Sunday Magazine Australia
As the gold velvet curtain rises and the lights dim, a hush falls like dew over the theatre. Tension hangs for a moment, silent and swollen in the air, before music bursts from the speakers, releasing with it a stream of dancers onto the stage. In satin toe shoes and clouds of pink tulle. they leap and turn daintily. drawing gasps of appreciation from the audience. So precise is their technique, so graceful are their movements, it’s almost possible to turn a blind eye to the tufts of hair sprouting out the top of their leotards.
Meet Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, or as they’re affectionately known, the Trocks. And should there be any lingering doubt, there’s not a woman among them – despite the high quota of tutus, tiaras and tights onstage. In the words of their online blurb, the show is -a playful, entertaining view of traditional, classical ballet in parody form and en travesti. Or, to put It bluntly, ballet performed by blokes in drag.
You’d be forgiven for thinking this sounds like a novelty act – a momentary hit with fickle audiences before they move onto the next freak show – but that’s not the case at all. Set up in New York in 1974 (where the company is still based), the Trocks have since become something of a global phenomenon. This evening’s performance in Tokyo is the last on their tour of Japan. After this, the dancers will enjoy a well-earned break before pirouetting in our direction next month for dates in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Perth.
“In the early days, it was nothing but hardcore slapstick,” says artistic director Tory Dobrin. “Then, when we started appearing at opera houses and better theatres, we cleaned up the act a bit. Now, some pieces are funny and ridiculous, others are danced pretty straight.”
The truth is, they’re well equipped to play it both ways because, underneath the humour, they’re seriously good dancers. That said, even in the more sensible parts, shoehorning a man’s broad shoulders, size 11 feet and fertile armpits into the demure costume of a prima ballerina will always raise a titter. And as for the “funny and ridiculous,” it’s only a few minutes into the show when I spot the tiniest of wobbles on the far right of the stage. The wobble grows, quickly becoming a teeter that knocks into the next dancer and, before you know it, they’ve all keeled over, this way and that.
Of course, it’s not all fun and games. Rewind six hours, and the dancers and crew are hard at work rehearsing. Beyond the powder puffs and glitter, this is a full-time job like any other. As I take a seat in the darkened theatre and watch them prepare for this evening’s show, I’m disappointed. to find the dancers wearing cargo shorts and T-shirts, without a trace of lipstick.
Yes, the dancers are a bit lunatic, but they’re not here because they want to be girls: sighs Dobrin. “Does Dame Edna want to be a girl? No, he’s a man who’s created this larger-than life persona in the grand theatrical tradition.”
Led by a local ballet mistress, the team repeats stretches and moves at the barre. before running through the show. During one scene, a dancer is left on stage for a particularly exuberant solo. Dobrin leans over. “That’s one hefty ballerina,” he whispers.
It’s Christopher Lam, the troupe’s only Australian dancer (the rest hail from all over the world, including Spain, China, Mexico, France and Italy). Born in Brisbane and raised in Canberra, Lam joined the Trocks in 2007. Sitting down with him for a cup of green tea afterwards, I’m exhausted from just watching.
“When you’re in a ballet company as a guy, you don’t really think about it. but the girls do a lot more work,” he says, wearily. “When you put the toe shoes on, you soon realise.”
And he would know the difference. Lam did a six-year stint with the Australian Ballet, where there are plenty of women on hand for the hard parts. These days, christened as they all are by Dobrin with a female stage name that ties in with their image as a dusty old Russian ballet company, he dances as Nadezhda Bogdownova.
“I’m a bit bitter about my name, actually” says Lam, scrunching his meticulously groomed brows. “When I auditioned, I was kind of overweight, because I’d taken some time off dancing. I think: that’s why Tory named me Bogdown-ova, as a reference to being heavy. Anyway, now everyone shortens it to Naddy Boggs, which I’m much happier with.”
His new name, however, was nothing compared to the tribulations of learning to dance en pointe. “In the beginning, it was very awkward – it felt funny moving as a girl” he admits. “To anyone who says a man can’t be a ballerina, I say, ‘I put on those shoes and get up there, and it hurts, so I’m a ballerina.'”
The company has a signature style for their wigs, with a centre parting and a low bun, but when it comes to make-up, they can go wild.
