For most people, the sport of boxing summons up images of brutality, punching and broken noses. Ballet, on the other hand, conjures up tutus, picturesque poses and classical music.
But St. Paul Ballet and its new collaborator, Element Gym, have discovered a surprising number of commonalities between the two disciplines.
This week, St. Paul Ballet debuts "To Billy," a new show inspired by the company's blossoming partnership with Element, their neighboring boxing and fitness gym.
The unlikely match was made in August 2014. With rising demand for its ballet classes, SPB was looking to rent additional studio space. They quickly landed in a spacious midcentury building, a former printing operation, in St. Paul's Hamline-Midway neighborhood.
That's how SPB Artistic Director Zoé Emilie Henrot first met Dalton Outlaw, who runs Element and now subleases space to the ballet company.
As soon as the dance company moved in, Henrot found herself mesmerized by the boxers and their training routines. "I'd be in the gym a lot filling up my water bottle and thinking, 'Wow! What is all this?' " she said.
With each trip, she was intrigued enough to pause for a few minutes, observing the boxers in action before returning to her work in the dance studio. "Their technique was so interesting," she said.
After a few weeks of watching, she enrolled in a boxing class at the gym.
Outlaw was similarly curious about the new neighbors. So he and Henrot hatched a plan to help their boxing and ballet communities better understand each other — especially the other's approach to movement.
For the past year and a half, SPB company dancers took weekly boxing cross-training sessions with Outlaw. For its part, SPB hosts a weekly ballet class for boxers and other athletes.
Even though most of the dancers had never boxed before, and most of the boxers had never danced ballet, Henrot and Outlaw discovered that nobody was starting from scratch.
"When Dalton says something like, 'You have to turn that back foot in, or twist through your hips,' dancers understand that," noted Henrot.
"And it's the same with boxers," she continued. "They have fast footwork — it's part of boxing — and they already understand the technique required to put their feet in a specific place."
Outlaw never tried dancing before SPB moved next door. But he, too, discovered the overlap with shared skills including flexibility, balance and coordination.
Still, he describes his ballet training as humbling. "It takes a lot of hard work and dedication."
The biggest challenge? Definitely the cadences. "Every step has a number," said Outlaw. "It's hard to make sure we are on flow with the music."
As a bonus, he said, the dance classes "helped my clients become better boxers."
The idea for "To Billy" occurred to Henrot during boxing class.
"We were doing all this intricate footwork and intricate punching," she said. "And I was getting frustrated with myself — the way I would in ballet class — when I couldn't get a turn right.
"Then it just sort of dawned on me: We should create something together."
The show's title is a reference to the 2000 film "Billy Elliot," about a boy who dreams of becoming a ballet dancer. And the piece is only the first stage in an ongoing SPB-Element partnership, with a fully collaborative boxing and ballet performance planned for June.
For Outlaw, the partnership is an opportunity to correct misperceptions about boxers.
"We want to show people that boxing is an art," he said. "It's not just a brutal sport."
As an adviser on the show, Outlaw has been deeply involved with the two-month process of creating "To Billy." He attended rehearsals to ensure that punches were authentic while giving dancers other technical pointers on boxing.
He also performs in the show alongside several boxers, most of whom are instructors at Element. "They really bring that authentic movement to the boxing scenes," said Henrot.
Henrot created the show's two primary characters to defy expectations about ballet, boxing and even gender. A young boy named Billy dreams of becoming a dancer while the daughter of a ballet teacher — "Madame's Daughter," as she's called in the show — longs to be a boxer.
Playing Billy is 19-year-old dancer Brennan Benson. Benson says he struggled at first to learn the new sport. "It really pushed my limits," he said.
But he was quick to improve once Outlaw started stressing the similarities between the two movement styles.
Meanwhile, the dancer who plays Madame's Daughter is pumped about the extra upper-body strength that boxing builds.
"Ballet can be perceived as an elitist art," said SPB company member Elaina Sutula. "But in reality we're not so different from boxers. We're both powerful athletes."
Sheila Regan is a Minneapolis arts writer.