Keep on Trockin’
The ensemble of dancers coming to Santa Fe to perform at the Lensic Performing Arts Center include a woman who won a medal for bad taste, another who took a correspondence course in ballet (and graduated!), and a grande dame of the stage whose most famous work was Godzilla in Tights.
These dancers are not really women. They’re men. In drag. And they dance on pointe and do splits and pay homage in equal measure to Rudolf Nureyev and Red Skelton. Once again, Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo is coming to Santa Fe, bringing its version of Swan Lake, its famous take on La Vivandière, the Spanish-flavored Majisimas, and the satirical Patterns in Space. Expect a pratfall for every pas de deux.
The Trocks— as the group is affectionately known — formed in 1974 amid New York City’s vibrant drag theater movement. The all-male cast, under the command of artistic director Tory Dobrin, nicely balances respect and reverence for the dance form with a sense of the ridiculous.
“People usually compare us to P.D.Q. Bach or that classical pianist who did comedy, Victor Borge, or the Harlem Globetrotters,” Dobrin said by phone from New York City as the troupe prepared for a roughly 20-city tour of America (after which it plays Italy and Spain). “I don’t know what they’re expecting — too much clowning. But we blend the comedy with strong dancing, and I think people are astounded that the dancing is as good as it is.”
The dancers are well trained, as you can surmise by viewing their résumés on the company’sWeb site, trockadero.org. But separating fact from fiction is a little trickier, for each member of the company has multiple stage personas. Ida Nevasayneva (dancer Paul Ghiselin in real life) is the one who got the bad-taste medal, Vera Tchumpakova (Roberto Lara) went the correspondence-course route, while Katerina Bychkova (Joshua Grant) did the Godzilla show.
Those lovely ladies, er, uh, lads, weren’t available when Pasatiempo called, but Sveltlana Lofatkina (dancer Fernando Medina Gallego)—“renowned for her portrayal of sensitive, tortured, neurotic ladies and other kvetches,” did take a moment to speak with us. Gallego studied in Barcelona and Madrid before working with the Ballet de L’Opéra de Nice and the Ballet Victor Ullate, among other companies. He auditioned for the Trocks about 12 years ago.
“I was in between jobs waiting for my next contract to start in Holland when I saw an advertisement for their show,” he recalled. “I went to see it and said, ‘ Wait a minute, this is it! I’ve been wasting my time— this is what I want to do!’ The Trocks mirrored my love of ballet and my natural ability as a clown. It was just a matter of getting the pointe shoes on and proving to the director that I was not scared.” He loves the fact that, if the performers mess up onstage, nobody knows the difference. Many of those goofs end up staying in the show as routine bits of business.
Trocks member Davide Marongiu, or “Giuseppina Zambellini,” also wanted to talk. Zambellini was upstaged by a chorus of dancing elephants in her native Milan. Full of umbrage, she left that company and joined the Trocks. That’s the fictional story behind the character, but perhaps there’s more of her in Marongiu than the average audience
member might think. “I came to the company thinking that I would pretty much develop my onstage personality,” said Marongiu, who studied at the English National Ballet School and the American Ballet Theatre School. “But you actually end up just being who you really are. It’s not about making up a character; it’s about being yourself.
“We really are not making fun [of ballet]; it’s a tribute to the grandeur of ballet. We are trying to portray these old Russian ballerinas and their lifelong dedication to a super-old art form, and it just looks funny. Regular ballet companies, sometimes they take themselves too seriously. Classical ballet can get boring. That’s why people come to see us— we’re more entertaining.”
Director Dobrin took the phone again. He echoed Marongui’s comments, saying that most dance companies today just aren’t entertaining. “But if someone from another company approached me about that [quote], I would say, ‘I never said that.’ ” Apparently Dobrin has an alter ego too.
Dobrin has been with the troupe since 1980. “When I joined, 100 years ago, it was a different era,” he recalled. “Today society is more accepting and gay men are very comfortable with themselves. Trockadero is considered a career choice, not something that’s considered a career wrecker— as it was when I joined.”
Do women ever try to join the troupe? They do! “But I say to them, ‘ You have to be able to lift the guys, because we do reverse gender roles.’ Most of our guys are 5’10” to 6’2”, and there’s not too many girls who want to try to lift a guy like that.”
The troupe wants well-trained dancers. It also wants people who like to do zany things, like kick a swan in the rear. Age doesn’t always prove to be a barrier to job security with the Trocks. Dobrin paused to look over his dancers in rehearsal and said, “There’s Robert Carter, who’s 35— he’s been with us 15 years. Fernando is 37; he’s been here 12 years.” Gallego said he hopes to stay with the Trocks as long as his body— and his visa— holds out.
Keeping the show fresh is not a concern for Dobrin. “I’m the type of person who eats the same breakfast every morning for 20 years. I like to do the same thing over and over again, but we do new pieces, and I do change the casting around.” He’ll try a comic routine in front of an audience once, and if it doesn’t work, he gives it the ax.
Of course, guys dressing up like girls has been good for a laugh since the days of Shakespeare, as long as the crossdressers don’t wind up in the women’s locker room (though that happened with Robbie Coltrane and Eric Idle in Nuns on the Run). British music-hall performers of the early 1900s — including Stan Laurel and Charlie Chaplin— relied on drag for a laugh. Oliver Hardy, Lou Costello, and Curly Howard all donned dresses to play women at one point in their film career, as did Bob Hope, Milton Berle, Skelton, and Cary Grant (remember I Was a Male War Bride?).
And so, the comic tradition of toughs wearing tutus continues with the Trocks. “We aim to please!” Dobrin said. “The audience is coming in, ticket prices are expensive, so you can’t present something to them that they don’t want to see or won’t enjoy.” He paused, then stressed that in the case of the Trocks, it’s really important to make sure the comic material is strong: “Have you ever been on stage in drag with eyelashes and pointe shoes and no one is laughing? You feel really stupid.”