Adriana Pierce

Dancer, choreographer, and founder of Queer the Ballet
Headshot of a woman smiling.

Photo credit: Chad Wagner

Music Credit: “NY” composed and performed by Kosta T, from the cd, Soul Sand. Used courtesy of the Free Music Archive.

Jo Reed:  Traditionally, ballet has been a highly structured and gendered art form, with distinct roles and expectations for male and female dancers. But today’s guest is challenging and transforming these norms. 

Welcome to Art Works, the weekly podcast from the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed. Today, a conversation with Adriana Pierce. Adriana is not only an accomplished dancer and choreographer, she’s also a visionary leader in the ballet community. Her groundbreaking initiative, Queer the Ballet, is transforming the traditional landscape of ballet by creating inclusive spaces and dances for queer artists, breaking down traditional gender roles and fostering a more inclusive and dynamic dance community. Through performances, films, and community engagement, Queer the Ballet is not only redefining what ballet can be but also providing vital representation for queer artists and audiences.

Adriana’s own journey is notable, from starting dance at the age of three to performing with renowned companies like the New York City Ballet and Miami City Ballet. Despite facing the challenges of navigating her identity as a queer woman in a traditionally gendered art form, she has emerged as a powerful advocate for change, broadening the scope of classical ballet and creating breathtakingly beautiful work.   Adriana Pierce, first of all, thank you for joining me.

Adriana Pierce: Thank you so much for having me.

Jo Reed: And I would like to start actually with your story: Do you remember what it is about ballet that drew you?

Adriana Pierce: Yes. I grew up dancing and learning in the Russian style. I grew up in New Jersey, and then I started going to the School of American Ballet when I was 14, and I remember when I learned how to hold my hand in the Balanchine style, and that sounds like such a simple thing, but it's a bigger position. It has more breath in there, and I felt like I could open everything a bit more and the movements felt bigger and had this attack to them that really resonated with my body, and I remember thinking, “Oh, this is what feels good to me,” and “This is what I understand ballet to be,” and in this very visceral sense, and I think that that's what started my real love affair with ballet, this idea of it feeling empowering, deeply personal, but also very empowering and feeling like you're in this deep lunge reaching past yourself and towards other people, and I love dancing in the Balanchine style, and that's what really drew me to it in the first place.

Jo Reed: Well, you were an apprentice at New York City Ballet and then you were at Miami Ballet for seven years. That's a good long time. But I'm also wondering about the messages you were getting as a young dancer about gender and about sexual identity.

Adriana Pierce: Yes. I think I learned a lot. I remember when I started taking partnering class for the first time, and that's the first time that I really understood there to be specific definitions for the way that we're allowed to express or the spaces that we're allowed to hold in the ballet community. So I remember in partnering class, there was an emphasis for the young men on their strength, and their upper body strength and their stability and their groundedness, and there was an emphasis for the women in the class on being light and airy-- and the pointe work and the technique and feeling held and creating the positions that the men would then manipulate or move around. And I remember thinking, “Huh, that's interesting, because I can also feel strong and I bet I could probably partner someone else as well.” But it was clear early on that we had to go along our separate hallways, and I think I've always been really interested in blurring whatever those lines are and breaking out of those boxes, both with my own dancing and also with my own choreography, and when we don't have those boxes, what possibilities are open to us that I think ballet as a technique does already provide. I don't think we need to actually reinvent the wheel too much. I just think that we need to understand gender in much more expansive terms, in many more expansive ways, I think.

Jo Reed: Before we talk about your beginning the program or initiative, Queer the Ballet, I want to just ask you this because I'm curious about what the differences might be between the way queer female dancers are seen and queer male dancers in ballet.

Adriana Pierce: Yes, it is different. So different parts of our identity converge in different ways, and I think as a woman in ballet I found that my womanhood would converge with my queer identity in a way that the male dancers around me didn't have the same experience. I think. So on one hand, I'm trying to accept myself and understand ways to express my queerness, but I'm also having to fit in this very specific box of “What is feminine?” and I remember feeling pressure to wear makeup in rehearsal and look a certain way that the men just don't have. And so I actually found that to be quite isolating in my ballet career, because while there were many queer identifying men in the ballet companies that I was in, I felt so separate because I was also dealing with so many of these beauty standards and technical standards that the men just don't have. So yeah, I think it's important to think about all the ways that different personal identities converge and connect and affect one another, because no two people are going to have the same exact experience. And so a lot of the work that I do is really advocating for dynamically inclusive spaces that allow for all those different convergences of all the different identities that someone may have, whether that's like accessibility considerations or racial considerations, but knowing that each person is coming from a very different place and is experiencing each of those identities in the studio in a very different way.

