Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo (The Trocks) are back in London and they’re still en pointe in every way
The drag ballet company has been entertaining fans since 1974, now the world is finally catching up with their inclusive vibe
By Alex Goldsmith
06 September 2022
From the outside looking in, ballet seems to be all about convention. And for the most part it is – especially in classic ballets. But one encounter with Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, the New York ballet company affectionately known as The Trocks, will blow all preconceptions out the water.
As the company embarks on its 17th visit to the UK, it’s clear why they are so beloved. They are a group of drag ballerinas (with stage names to match) and a queer institution that doesn’t discriminate on height or size. They have always been, and will always be, unconventional.
“That’s the beauty of this company,” says Robert Carter (aka Olga Supphozova and Yuri Smirnov), one of The Trocks’ longest serving members at nearly 27 years. “We all have different shapes and sizes. It always has been that way.” This inclusivity highlights the extraordinary technique the company demonstrates in its classical repertoire.
“When we are together in a group we’re able to come together and actually move in unison, and the heights and colour and discrepancies don’t matter,” says Carter.
This commitment to diversity and inclusion is one of the things that makes The Trocks unique – at least in the world of ballet. “A lot of the European companies, if you’re not 1.8m [tall], don’t even bother sending in your materials,” says Ugo Cirri, one of the company’s newest recruits (his performing alter-egos are Minnie Van Driver and William Vanilla). Luckily, a particular height or body type isn’t a requirement for membership of The Trocks. Carter was “a little bit too short for conventional companies,” but unlike other male dancers, he had an advantage, having mastered the ability to dance on pointe from a young age.
As a boy growing up in South Carolina, he didn’t, perhaps surprisingly, suffer from a lack of opportunity – quite the opposite, because “boys being a rarity and a hard commodity to come by, I got farmed out a lot.” Carter practiced and practiced, begging old pointe shoes off the older girls in his school, who thought he was cute because he “was young and had chubby cheeks.”
Carter saw The Trocks perform for the first time when he was 10 and in that moment, he “just knew”. He says, “It was just the fact that there was a group of guys that did what I eventually wanted to do, which was dance on pointe on stage.”
One of the major advantages of the company is that male dancers have the opportunity to dance en travisti – playing both male and female roles. It was and still is groundbreaking in ballet. Cirri describes how his traditional ballet education didn’t allow for the kind of fluidity and freedom The Trocks so spectacularly demonstrate, “When you’re in these big ballet schools and ballet academies, you’re indoctrinated into that male and female role.” He was “always more interested in the girls’ roles anyway,” though for him, “it was not about dressing up as a girl, but the art form.”
Unsurprisingly, the conversation surrounding gender identity and fluidity is a common topic for The Trocks. Men in tutus simply aren’t the norm in ballet. But playing with the expectations of gender identity and fluidity isn’t necessarily at the forefront of the performer’s minds or for the audience. “A lot of the time, I don’t think it really occurs to most of our audience until in the middle of watching something; they have an ‘aha’ moment,” says Carter. The surprise isn’t necessarily that it’s men on pointe, but the sheer skill and grace of the dancers. And the comedy. If you’ve never seen them, take a look at the YouTube video of Trocks dancer Ida Nevasayneva (Paul Ghiselin) essaying The Dying Swan from Swan Lake to see the feathers fly. “Humour is universal,” says Carter.
The Trocks perform to ardent fans all over the world. From Japan – where they have a “very observant” fan club – to Europe and of course the US where “too many” people apparently watch the show in flip flops. And while humour can be found in going against the conventions of ballet, the performers are adamant it’s also because they are “honouring the tradition of classic ballet.”
As Ugo says, “There’s these little added jokes, like the prince motorboating the Swan Queen in Swan Lake… these little things are what make it funny.” For the dancers it’s all about the parody because, “I think that if it was just men on pointe, like a bunch of gay guys acting crazy, I don’t think that would be as funny.”
It’s why even though the company is in itself a queer institution, that queerness doesn’t define it. “I think what really brings us together is the love for ballet… more than the fact that we are a queer institution and we are gay,” says Carter.
When The Trocks formed in 1974, it was in the wake of the Stonewall Riots when the LGBT+ community were fighting fiercely for their rights. Carter says the company faced “public stigma… just for the fact that the group was a group of gay men.” But he jokes, “Now I’m able to walk instead of run.” The defiance at the heart of The Trocks – whether against the norms of society or the conventions of ballet – is what makes them iconic.
The increased visibility of LGBT+ people and culture since 1974 has undoubtedly made things easier as well. These days, references to drag tend to evoke RuPaul, which is not surprising given how Drag Race has so forcefully yass-ified pop culture and cultivated a global fanbase. In many ways, the roaring success of the franchise put the spotlight onto one type of drag but The Trocks offer a totally different experience – though they’ve also felt the impact of mainstream drag.
“Drag has kind of taken on a form of its own in the past few years,” Carter says. “It’s not the shock that it might have been at one time.” For him, the explosion of mainstream drag has only “broadened our appeal.”
In the world of ballet, though, Carter believes the company has had a tangible influence on the standing of male dancers. “This company and the broadening of perspectives in general has allowed dancers – the more unlikely ones – to find their place and to be able to shine,” he says.
Sure, there can be humour in men on pointe, but there is also power in men on pointe. Carter now receives messages from parents asking advice about their sons dancing on pointe, a development he finds extraordinary. He couldn’t have dreamed of that when he was younger, he says. What was once taboo is now being celebrated and made accessible. That’s the beauty and the power of The Trocks – they’ve been ahead of their time all this time.
Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo (aka The Trocks) start their UK tour at the Peacock Theatre, London, from September 6-17
Photos in article by NATASHA-PSZENICKI
Behind the scenes photo by Tory Dobrin