Gender-fluid dancer at Pacific Northwest Ballet is breaking barriers

SEATTLE — The pandemic has kept the curtains closed at McCaw Hall - home of the Pacific Northwest Ballet. But a gender-fluid dancer there is still finding ways to break barriers and is helping transform the future of ballet.

Eighteen-year-old Ashton Edwards, from Flint, Michigan, is a professional-division student at the Pacific Northwest Ballet (PNB). He’s been dancing since preschool.

“I always dreamed of being a professional ballet dancer,” Edwards said.

Now he’s the first-ever male student to be formally studying en pointe at the PNB.

It’s a classical ballet technique where a dancer is on their toes with their feet vertical. The form makes dancers seem weightless and ethereal.

The role is traditionally reserved for women.

“To float around the stage while the men assisted them,” Edwards said.

“It’s a lot more challenging in certain ways. The girls make it look so easy. It’s a lot more of the smaller muscles,” he said.

Edwards didn’t come to Seattle to study pointe. He says it’s a path he started on after coming out last year.

“It definitely took some time and a lot of courage – it was definitely really hard,” Edwards said. “I came out to my family as a gay man,” he said.

He’s since discovered that he identifies with other groups too.

“He him/ she her/ they them,” Edwards said. “I haven’t hanged any labels yet but I’m still learning.”

Challenging personal boundaries translated to him pushing the limits of another love – ballet.

“I kind of had this self-realization I could do more and I didn’t want to limit myself in any way,” Edwards said.

And that brought him to pointe.

“Ashton’s the first student that has come to us and said, I’d like to study en pointe, is that possible? And I didn’t really see it coming,” said Peter Boal, the artistic director at the Pacific Northwest Ballet and director of the school.

“Ballet is not really known as being the most progressive of art forms,” Boal said.

Edwards said he knew starting that discussion - wanting to tackle a role created for women - meant challenging an age-old tradition.

“Were you nervous at all to have that conversation?” KIRO7′s Deedee Sun asked.

“Oh yeah, definitely. It was very nerve wracking,” Edwards said.

What motivated him was not his own ambition.

“I knew it was bigger than me from the beginning,” Edwards said. “I had to put myself in a very vulnerable state. It’s hard for a lot of queer youth to be their true self, especially because for so long we are told we’re not supposed to be these things, not supposed to be ourselves,” he said.

Boal was 100% on board with the ask.

“I was grateful that someone stepped forward and said I’m ready, can this happen,” Boal said.

The next thing they had to do was go through the student handbook to make sure it didn’t say “women” studying en pointe, but simply “students.” The text of the handbook will be changed for the 2021-2022 season.

Edwards also received the special pointe shoes that all those in the discipline get.

“It takes a particular type of strength that the girls take years to work on,” Edwards said.

As he develops the new skill, the Pacific Northwest Ballet is learning too.

“Ashton represents a future generation - a current generation. So if we’re not listening, learning, and keeping up - we’re no longer relevant,” Boal said.

When the pandemic is over – and performers and audiences can be at McCaw Hall again – the curtains may rise on a new era of ballet.

“There will be a moment when someone like Ashton is dancing en pointe in a role that audiences haven’t seen before and it will be a first. It will be a door opener and I would imagine - I would hope - that we would flood through that door,” Boal said.

“I don’t know what’s possible but I’m very excited to try,” Edwards said.

Edwards’ family also started a GoFundMe to help cover the costs of studying ballet, called “Keep Ashton Dancing.” PNB Future Fund here.

With live performances impossible, the Pacific Northwest Ballet is also coping with a massive financial hit. You can support the PNB Future Fund here.