Jo Reed: Now let's move to Queer the Ballet. What was the inspiration for this? What was the catalyst?

Adriana Pierce: Yeah, the catalyst for Queer the Ballet was actually during the pandemic I was sitting alone in my New York apartment for many, many months and yearning for a connection with dance, connection with my art. We were so quite literally isolated from everyone around us, and I started thinking about the future of post-pandemic, which was difficult to envision at the time, but thinking about the way that the art form could move forward from this ground zero moment of the pandemic where we were all just, you know, everything had kind of stopped, completely halted. And I finally reached out to a dancer that I know, Lauren Flower, who identifies as queer and had just left Boston Ballet, and we started talking about ballet and our queerness and started connecting with other queer women and non-binary and trans dancers from all over the world, and we actually assembled a little Zoom group and got on Zoom, which <laughs> I had never thought about Zoom before the pandemic, but now it's like such a beautiful connecting force in my life. But we got in the Zoom room and there were about 15 or 20 of us, which blew my mind, because again, I had thought I was the only one throughout my whole professional career, and it was the first time that I got to connect with other queer people that weren't just gay men, using ballet as the connecting force between us. I think so often, especially like in my younger twenties, it would be I had my ballet life and my ballet persona and the way that I expressed myself in the ballet world, and that was completely separate from my queer identity, and my queer life and the people I was dating or the queer experiences I was having, they were so separate. And so here I was in the most isolated moment of my life, <laughs> most of us in our entire lives, but feeling so connected to my art and my queerness all at the same time, for the first time. It was really wild. All the dancers on those initial calls, we would meet every couple of weeks or so and talk about our experiences and talk about the kind of work we want to make and everything. And I think we all felt that feeling of truly being seen and truly being held as our authentic selves, as our authentic selves in our art form, was so profound, so powerful that I knew that I wanted more people to feel that. That <laughs> “Everyone should be able to have this.” So when one of the dancers approached me to create a pas de deux for her and another one of the dancers, I said, “Of course, but let's make it bigger than one piece of choreography. Let's contextualize that choreography within a much larger conversation,” that I felt like the dance world was finally ready to have about queerness, about gender, about the choices that we're making, about the commissions that we're commissioning and not only what work we're putting on the stage but also how we're creating it. And so Queer the Ballet was built from there, from this isolation the pandemic forced us into, but into this then very robust period of growth and connection.

Jo Reed: And what piece was that that you choreographed?

Adriana Pierce: So that initial piece was “Animals and Angels.”

Jo Reed: That's your first one?

Adriana Pierce: <laughs> Well, it's interesting. So that was our first big piece. Prior to that, I did have a residency where I created a pas de deux called “Overlook,” and that came out of a period of-- it was like a two-week residency where I hold myself up with two dancers from ABT and we just started breaking down how we can explore partnering in some new ways, especially with two people in pointe shoes and how that changes things. But then, yeah, after that initial exploratory process, the first big thing that Queer the Ballet did was “Animals and Angels,” which was produced by the Joyce and premiered as a dance film.

Jo Reed: Okay, let me say, I think “Animals and Angels” is a gorgeous piece. It is so beautiful, so fluid. I have 80 gazillion questions about it.


Jo Reed: So let's talk about how you approached this and your process, and listeners who might not have seen it, if you can just give a thumbnail sketch. It's, as you said, a pas de deux, two women, and they're both on pointe, and I have never seen two women on pointe in a pas de deux together. It was extraordinary and beautiful. The fluidity was amazing.

Adriana Pierce: Oh, thank you so much. I'm so proud of that piece and the process that we entered into in order to create it. These two wonderful dancers, Courtney Taylor Key and Audrey Malek, who are just so beautiful together, and I had this piece of music that I couldn't get out of my head at the time. It's by a singer named Joy Oladokun, who I'm a big fan of, and it sounds like a morning. When you spend a morning together and there's light coming through the window and you're sitting at the kitchen table, and I think the first lyrics of the song are like, "Do you want a cup of coffee? Can we talk stay for a bit and talk?" And I loved that idea of spending this beautifully intimate morning moment with someone that you are growing to know, someone that is new in your life that you are excited about leaning into, with no pressure. And for me, that kind of opened up this beautiful space for their partnership, because it was all at once very respectful and it was exploratory, but also settled in their knowing of each other just in that moment for this one beautiful cup of coffee in the sun together, they're sharing intimacy and respect and celebrating that feeling of getting to feel safe with another person. And you know, it's really hard to be a queer person <laughs> in the world, and that's part of what the song talks about too, is sometimes you just crave this simple knowing and the simple safety of another person, because often it feels like loving, for a woman, for instance, loving another woman sometimes can feel political and feel politicized in a way that doesn't always feel safe or doesn't always feel like it's fully mine or fully yours to claim. And so I wanted something that was intimate and celebrated that quiet, beautiful, respectful, loving learning of another human.

