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This LGBTQ ‘Giselle’ celebrates individuality, putting a spotlight on non-inclusiveness in classical ballet

Dancers with the New York-based troupe Ballez in rehearsal for “Giselle of Loneliness” at the Joyce Theater in late May. (Christopher Duggan)

Studying ballet as a teenager, Katy Pyle felt a kinship with Giselle, the love-shattered heroine of the classic 1841 ballet. A naive peasant maiden who adores dancing, Giselle succumbs to the attentions of a disguised philandering nobleman, and when his treachery comes to light, she goes mad and dies — transitioning to a realm of predatory spirits known as the Wilis. The betrayal plot twist resonated with Pyle, who would go on to become a choreographer and, in 2011, found Ballez, a New York-based troupe that reimagines ballet to celebrate — and be more inclusive of — queer, transgender, nonbinary and gender-nonconforming people and expression.

By age 16, Pyle says, “I had been betrayed by my one true love, which was ballet.” The choreographer recalls being criticized by teachers for not conforming to balletic ideals of ethereal feminine physicality and movement. “I was criticized a lot for the strength and the power that I had in my body. I was told specifically by one teacher that I looked like a Mack truck.”

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Pyle, who identifies as genderqueer lesbian and uses they/them pronouns, says the disparagement was devastating, triggering an eating disorder and other trauma. Irony, too: “I felt as a 16-year-old that I was the perfect Giselle!” Pyle recalls. After all, they shared that heroine’s suffering and devotion to dance. And yet, Pyle says, “I could never play Giselle, because I didn’t look like Giselle as we think of her — this very frail, light, delicate young girl.”

Years later, Pyle’s affinity for the character is paying off: Ballez is debuting “Giselle of Loneliness,” a piece choreographed and directed by Pyle that grapples conceptually with ballet’s stringent and arguably exclusionary, conformist and outmoded traditional norms. Streaming as part of the Joyce Theater’s digital season, the Ballez production pairs seven dancers, all female-assigned or of femme experience, with an imaginative framing concept: They are competing to play Giselle, and confronting all the oppressive demands such a canonical role entails. Performers portraying a host and judges round out the audition-style proceedings.

Audiences who attend the show’s live stream, on June 10, also will participate as judges, voting in real time — an interactive dimension that implicitly acknowledges ballet lovers’ responsibility for perpetuating the art form’s conservative mind-set. (After the live stream, the show will stream on-demand through June 23 on the Joyce website.)

“Giselle of Loneliness” reflects the perspective Pyle acquired after that painful time as a young ballet student. After switching to a contemporary dance track at their North Carolina arts-focused high school, Pyle attended Hollins University in Roanoke, Va., and studied experimental and postmodern dance. They moved to New York and performed in work by the experimental dance artist John Jasperse, the playwright Young Jean Lee (“Straight White Men”) and others.

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But ballet’s bravura steps and story showpieces still exerted mystique. Pyle wanted to return to the world of pliés and pirouettes, but “on my own terms. With my people in the center,” they say.

Pyle founded Ballez and, with that company’s queer, transgender, nonbinary and gender-nonconforming artists, set about reinventing ballet’s narrative masterworks. “The Firebird, a Ballez” (2013) revolutionized choreographer Michel Fokine’s 1910 creation, installing a lesbian princess and a “tranimal” firebird. “Sleeping Beauty & the Beast” (2016) pondered desire and activist history.

It was a no-brainer to turn to “Giselle,” beloved since its debut in 19th-century Paris with choreography by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot and music by Adolphe Adam. Conceived by French poet and ballet fan Théophile Gautier, at a time when the Romantic movement had heightened interest in the supernatural, “Giselle” drew inspiration from Slavic legends about the Wilis, maidens who died before their wedding day and, in the afterlife, danced living men to death. Giselle finds herself a neophyte Wili, but when her noble ex visits her grave in a forest, she saves him, defying the bloodthirsty Wili queen.

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“Giselle” has sparked other artistic tributes and makeovers, famously including Dance Theatre of Harlem’s 1984 “Creole Giselle,” conceived by Arthur Mitchell and staged by Frederic Franklin. More recently, in 2016, Akram Khan, a choreographer versed in the Indian classical dance style kathak, created a buzzy “Giselle” for the English National Ballet.

For “Giselle of Loneliness” (whose title nods to Radclyffe Hall’s celebrated 1928 novel “The Well of Loneliness,” about the lesbian experience), Pyle cast dancers who have their own complicated relationships with ballet. That backstory informs the production’s audition-style solos, which consist of “all the most difficult choreography that Giselle performs in the [original] ballet, pushed together into five minutes,” in Pyle’s words.

But the Ballez founder has worked with each performer to add touches of autobiographical specificity, so that the production, Pyle says, speaks to “the dancers’ histories, and ways of coping — the ways they’ve suffered.”

That’s certainly the case for MJ Markovitz, who also uses they/them pronouns, and who says their solo displays the “powerhouse ideals” they learned to strive for on the competition-dance scene, when they were growing up in New England. They found success in that arena, but when it came to more classical dance, their energy and movement style — perceived as more masculine — were drawbacks. Ballet teachers groused.

“Only within Ballez have I really found that what makes me different — what separates me, sometimes in a typically negative type of way — is actually a good thing,” Markovitz says.

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Toward the end of “Giselle of Loneliness,” the audition-style solos cede to a cathartic group sequence, representing Pyle’s version of the Wilis. And who would want to leave out those dance-crazed phantasms, who are often thought of as exacting vengeance on men?

“To me the Wilis have always been this really cool community,” Pyle says, adding, in jest, “Everyone lives together in the woods and murders men, and that just seems like a great time!”

Seriously, they note, the Wili-style community in “Giselle of Loneliness” has an uplifting resonance, not a somber one, which echoes the affirming dynamic that Pyle and fellow company members have created in Ballez itself.

“Our vengeance is finding one another,” Pyle says. “Finding a space for ourselves within ballet where we can feel fulfilled and whole.”

Giselle of Loneliness, choreographed and directed by Katy Pyle. Streams live on June 10, then available through June 23 on demand at $25.