate the things that make them unique. The feedback we’ve gotten is that people feel empowered and inspired. That’s something we always want people to feel after our shows.
It’s really important that people see the LGBTQ+ community in many ways, not just as comedic relief or as dramatic. Everyone is nuanced and when we present these shows that allow for that range, it’s just a reflection of the human experience. I hope that people who are part of the LGBTQ+ community feel seen, respected, and loved, and I hope that allies feel strengthened in their allyship.
Roberto: Growing up, I didn’t see people like me in any movies. I always was looking for the gay character or couple. In the early 2000s, that was hard to come by. Maybe by 2010, there was a little bit more, and now we’re seeing even more. But then as a dancer, I was always either playing a role where I was in love with a woman or, when I was in the Trockaderos, I was playing a woman. It’s acting, which is totally fine, but wouldn’t it be great if I could partner with someone who I’m actually attracted to? My hope is that people can see those relationships onstage and feel represented. That’s very powerful.
Can you share how you recruited your dancers and what some of their backgrounds have been?
Theresa: Everyone is very accomplished and has a high level of technique. And everyone is pretty much self-trained en pointe and have figured out how to train on top of their professional schedules. The common thread is being curious about the pointe shoe and loving that challenge. Pointe shoes are painful and difficult to work with, so it really takes a special breed of person to want to dance en pointe. And then to not have society’s support; these mxn haven’t been given specific classes and a lot of them aren’t allowed to wear pointe shoes in company class. All our dancers have the extra drive to train themselves to be at a professional level en pointe. It’s really an elite group of mxn and, in the past, nonbinary dancers as well.
Similarly, can you share more about the choreographers Ballet22 has worked with and why you chose to work with them?
Roberto: In Santa Barbara, we performed Juntos by Joshua Stayton of Cincinnati Ballet. He reached out to us after we’d been following each other for years. Either they come to us, or we reach out to them. We’ve been very fortunate. We have a list of people we want to work with if the sky was the limit, but it depends on budget and the program. There are people we want to work with who we haven’t worked with yet because we have to consider what works for each program.
How do you hope to grow and evolve Ballet22 in the future?
Roberto: There are so many things we could hope for but, more immediately, we want to establish a full season company. Right now, we take dancers from different companies and then they go back home. It would be amazing to have dancers work with us full time.
Theresa: We hope that male presenting dancers who do pointe work can one day choose between doing comedy with the Trocks or doing mixed repertoire with us. We can contribute to this landscape of companies and give people more options. We want to build on what the Trocks have started. They blazed that path, and we hope to be the company that does mixed repertoire and new commissions for mxn who dance en pointe. Every program we’ve done has had a new commission. We’re creating LGBTQ+ stories that are missing in the ballet field.
Any other thoughts?
Theresa: The way this all started was with the community that Roberto and Carlos created last year, and we’re interested in continuing to build that. I hope young mxn reach out if their teachers don’t let them dance en pointe or if they need advice. We have an opportunity to amplify a movement that already exists and to provide more support, and I hope people feel comfortable dropping us a line. We have a lot of people involved in our company who have experienced what a student might be experiencing, and they can help.
To learn more, visit www.ballet22.com