Jo Reed: It really is a piece of classical ballet.

Adriana Pierce: Yes.

Jo Reed: And you said earlier in this conversation:  “It really doesn't take much to expand ballet to include many conversations within it,” and I think that piece is such a perfect illustration of that.

Adriana Pierce: Yeah, when I approach partnering in my work, especially my queer works or my explicitly queer works, I like to take the things that we know about partnering and then integrate them in a way that feels authentic to the two artists who are dancing together so that gender isn't a part of it, but that we are also creating a new language that feels unique to what's happening in the moment. So you'll see, if you know dance and you know ballet, you'll see moments like, for instance, I put a couple dips in, like if someone's dancing ballroom. So it's an image that you know, an image that we can understand as romantic and sweeping and that we are used to seeing in different partnerships, but I'll then ensconce it in ways that feel more authentic and sit outside of that normal rubric that a dip would generally be in. I pass back and forth a lot who is leading and who's following.

Jo Reed: Exactly.

Adriana Pierce: Which really upends the structure of traditional partnering work that we're used to seeing, and I love all the possibilities that brings and I love the way that that opens each partnership. So that's something that I feel really, really strongly about, that each dancer always has equal agency with each other. And honestly, then there's so many ways to get creative about how these two bodies fit together. But of course, with two dancers on pointe, partnering each other, there's a lot to discover and learn about in terms of the strength that it takes to hold another person's weight and what is possible or not possible with someone on pointe. So those are definitely considerations that have to be made when you're using the pointe shoe, but I also like to think of the pointe shoe as a tool that can change and inform the movement, but doesn't necessarily limit it.

Jo Reed: Yeah, I thought that was really, really good because it was suddenly a skill as opposed to a gender identifier. <laughs>

Adriana Pierce: Exactly, exactly. I wish that everyone would think about pointe work in that way.

Jo Reed: How much input do you get from the dancers as you're doing the choreography? Are you a collaborative choreographer?

Adriana Pierce: I would say I am probably. So I like to create in the moment. I know a lot of choreographers will get into a studio by themselves for a while and come up with material and then teach that material. I actually like to come in with maybe one phrase or one image even sometimes and then create in the moment, which allows for a lot of discussion with the dancers. So something that's very normal that I'll say would be like, “Okay, do this, and then where does it feel like your weight is going? Do you feel like you need to go this way or this way?” And they'll say, “Oh, I feel like I want to go to the right here,” and then I'll say, “Okay,” so then we'll incorporate that in. So I like when the movement feels organic or it feels like it's coming from comfortable places in terms of where your weight is going, and then I like to overturn that and go the opposite way. <laughs> But it's often a conversation with the dancers, and a lot of times what happens is there's these happy accidents that happen that I hadn't thought of. So sometimes I'll come up with a phrase on my own and then come in and teach it, but then when I'm in the room, whoever is dancing, it's like they'll bring something different to it that I hadn't thought of myself and then I love that, and so then I kind of change it anyway. So that's why I love to create in the moment and bring everything that's happening in the room into each phrase.

Jo Reed: Well, I think that's difficult for an evening-length work, or maybe it's not. I don't know. I would think it would be. And I'm thinking of one of your more recent works, “Dream of a Common Language,” which you directed. It's an evening length work, as I said, based on the poems of Adrienne Rich, and how many? There are four or five choreographers?

Adriana Pierce: Yeah, there's four of us, yes.

Jo Reed: How is bringing that together? Because it's very challenging to put on an evening-length work.

Adriana Pierce: Yeah. We're in process now, and it's been amazing so far, so we were trying something a little bit experimental in that it's an evening of work, but it's not a mixed bill. We're all contributing sections to a larger work, which has been really beautiful and collaborative because we're all, even though each of us are creating different sections, we're all very much in conversation with each other and collaborating to create something that feels cohesive. But there are very different, we're all very different voices, so it's going to be cool to see each of our voices side-by-side and see how that changes and enriches the work. But I've also, I encourage each of the choreographers, to also lean into their process because we're all very different.  I think allowing each of us to have the space to say what we want to say in the way that we want to say it and then have everything come together is going to be really, really special.

Jo Reed: For the work done in  Queer the Ballet. The choreographers are queer. The dancers themselves are queer, and you try to involve as many queer people and non-binary people in the process as well in all aspects of the work.

