In the center of the A&A Ballet studio stood the Mouse King.
His long, felt tail trailed behind him as he made attempts to pose both for the camera and the numerous other ballet performers in the room. But, the Mouse King couldn't hold the pose for long, thoughhis head (with crown) wasn't fully attached to the rest of the costume.
Ivan Aguayo, the dancer under the mask, had to catch the Mouse King's decapitated head while regaining their balance.
Aguayo, who uses he/they pronouns, is an out ballet dancer performing in A&A's upcoming Art Deco Nutcracker, as the Mouse King and one of the Russian performers.
Growing up, the Chicago native was a person of many trades. While at high school, not only were they a football player, but they were also a theater kid and an oboe player. However, it was the arts, dance specifically, that he was drawn to.
However, they didn't start dancing until he was 19 years old, which is very rare in the ballet world. According to the Royal Ballet School, many professional dancers begin training as early as 3 and as late as 16. Aguayo said that companies had turned them away because of their late start in dance and their age. (Aguayo is currently 29.)
They also didn't start with ballet but rather contemporary dance.
"It was really difficult to maintain a ballet job coming from the contemporary background, because contemporary is not so fixed and linear," Aguayo said. The shape is almost secondary, in my opinion. In ballet, the shape is the first like that's a priority. I think it's my weakness, but also my strength."
Since beginning his professional dancing career, Aguayo has performed with different companies throughout the Midwest. They were trained by Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, a local contemporary company, before getting their first ballet job in Dayton, Ohio, four years ago. They then joined a company in Oklahoma City before coming back up north to work with a ballet company in Madison, Wisconsin.
They moved back to Chicago in 2020 after the COVID-19 pandemic had started. Aguayo learned about A&A Ballet through a friend who had previously worked with the company's director/choreographer/teacher, Alexei Kremnev.
Aguayo said that joining A&A Ballet has helped them hone their ballet technique, even if that meant going back to the start.
"I kind of stepped back," they said. "I went back to school. I've not had Russian training, so what's been beneficial about this program is that it's training. It's like strength training. That's something I never got because I started working right away."
Aguayo identifies as queer and has often felt moments of dysphoria within the strict gender roles and heteronormative storytelling in ballet. They explained that ballet performances traditionally tell the story of a damsel in distress waiting to be saved by a big, strong man. In addition, the technique and execution reinforce the gender binary by having the women move elegantly and light while the men are rough and tough.
"I think there are [people] like drag queens who [perform] another gender, and so I do like dressing up like a man and dancing like a man," Aguayo said. "But I definitely know in my life, that's not a thing. Sometimes, I do feel like I'm going backward. But I think I keep telling myself that if I play by the rules, I'll be able to break them."
However, despite the ingrained gender binary of ballet, Aguayo continues to be fully themselves, so that other LGBTQ+ people interested in dance can see someone like themselves.
"I think just visibility is being able to see someone like you is so essential to just crucial and motivating," they said. "I think it's my duty just to keep trudging along because I need to open up a pathway for that new lens first."
Art Deco Nutcracker, choreographed by Kremnev, is a retelling of the classic tale with vivid colors that mimic the Art Deco era and is set in 1920s America.
More commonly known as Deco, the style originated during World War I and was popular until the end of the second world war. According to the Art Story, a web page dedicated to teaching art history, this design style is heavily influenced by the traditional French Nouveau and English Aesthetic styles of art mixed with elements inspired by Cubism, Impressionism, and Fauve. The strategic usage of lines, color, and geometric shapes create the illusion of texture.
Aguayo said that this adaption to the story is a way to express themselves through movement freely.
"Art is the key to evolution, right? We have science [and] math, but without art, there's [no] next level of intelligence," they said. "If you don't look at life through a new lens, then there's just no evolution."
Art Deco Nutcracker will be performed Saturday, Dec. 4, at 2 and 7 p.m.in the Athenaeum Theater, 2936 N. Southport Ave. Tickets are available for purchase on A&A Ballet's website: www.aacenterfordance.org/performances.