There’s likely no assumption you’ve made about boxing (brutal, reactive?) or ballet (elitist, punishing?) that hasn’t crossed the minds of Zoe Emilie Henrot and Dalton Outlaw.
Henrot, a lithe 27-year-old ballet dancer who saw the “Nutcracker” at age 6 and never looked back, confesses that until recently she didn’t know the difference between boxing and wrestling, except that both occurred in a ring somewhere far away from her.
Outlaw, a muscular and tattooed 30-year-old, stepped inside a boxing gym a block from his St. Paul Frogtown home at age 8, captivated by the frenetic rope-jumpers and thuds of punching bags.
Ballet? “I knew nothing about ballet growing up,” he said. “It was a foreign art form.”
Never would the worlds of Henrot and Outlaw intersect. Until they did. Now the duo’s bold, inspired and somewhat audacious collaboration is exactly what we need in these divisive times.
Henrot, artistic director of St. Paul Ballet, and Outlaw, owner of Element Gym in St. Paul, will showcase their considerable talents, and mutual respect, on April 15 with a one-time performance of “The Art of Boxing, the Sport of Ballet” at the Ordway Center for Performing Arts. A talkback follows the one-hour performance, which features eight ballet dancers and eight boxers proving that we can thrive together when we let down our guard.
Watching the performance, Henrot said, makes you say, “Wait a sec. Who was the art part and who is the sport part? Our dancers have been challenged to show their grit, the rawness. And boxers usually don’t box to music. Now that they know the music so well, they start to slow down their punches, and artists appear.”
The artistically athletic mashup started with Henrot’s need for more rehearsal space. St. Paul Ballet was bursting out of its studio in St. Paul’s Mac-Groveland neighborhood about four years ago.
“We couldn’t operate our school the way we wanted to at our single location,” Henrot said. She remembers looking at the available space on a quiet Sunday in an industrial area of Hamline-Midway right next door to Outlaw’s gym.
After two professional fights in 2015, Outlaw retired to run the gym and spend more time with his family, including two young sons and one child now on the way.
The unobstructed space — a total of 13,000 square feet between the two studios — appealed to Henrot, as did the plentiful sunlight thanks to its first-floor location. She immediately liked Outlaw, too, “a really cool guy. I was curious right away what his story was and how he developed a business so young.”
But convincing parents to bring their youngsters to dance practice adjacent to a bunch of grunting boxers?
“Our families were a little uncomfortable,” Henrot admitted, adding that she assumed she’d lose a few students if the ballet company moved in. Even Outlaw expressed doubt that he’d end up subleasing the space to them.
But St. Paul Ballet did take the space and Henrot quickly got to painting the walls. To ease parental worries, her team produced a short video featuring dancers, hands wrapped and gloved, taking a boxing class to demystify the sport. It worked. Not a single dance family bailed.
Now, said St. Paul Ballet Executive Director Lori Gleason, “even our littlest ones go skipping into the boxing gym to go to the drinking fountain and the boxers say, ‘Hi,’ and everyone takes care of each other.”
It wasn’t long before the studio and the gym began building a cross-training partnership. Each now offers classes to the other on a weekly basis.
“One of the most impressive things is their strength,” said Outlaw of the dancers. “They’re so strong from a movement focus, from a precision standpoint. They have the ability to know their body and how to control it.
“I’m in a gym all day training guys, and I look over and they’re doing the same thing — practices, rehearsals, sometimes for eight hours,” he said. “That’s a job! We found so many similarities.”
“Boxing is just very internal, an internal striving to perfect. It’s very similar to the way I see ballet. We’re both always pushing our bodies past what we think is possible.”
In 2017, executive director Gleason suggested that the two studios collaborate on a performance. That became “To Billy,” an homage to the 2000 film “Billy Elliott,” about a boy who dreams of being a ballet dancer.
It was well received, encouraging both studios to tackle the more ambitious “The Art of Boxing, the Sport of Ballet.” Henrot and Outlaw partnered in the choreography; he secured spoken-word artist Tish Jones for the show.
The performance also includes drumming, breathing, clapping — and a tango. Ordway aisles and other spaces play a role, too.
“I’m not nervous at all,” said 16-year-old Asher Cohen, a boxer working out this week at Outlaw’s studio, who will perform at the Ordway. “But I get super-nervous before a fight.”
Boxer/performer Deonte Sampson, 25, also was working out as he prepared for the performance. Watching the dancers “spinning on their toes and they don’t seem dizzy, that gets me every time,” he said.
“The pirouette,” Henrot said with a laugh.
“Thank you, Zoe,” Sampson said.
Audience members “will see us having fun and being authentic,” Henrot said. “They’re going to see people interacting who may never have come together.”
It’s a message Henrot and Outlaw hope audiences take from the theater into their homes and workplaces.
“These two separate missions are building one strong community that’s getting stronger by the minute,” Outlaw said.
“[With] the times we’re in right now,” Henrot added, “I want this performance to bring hope and an idea of how we can do things differently that can really affect the people around us. Dalton and I always say we’re stronger together.”