Adriana Pierce: That's correct, yes.

Jo Reed:  What does that inclusivity give you as a creator? It’s creating a space like that is safe but it also really calls for opening up the imagination, I would think

Adriana Pierce: Yeah, I think it goes back to what I was saying about those initial Zoom calls that we had. It's feeling seen, feeling radically seen in who you are. And it's hard to have that when you don't feel like you have full community around you, and that's not to say that you can't feel that other times. But there is something that does feel safer and more held when you can be in a space that you can feel fully seen, allow yourself to fully go to the places that you might feel like you have to protect in other ways. But it also isn't easy to be in those spaces. We've also realized, we've learned a lot when we've been in process with queer artists, that sometimes it can be triggering working on queer work and going to these places, that there might be trauma and there's hurt, and it's not easy. So we've also had to find ways to provide the right resources, to make sure that we have community support. But yeah, I think it's this idea of feeling radically seen for who you are in all of your wholeness that it's difficult to feel in other spaces. But also, just to be clear, we're also learning. I'm also learning about what that does. This is the first time, even since we've began, it's the most queer artists I've had on one project thus far. Because even in the beginning I tried to find as many as I could, but it was like this conversation hadn't been around as long, I hadn't been connected with enough people. So this actually is kind of a new frontier in a lot of ways, just even for me and for all of us involved and we're learning the ways that this type of community and this type of space will affect us all. So <laughs> we'll have to have a follow-up conversation after the performances, <laughs> and I'll let you know how it felt. <laughs>

Jo Reed: Well, thus far, how has the reception been from the ballet community, from audiences, from queer communities? And there are communities within those communities, so obviously it's varied, but what have you heard?

Adriana Pierce: Well, I will say even just from like on the basic level, when I started talking about Queer the Ballet, to have other people in the ballet community say to me, “Okay, what can I do? How can I support this? I want to hear more.” That is so powerful because, to be honest, none of the stuff that I've really been saying through this work is new for me in my life. I was 23 years old rambling on about partnering and equal agency and stuff, <laughs> but people at that time weren't always ready to listen.  I don't know if it's the pandemic or just that we've evolved as a society, but the fact that the dance world I truly feel now can hear and engage with the work that we're doing is really, really exciting to me. So I've definitely been able to have conversations with a lot of people within the dance world, and the queer people that I know who have come to see our shows or have engaged with our work, I get messages all the time from people, and some of them are from people who grew up in the dance world but when they realized they were queer they felt they had to quit because it didn't feel like a safe space for them. I get that all the time. It's also people who never did dance but always wanted to but never thought that they could because they didn't feel like it was the right space for them. But now looking back they always wish they had, but they love engaging with it, and the fact that there's queer work out there now is so exciting for them. I get messages from parents who talk about their young queer child and how this is beautiful and that how now they know that their kid can grow into a space that is inclusive and that can hold them better.  I've gotten the question of, “Well, does it matter? Does it matter if the work is queer or if the dancers are queer? Can it just be two people? Can't it just be two people in love? Does it matter if they're queer or not?” And to that I always say, “If you're not looking for that, then you can glean from any performance what you need, right?” And so some people might look at a queer pas de deux and say, “Oh, that's so beautiful. Those are two people in love,” but someone else might look at that and say, “Oh, this is what I've been searching for my entire life,” or, “This is the representation that I've been looking for,” or, “This is what I've always needed to be able to accept myself and what I want,” and first of all, art is so beautiful that it can be so many different things to so many people. But that's also why we have to have representation, because there's something for everybody and everyone should feel like they have something to grasp onto and to relate to.

Jo Reed: And I wonder how embracing your own identity as a queer woman has enriched your work and enriched and inspired your own choreography.

Adriana Pierce: Oh, it has changed my work immensely. It was hard. I was scared. I was really scared to fully embrace myself in my work. I think vulnerability is hard for me sometimes, just like in my life, and I think it felt really scary and vulnerable to show myself fully in my choreography. But I do find that when I'm drawing from an authentic personal place that my work is better and I'm really proud of that. But I will say that it hasn't been easy because I think on one hand it's so healing for me to be able to create queer work for other queer dancers, because I get to watch them have this beautiful experience, bring their whole self into the studio and feel like they can relate and express something that feels so close and dear to them. But on the other hand, it's been really hard for me to accept that I never had that. That when I was in professional ballet I never got to feel what that feels like and I never will. So it's a lot. It's brought up a lot for me in my life and I'm very grateful for all that Queer the Ballet has taught me, and just this journey of meeting these people and creating this work, I've learned so much. And I also have had to accept a lot and also forgive myself for a lot of stuff too, because I don't feel that I was always very kind to myself when I was in those ballet spaces, and I was very much holding myself to these standards and putting myself in these boxes that I just wasn't ever going to fit in. But then I feel very lucky to be able to include all of those things, all of those multitudes, in my work, and I will continue to explore and to express that.

