Louisville Ballet Dancer showcases diversity through the arts

Sanjay Saverimuttu, Louisville

Photo by Sam English (Headshot for Choreographers Showcase 2019) 

What does the word queer mean to you? How do you identify? Why?

The word “queer” to me means expressing your gender or your sexuality in a manner that risks being disadvantaged by society. This world hasn’t been designed for our success, and yet we continue to exist and thrive as a community.

To me “Queer” is defiance, resilience, and honesty, which is why I’m proud to identify as queer.

It brings me comfort and pride to a be part of a group of people that has led and shaped social and artistic movements. I’m empowered to carry on that legacy in my own way.

Where are you originally from and explain how was it growing up/living in Kentucky?

I was born in West Lafayette, IN, but grew up primarily in Boca Raton, Florida. After growing up in a fairly accepting community and going to college (Stanford University) in a very liberal area, I was very apprehensive (as were many of my friends), about moving to Kentucky. I moved to Louisville to be a dancer (and now a choreographer) with the Louisville Ballet, and after seven years of being here, I couldn’t imagine a better place to live, create, and start a new movement both in the arts and queer community.

It was a pleasant surprise to find that there is a growing queer community in Louisville and that there is a love and appreciation for the arts. I think both of these communities are on the cusp of some incredible work, and I can’t wait to define my role within that. I think as the queer community here continues to grow, it is important for us to recognize and highlight the many different queer stories that exist.

The arts are a great way to showcase that diversity and I encourage anyone who is in a position of power to help finance and bring those stories to the foreground. Now that I’ve established myself as a maker of art and a Louisville resident, I can now cater to the needs of this specific community.

Photo by Shelby Shenkman (rehearsal for Sanjay’s choreography “Amid Exes and Whys” w/ dancers Emily Reinking O’ Dell and Trevor Williams)

What would you say to any person struggling to come into their own identity?

I think it is necessary to take your time, and not feel rushed to come to terms with who you are. In some scenarios there may not be the vocabulary to properly define your identity and that’s perfectly fine too. We are mutli-dimensional people so you need to be willing to explore all sides of who you are (even what you may consider the ugly parts). There’s a loss of integrity when you pick and choose what parts of your identity are worth acknowledging. Most importantly, surround yourself with people who will support you no matter what. They can be family, friends, or even strangers online.

The beauty of being queer is that we get to choose our family, so take advantage of it.

How does your own identity run how you carry yourself? Or does it?

I’m a queer Sri Lankan-American dancer/choreographer, and my everyday life has centered on shattering preconceived notions about myself.

It is through my art work as a choreographer that I express my identity and activism. I’m often disappointed that queer representation in ballet is either non-existent or basic tropes with not much depth or authenticity.

This is why in my choreography I explore subverting gender expectations, because the ballet is codified and caters to specific gender norms and roles. In my work I introduce cultural elements and stories from a first generation perspective, because American ballet shouldn’t solely represent Western narratives. Most importantly, I’m not afraid to create queer relationships on stage, because American ballet should be supportive of queer stories and histories in the public eye not just behind the scenes. Ballet today should be about more than worshipping only European bodies or telling stories of the white-cis-hetero-patriarchy. My work is an example of what the art form of ballet could and should be.

Photo by Sam English (rehearsal for Sanjay’s choreography “Sea Change” w/ dancer Rob Morrow)

What issues do you see in the queer community?

Politically, especially in Kentucky, I’ve seen queer organizations cozy up to leaders who are incumbents or well established but those politicians only address important queer issues half heartedly or on the surface level. We settle for mediocrity because we don’t want to risk pissing them off by endorsing better candidates. This prevents us from achieving the significant strides needed for our community. This is a risk we can’t afford to take especially when it comes to matters like trans rights, homeless youth, and healthcare. These folx are just trying to survive, and us not tackling these issues head on is killing people.

Although I think it is necessary for us to have spaces within the queer community (we all have different needs and need smaller safe spaces) we tend to get comfortable and not really come together as a queer community until a pride event. I wish there were more big inclusive events for us to unite as a community that doesn’t necessarily have to revolve around drinking, partying (not that there is anything wrong with that), or corporate commodification.

What do you think would solve those issues?

We can’t settle for mediocrity, it’s not good enough. Demand more from your leaders and don’t sit on the sidelines. Do your homework and get out there and meet people who could use your love and support (both emotionally and financially).

I feel the arts is a great safe space for people of all kinds. I want to create queer art for queer people, which will encourage folx to come together and feel safe to express their truth. Arts can both inspire and bring comfort, and since queer people are often times on the front lines of political movements and campaigns, this breathing space is essential. These art spaces will give us room to share and more importantly learn from one another.

Do you feel excluded from the “mainstream” queer community? Why or why not?

As a queer Sri Lankan-American, I don’t think I’ve ever seen myself represented in the media.

Stories about queer POC rarely get told, and when they do it’s either a subplot or a racial minority group that is no where close to my own identity.

Coming from a liberal upbringing, I’m privileged to not have had a traumatic coming out story, but in the media that’s what’s seen as having an interesting queer background.

Being a ballet dancer gives me some clout within the community, but I often find it comes in terms of fetishsizing my body as oppose to respecting the art I create with it. As a choreographer and artist I do find it hard to find my own voice within the “mainstream” queer community. My art form is classical and contemporary ballet and that is hard for people to access.

Photo by: Susan Kettering (performance photo of Sanjay’s choreography “Anagapesis” w/ dancers Ben Wetzel, Rob Morrow and Sanjay Saverimuttu)

Buying a couple of $35 tickets for an evening out at the theater isn’t an easy ask for everyone. This is why I want to work towards bridging the gaps between the queer and arts communities here in Louisville, by increasing access and engaging in collaborations so more people can witness the stories queer artists have to share. It isn’t always easy to prove the tangible results of the arts, but it’s important to recognize that it’s a form of political activism as well.

Where do you feel “at your best” (safe, happy, fabulous, comfortable, etc)

I’m definitely at my best during “Gay Night” with my fellow queer dancers from the Louisville Ballet and their significant others. We read each other, we divulge intimate stories, we complain about work, and the laughter I share with them is one of the purest forms of happiness.

Who influenced the life you live now?

This has been always a difficult question for me. I came out in college, but my “delay” in coming out wasn’t because I didn’t feel safe or supported. My parents are extremely liberal, and I was a ballet dancer who went to an arts high school— this was the ideal place to come out. But often times I would see the representation of gay men in the media and they were too caricatured for me. There weren’t any authentic gay representations for me, and even my queer classmates who were busy figuring themselves out were falling into these tropes because they didn’t know any better. I had to learn that the only person who was going to be influential in how I lived my life was myself.

Today, my partner, Austin, is someone who gives me feedback and space to reflect on my queer identity. He challenges me to grow in my life, my art form, and our relationship. His work as an activist and educator, and my work as an artist, keeps us connected to a wide range of people within the queer community. I’m always inspired by the people we meet, and I’m reminded why it’s important for their stories to be shared with Louisville and greater Kentucky.