“There was a dancer who always did big showgirl make-up and, one night, he did mine exactly like his,” says Lam. “When he was finished he said, ‘Now you look real!’ I said to him, ‘How many girls go out looking like Ronald McDonald?’ But it’s become our catch-phrase backstage. We’ll say, ‘Who looks real today? Do I look like a real girl?’ It’s all in jest because, at the end of the day, you look like a man in a wig.”
With less than an hour until the show, the dancers head to their dressing rooms and the audience begins to trickle in. It’s a dream mix – couples, families, grandparents – which must have the dollar signs flashing in theatre owners’ eyes whenever the Trocks are in town. “Our audiences are full of people who might not go to an ordinary ballet,” agrees dancer and ballet master Paul Gluselin I’ve caught him mid-transformation, his trackpants and short mousy hair jarring with his hot-pink eye shadow. “I think it’s popular because it’s a classic art form, done with humour and personality. People get a lot out of that, especially in a world that’s far too serious.”
Behind him, the dressing room is hazy with hairspray as the dancers perch before bulbed showbiz mirrors, dusting their cheeks with blusher and taming stray tendrils of wig.
Then, topless and in flesh-tone tights, they make their way to wardrobe, where they’re helped into their dresses at the last minute; no one wants to sit around for hours in a tutu (except ftve-year-old girls).
ASIDE: The Trocks’ repertoire takes audiences from the heights of comedy to the depths of dramatic throes in a performance that combines slapstick sequences with traditional ballet techniques.
“Five minutes to curtain up,” blares the tannoy as I edge past racks of costumes and begin the journey to the stalls to take my seat.
The two-hour show passes in a whirlwind of silliness, including a somnambulant fairy falling off the front of the stage, a moonwalk seamlessly woven into a Vivaldi pas de deux, and a dancer casually sporting chunky librarian glasses.
Crowning the show is The Dying Swan. performed by Ghiselin, now out of his tracksuit and resplendent in a lavishly feathered tutu and downy headpiece. It was choreographed a century ago for the (genuinely female) Russian ballerina, Anna Pavlova, and I wonder if she ever performed it as honestly as this.
As the cello refrain lingers in the air. Ghiselin is all angles and beak, shedding feathers from his skirt as he flaps to the bitter end. But, while his comic timing is bang on the money, it’s his technique as a dancer that really shines through. Were it not (or the music, you could imagine his feeble clucks and squawks in those final throes.
He resuscitates himself (or the first of many melodramatic curtsies, and the fans steam stage-wards with flowers they’ve been clutching since the start. The rest of the dancers come on for a final encore, and not one leaves the stage without an armful of gifts and bouquets.
Backstage, 15 minutes later, things have turned very quiet, and I wonder where everyone is. I find them outside the stage door, where the dancers are tucking into post-performance cigarettes in the late-night Tokyo heat. They’re surrounded by fans, who snap photos and shower them with more presents.
“They make you feel like a celebrity,” says Fernando Medina Gellego, a Spaniard with a five-o’clock shadow, who has been dancing with the Trocks for 11 years. “You have to remind yourself you’re not Madonna.”
“They get really angry if you don’t recognize them, or if you speak to someone else first,” adds Canadian dancer Brock Hayhoe. “But conversation can be difficult, you know, when they don’t always speak much English.”
Exhaling smoke from his nostrils, he rolls his eyes as a fan approaches but, at the last minute, she turns to me, “Are you Brock’s friend?” she demands politely, but with a hint of challenge. I explain that hanging out in this stinky alleyway is just part of my job and, reassured, she retrains her gaze upwards at Hayhoe.
“You’re so tall,” she squeaks, excitedly. There’s no arguing with that. “Thank you,” he says, searching for a suitable response and failing to find one. “You’re so short.”
You could never accuse Australians of being overly reserved, but our reaction is apparently a touch less intense than that of the fans here in Japan. Still, the Trocks are looking forward to packing up their 75 costumes, 150 pairs of toe shoes and 100 sets of eyelashes, and heading Down Under for what will be their fifth time.
“Australia’s our favourite tour,” says Dobrin. Really? Even when compared to the frenzied adoration that’s still playing out in front of us?
“Really,” he insists. “One of our dancers loved it so much, he moved to Sydney when he retired last year.”
And, on reflection, I can see why. Australia has always been a friendly place for a man in a frock. Just ask Dame Edna. SM
The Trocks will tour Australia from Oct 27 to Nov 22.