Not long ago, a ballet teacher in a studio in Paris, exasperated by the ho-hum execution of the class, exclaimed, “Don’t move like the Paris Opera Ballet. Move like the Trockaderos. Big arms. Big heads. Big gestures.”
“The truth is, we’re doing a lot of hard-core classical ballets that just aren’t done that much anymore,” says Tory Dobrin, artistic director of the all-male troupe officially known as Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo. “Ballet companies today lean on the new, the modern. We don’t. About the only time we wear spandex is when doing Merce Cunningham.”
“We model ourselves after an old ballet company that tours nonstop,” notes dancer and ballet master Paul Ghiselin. The troupe’s name, in fact, tweaks the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo, the renowned 20th-century touring icon. “So many of our qualities stem from Russian ballet, the grand gestures, the way you move your head,” Ghiselin adds. “It’s a vocabulary you don’t see in American dance so much anymore because it’s dated.”
In other words, born decades ago as parody, the troupe is now a paradox, nigh on to full-fledged paradigm, subject of a doctoral dissertation out of the University of Texas, to name but one wonder. Men in drag? Absolutely. Leaps that end in a pratfall? To be sure. Dancers with campy Russian stage names? Try Lariska Dumbchenko, Sveltlana Lofatkina (the “Chernobyl Cherub”) and, Ghiselin’s guise, Ida Nevasayneva.
But the Trockaderos also demonstrate a devotion to form that wins over many a skeptic. The Trocks “refuse to be categorized,” says Michael Tiknis, president and managing director of the Harris Theater, where the troupe returns Jan. 24. “Their work is far more than satire or drag. It is the ultimate tribute to technique, skill and virtuosity. In a way, like Mozart, it is too complicated for adults and too simple for children. The laughter and humor, on the surface, so often disguise the depth and seriousness with which they approach the art form.”
Like all drag artists, they don’t really aim to be realistic replicas. Indeed, Dobrin admits, women achieve something in ballet his men can’t: delicacy and gossamer expressiveness.
“Women in ballet have to pull off what we’re not even going for, a kind of finesse,” Dobrin says. “In terms of dancing en pointe, in toe shoes, we’re going for the brute strength, the force, the male attack. I compare it to tennis. Steffi Graf moves so beautifully, with such grace, you can freeze the TV frame and see that each position is gorgeous. Andre Agassi hits as hard as he can. Grace isn’t the issue. Similarly, you don’t want to compare toe shoes, male to female. The look is completely different.”
Then again, the pedigree of the Trocks’ research renders them something of a living museum. A work on the bill at the Harris is inspired by one of the oldest surviving ballets in the repertory, the “Pas de Quatre,” created by Jules Perrot in 1845 to let four renowned ballerinas of the day in essence square off. With it, like all their works, the Trocks meticulously studied and duplicated the original steps, which helps make the troupe a kind of mini-encyclopedia.
“These older ballets have such a wealth of choreography in terms of their steps,” Dobrin says. “A lot of contemporary ballets are interesting, but the actual steps employed just aren’t as sophisticated. Costume some of these old works that we do in spandex, and you’d say, ‘Wow, a modern hit.’ A lot of people who love ballet respond to that.”
Another aspect of the paradoxical world of the Trocks is their staying power.
In a profession famed for the fickleness of its security, the company has pretty much provided lifelong careers for Dobrin and Ghiselin. Dobrin, 57, has been with the troupe for 31 years, starting out as a dancer, while Ghiselin, 50, arrived 17 years ago.
In the beginning, for both, the novelty had its challenges. “For years, it was frowned upon when a male dancer wanted to put on toe shoes,” Ghiselin recalls of his early days in dance. “So, with the Trocks, for the first year or so, I had to play catch-up. It was like walking on stilts. But that’s all changed now. Guys show up to audition well-trained in pointe work, and some even know our repertory, thanks to YouTube.”
Originating in 1974, when drag was still a stigma, the Trocks played a role in the gradual change in attitudes. “I’m proud of what we achieved in that regard,” Dobrin says, “visiting all kinds of small towns across the U.S. as a drag ballet company. As far back as the early ’80s, we played Owensboro, Ky., and Boise, Idaho, not to mention North Carolina and Montana.”
In the 2009-10 season, the Trocks sold out at the Harris, and smart money says they’ll do so again. The audience, Dobrin says, is their main mission.
“A lot of companies exist to express the single vision of one choreographer,” he says. “We don’t buy that. We’re just trying to give everyone an evening of fun and great ballet.”
“There are still those who want to laugh and tease,” Ghiselin says. “But once they see how committed we are, it cracks open a door to perceive the world in a different way. And just to enjoy.”
Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo will perform 7:30 p.m. Jan. 24, Harris Theater, 205 E. Randolph Drive; $45-$75; 312-334-7777 or harristheaterchicago.org