There was a time when ballet was the purview of Imperial Russia, when ballerinas Russianized their names from Lilian Marks and Hilda Munnings to Alicia Markova and Lydia Sokolova. Like a certain Norma Jeane Mortenson, the dancers knew their down-home monikers lacked the authenticating glamour of a Slavic pedigree. There was a time when every ballerina was a diva who radiated an individual gleam in the anonymity of the firmament. There was a time when balletomanes went to watch over-the-top personalities rather than over-the-puddle pas de chats. Bay Area audiences won't need to commandeer a time machine, to return to days of yore, when Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo comes to Zellerbach Hall on March 25.
Yes, they're an all-male comedy ballet troupe doing send-offs of classical ballets in full tutu-ed and pointe-shod regalia since 1974. But they are also, in the words of their artistic director Toby Dobrin, at heart a "dusty overblown Russian touring company that doesn't exist anymore."
With names like "Ida Nevasayneva" and "Yakaterina Verbosovich" and a repertoire that includes both blockbusters like Swan Lake and ballets otherwise only honored by the likes of the Bolshoi like Naiad and the Fisherman, the Trocks are a curious bag of contradictions and confections. They poke loving fun at the classics, turning the beautiful demise of the Dying Swan into a moulting, pecking last gasp, yet they also bearers of a tradition of classical ballet that most ballet companies have jettisoned in favor of contemporary work. Ultimately, they are "ambassadors of dance" who entertain diehard ballet fans as well as those who wouldn't know a penché from a peach pie, declares Robert Carter, who has been with the company 20 years and will be dancing as Olga Supphozova in the principal ballerina role of Paquita.
How did these men come to dance, chest hair bared and tiaras shining, in size-10 satin shoes? For Carter, it was inevitable: early ballet training and a fascination with the cast-off pointe shoes of his female peers led to regular pointe classes.
"As a boy, I thought, this is the company for me, they do what I do. I'm a boy who dances on pointe. Girls were always very skeptical and put off," says Carter. "They'd say, 'Boys don't dance on pointe.' And I'd say, 'This one does.'"
For Joshua Thake, who recently rejoined the company after a two-year interval, the road was more circumspect--after his training at the San Francisco Ballet School was brought to an inglorious end through injury, he spent time working at a Starbucks and Pause Wine Bar, doing occasional gigs with San Francisco's Man Dance Company, and performing drag regularly as Chastity Belle with Cocktail Gate. He recalls being "totally enthralled" seeing the Trocks for the first time on DVD in the San Francisco Ballet School dormitory and auditioned twice in New York before landing a position.
Though every dancer with the Ballets Trockadero has a male and female persona, "no one joins this company to do the male roles," maintains Carter. But whether they are truly trying to embody femininity is a complicated issue. Carter says:
"I've always said that first and foremost, I am an artist. In the true core and nature of my artistry, there is really no gender because it is my interpretation of whatever character, whatever role. Yes, I'm a gay man, but not all gay men are femme sissies. It's not about embodying femininity. It's about exposing and showing a little bit of femininity that is inherent in my soul."
Selby Schwartz, a dance scholar at Columbia University who has written about the Trocks and has a book on drag and performance in press, explains that "ballet is a discipline about discipline, about rules and technique. There are some people who are allowing other bodies into those fields. Alonzo King of LINES Ballet is one of them. Tory [Dobrin] is another."
Schwartz continues by saying, "It's about race and age and gender and sometimes about class. It's a kind of activism."