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A Duet for the Femal Gaze: The Divine Feminine in "Tsukiyo"

Written by Poppy Livingstone

November 19, 2022

In an audience testimonial released by the Boston Ballet, an effusive young woman beams at the camera. “I loved ‘Tsukiyo’ because of its very feminine, very balanced energy,” she says. “You can tell it was made by a female choreographer.”

Though it may seem reductive to fixate on the gender of a ballet’s choreographer, the power of Helen Pickett’s ‘Tsukiyo’ is intrinsically linked to its femininity. The second of four pieces brought together for ‘My Obsession’, which opened at the Boston Ballet on October 6, ‘Tsukiyo’  is nestled between three male-choreographed suites. Ranging from classical to contemporary, the program explores ‘obsessions and devotions of all kinds’. Though the ballet’s other pieces are undoubtedly beautiful, Pickett’s 10-minute duet draws the program to a breathless standstill. In its inquisitive sensuality, explosive chemistry, and concerted complexity, ‘Tsukiyo’ is remarkable because of its unique ability to capture and harness the female gaze.

The duet opens to an otherworldly figure enveloped in a sphere of blue-gray light. Our heroine, performed by the graceful Madysen Felber, unfurls herself with curious consideration; her first doe-like steps are obscured by a swath of swirling white fog. Felber’s hidden footsteps allow her to seemingly hover as her sweeping arms evoke the graceful arcs of planetary movement. From the ballet’s first notes, she embodies the divine.

This opening passage evinces the intelligence with which Pickett approaches her art. ‘Tsukiyo’ is based on the 10th century Japanese Folktale of “The Bamboo Cutter's Wife”, in which a man discovers a deity from the moon inside a stalk of bamboo. This folktale is steeped in a reverence for the celestial nature of femininity. Pickett’s choreography highlights this connection.  Even before her male counterpart takes the stage, Felber’s solo fills the room with romantic mystery, embodying the independence and elegance one might expect of a celestial god. Her grace is so arresting we hardly notice when her male counterpart enters, entranced. They lock eyes; a thread of chemistry connects them. So begins Pickett’s intimate, vulnerable exploration of body, soul, and desire.

The gentle power of  ‘Tsukiyo’ lies in its profound intimacy. Set to Arvo Part’s minimalist ‘Spiegel im Spiegel’, its dancers explore each other’s presence with subliminal ecstasy. Pickett’s choreography eschews traditional ballet conventions for liquid, sensual movements. The duo float through unique lifts, gestures, and bends with fluid agility.

The first half of the ballet follows the duo as they explore and negotiate their partnership. When she playfully pushes him, he staggers and falls to his knees gently, suggesting willing worship and surrender.  Lovingly, she revives him with an outstretched hand. Throughout the ballet, the moon goddess has a degree of control and autonomy that is touching and rare among women in ballet.

The distinctly female direction of ‘Tsukiyo’ was central to its inclusion in ‘My Obsession’s program. Mikko Nissinen, the Artistic Director of the Boston Ballet, has consciously expanded opportunities for female choreographers in recent years, with Pickett as a recurring favorite. “I’m very curious to see the woman as a creator versus as a muse,” he said. “Instead of being the inspiration, what is it that the women want to say as creative artists versus interpretative artists? And naturally, the stories they want to tell and the perspective they put on things is different. And I find that very fascinating.”

In ‘My Obsession’s program, ‘Tsukiyo’ is nestled between George Ballanchine’s ‘Apollo’ and ‘Allegro Brillante’. The placement of this contemporary, female-choreographed piece between two works by the ‘father of American ballet’ creates a stark contrast. Much like ‘Tsukiyo’, the piece centers on a young couple in the throes of exploratory love. Despite their similarities, Ballanchine’s piece lacks the excitement, chemistry, and enticement of Pickett’s suite. Social and artistic conventions dominate; it almost seems as though Nissinen paired these pieces with this difference in mind. Where ‘Allegro Brillante’ is stuffy, ‘Tsukiyo’ is fluid; where ‘Allegro Brillante’ is rigid, ‘Tsukiyo’ is expansive; where ‘Allegro Brillante’s depiction of romance is prescribed, ‘Tsukiyo’s is voluntary, evolutionary, and sensory.  Following Ballanchine’s classical, distinctly masculine piece, Pickett’s distinct depiction of female passion feels both refreshing and necessary.

Pickett’s masterful use of the female gaze is never so evident as it is at the heart-rending conclusion of the duet. After ten-minutes of uninterrupted movement, the couple falls into a breathless embrace. As the bamboo cutter eases into a posture of masculine vulnerability, he emits an air of total surrender. When the moon deity steps away, her partner reaches for her but does not stop her. This serves as both a moment of touching sacrifice and an acknowledgement of her autonomy. As the distance between them grows, the fog covering the dance floor fully dissipates, revealing the pair’s feet. This sudden revelation makes the ballerina’s departure all the more deliberate and moving; the first truly grounded moment of ‘Tsukiyo’ is one in which our female protagonist decides to walk away. It’s remarkable to see such an intimate piece end with such a concrete, female-led separation.

As a medium, ballet is uniquely situated to simultaneously revere and exert control over femininity and female performers. Relegated to the status of muse, ballerinas are at the mercy of their choreographers and partners; despite the intrinsic femininity of the medium, ballet is all too often moored to masculine visions. Pickett’s choreography masterfully eschews male scrutiny. In ‘Tsukiyo’, female dancers may explore their sensuality, rejoice in their love, and ultimately relish in their autonomy to leave with dignity and grace.

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