A classic solo that will never die … Paul Ghiselin in The Dying Swan
Blokes being ballerinas. That’s the USP of Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, but their shows are so much more than that …
In a New York loft in 1974, a group of 10 men (who had come together as an offshoot of Charles Ludlam’s countercultural, cross-dressing performance troupe the Ridiculous Theatrical Company), gave a ballet performance en travesti. They dressed up as ballerinas, pirouetting on pointe shoes and hamming up their roles. Calling themselves Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, and with only two proficient classical dancers among them, they didn’t imagine that the group would outlast the two weekends of its first season.
But they got a hefty leg-up thanks to an article by the doyenne of New York dance critics, Arlene Croce. Word spread quickly, and the company responded by rapidly raising the bar. With Peter Anastos at the helm until 1980, what began as a one-joke show – big guys in little tutus – grew into an established company; they received professional training in pointework, brought in special guest-teachers for repertory, and earned an ever-increasing fan base.
The Trocks, as they became known, were soon touring the world, and the standard of their dancing changed beyond recognition. Currently under the directorship of Tory Dobrin, the company runs a frenetic international touring schedule, with an especially devoted cult following in Japan. Their most recent UK appearance was at the Royal Variety Show in December 2008; afterwards, Prince Charles went backstage to say hello.
Watching the Trocks
There are essentially two sides to the Trocks’ approach to ballet: satire and homage. On the one hand, they push the hot airs and exaggerated graces of ballet into comic excess: catfights in the corps, pratfalls, slapstick, sight gags. Each dancer adopts both a female and a male persona with their own stage names (“Svetlana Lofatkina”, “Jacques d’Aniels”). Somewhere in-between spoof and reverence are in-jokes about ballet itself – artful parodies of balletic ideals, choreographic styles and stage conventions. And on the homage side, the Trocks have really upped the technical and artistic standard of men dancing in female roles; they keep some ballets in the repertory that are not often performed elsewhere, and even have some historical reconstructions.
All this means that you can pretty much take the Trocks as you find them: popular comedy, titbits for balletomanes, trannie theatre, keepers of the flame, family entertainment, or simply as prime material for your college thesis on gender performativity.
Founder member Peter Anastos was the Trocks’ artistic director from 1974 to 1980 and has since been a director with several “straight” ballet companies, as well as a successful choreographer for ballet, Broadway and film. Tory Dobrin, who began as a company dancer in 1980, is the current artistic director. Lanky Paul Ghiselin is a longstanding dancer, celebrated for his Dying Swan, while Robert Carter has been widely praised for his brilliant technique. Eugene McDougle has been the company director since the Trocks’ first-ever performance in 1974.
One of the Trocks’ staple gags is the ballerina in specs. It originated when one dancer accidentally dropped his contact lenses down the drain, forcing him to come on wearing glasses. The audience thought it was a scream and it’s been a fixture ever since.
In their own words
“We are satirising ballerinas, not women.” – Tory Dobrin, Guardian, 2006
“We’re kind of selling ourselves as an old, dusty touring Russian ballet company that the modern age doesn’t have any more.” – Tory Dobrin, New Yorker, 2005
“The humour is choreographed in. It’s been worked on, it’s there. It has a structure, a rhythm, that’s been tried and tested.” – Paul Ghiselin (aka “Ida Nevasayneva”, “Velour Pilleaux”)
“It is always a fine balance between knowing just how far you can go without changing the artistic quality of the dance, and that is important.” – Robert Carter (aka “Olga Supphozova”, “Yuri Smirnov”)
In other words
“It’s the biggest joke in ballet, and I mean that as a compliment.” – Debra Craine, Times, 2006
“Awful truths about ballet are exposed for our delectation.” – Clement Crisp, Financial Times, 2008
“Ballet as an art form operates in the gap between reality and illusion, and something in the way these funny, dedicated men slip between the ridiculous and the sublime gets amazingly close to its soul.” – Judith Mackrell, Guardian 2006
“The level of dancing is now so high that we’re less and less inclined to laugh and more and more likely to ponder the ambiguities of a male dancer who can actually be convincing as Odette, Giselle, Paquita.” – Robert Gottlieb, New York Observer, 2009
“A genuine travesty”
“What a drag.”
The Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, one of several companies spawned in the wake of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. After moving to New York in 1939, the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo toured the US extensively through the 40s and 50s, bringing Russian-style ballet to the people.
Now watch this
Where to see them next
See the Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo website for performance dates.