Jo Reed: I wonder how the dance community can better support queer artists and create more inclusive spaces for not just diverse voices, but authentic voices. What does expanding representation require?

Adriana Pierce: It requires so much, but things on the very basic level, like language that we use in the studio. People always ask me, “What's the very first thing that I can do to create inclusive spaces?” And it's like, “Use non-gendered language in the studio.” It's like I cannot stress how huge that is, and it might feel like just a tiny thing to change but will dramatically change the way that people feel safe in those spaces. So for instance, the correction should never be, “That should look more feminine.” The correction should be whatever adjective it is that you're looking to get out of the different movement. And then bigger things, like anyone who wants to be able to start training in pointe shoes when they're young I feel should be able to have, be exposed to, that training, regardless of their gender expression, and <laughs> in the same way, anyone who doesn't necessarily want to go the pointe shoe route I also feel should have the space and the runway in order to still have a professional career as well. So I would really love to see pointe shoes less gendered. So those are things we can do in a studio, but I think there's so many, because what we see on stage is like the last thing to happen. So it's how are we creating space? And not only making our spaces inclusive but also, in advance of people coming, prepare the space for them. That's the other thing that I think... we're in a place right now where we have to make changes, but in the future I also want us to be thinking about, “Okay, who are we not considering, and how can we prepare the space and open the space and invite those people in and be ready for them?” Because I think that that's a little bit more dynamic in terms of opening the door and keeping the door open.

Jo Reed:  What do you see for Queer the Ballet? How do you envision it evolving?

Adriana Pierce: Yeah. So we were going to continue to create and produce live performances. I want to commission choreographers and bring people in and hire <laughs> as many artists as I can. I'm also going to continue to produce films. It's really, really important to me to continue to create dance film because of how accessible it is. Because there could be a lot of young people who can't make it to New York City to see a performance and they might not feel safe to be out with their family or whatever circumstance they're in, but if they go online and they search queer ballet they can always find something to watch. So always going to create film. We're working on specifically building resources for education, for studios, so that those questions of “How can I make this space more inclusive?” Well, we can help give some ideas or at least connect them to people and show them where to begin. And then trying to build out our community engagement program. We've been working on a donation-based class here in the city, where it's kind of in the beta phase but has been going really well, and just a class, an open class for people to come and take ballet, and it's a queer-friendly space. Not everyone necessarily is queer who comes, but anyone who dance, who considers themselves that they dance outside of the gender binary, that can include a lot of different people and just to have good training and feel safe to be themselves. So that's been really fun as well, and after our shows in June, we're looking for the rest of 2024 to be a really big building year, grow out our team, grow out our infrastructure, because we got big dreams. I'm really, really excited for all the things that we can do.

Jo Reed: And that is a good place to leave it. Adriana, thank you, truly. Thank you for giving me your time, especially because you're so busy. <laughs> I really do appreciate it. And honestly, you are doing such terrific work, so thank you for that.

Adriana Pierce: Thank you so much. It was really lovely to chat with you.

Jo Reed: It was really nice for me too. Thank you. 

That was dancer, choreographer and founder of Queer the Ballet, Adriana Pierce. You can keep up with her work at We’ll have a link in our show notes. You’ve been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Follow us wherever you get podcasts and leave us a rating. It helps other people who value the arts to find us. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

A conversation with Adriana Pierce, a trailblazing dancer, choreographer, and director, who is reshaping the ballet world through her initiative, Queer the Ballet. Pierce discusses her early dance experiences and how her passion for dance led her to notable positions at the New York City Ballet and Miami City Ballet, where she spent seven years honing her craft. But at the same time, there was much to negotiate: Pierce discusses the challenges of navigating gender and sexual identity in the ballet community. She reflects on the rigid gender-specific roles taught in partnering classes and her desire to break down these traditional dynamics through her choreography. This led, during the pandemic, to the creation of Queer the Ballet, a pioneering initiative aimed at creating inclusive spaces, work, and choreography for queer artists. Pierce talks about some of the work she’s created, including the evening-length piece “Dream of a Common Language” which she directed, and the positive reception from the ballet community and audiences. She also shares her vision for the future of Queer the Ballet, emphasizing the need for ongoing support from the ballet community and inclusive training. We’d love to know your thoughts—email us at And follow us on Apple Podcasts!