Bristling bodies in tutus, outsize pointe shoes, even more outsize personalities and all, it seems, with desperately fragile nerves. It can only be the Trocks (Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo), who will soon be back at London’s Peacock Theatre and then touring with another round of hilarious parodies of Swan Lake, The Dying Swan and more. Fun and laughs a plenty guaranteed.
Artistic Director Tory Dobrin, himself a Trock back in the 80s, recently took time out to talk to CriticalDance’s David Mead.
Like putting a dinner menu together
The two London programmes feature the usual mix of satires on old Russian classics, Romantic ballets, and more modern Balanchine and Cunningham-inspired works, but Dobrin is always careful about the mix. “I have a list what we’ve performed before and which individuals have performed what roles, and I always try to ensure that I don’t repeat the same casting and bring in new things.”
You also need variety in an evening. Like any dance programme, you don’t want it the same all night long, he says. “What we’re really looking for is to mix up everything so the audience gets to see ballet of different styles from different periods by different individuals, and different kinds of comedy. You want to be sure you don’t have the same jokes at the beginning as at the end of the evening. It’s a bit like planning a good meal. You need to find the right ingredients, make sure they are fresh, and get the courses right.”
What makes a good Trocks ballet?
Right now the Trocks are working on a Napoli pas de six that will be premiered in New York City in 2016, but what does Dobrin look for in a new piece? It’s simple really, he explains, “I ask whether we need a closing ballet, a middle ballet, things like that. Then I look for something I like; something that I want to watch over and over again, that I really think has the potential to be funny, or a ballet where the audience may never have seen such a thing. We spend a lot of time on YouTube.”
Dobrin admits to an affinity to old-style Soviet forgotten classics, although says it I didn’t start out that way. He recalls seeing a very large visiting ballet company at New York City’s City Center ten or fifteen years ago. “They did a programme of all contemporary works and there wasn’t one tutu on stage. I thought, ‘that’s ridiculous. It’s a big ballet company. I want to see a tutu, at least in a pas de deux or something’. But no, it was all contemporary. What I saw was nice, but I wanted tutus, and I think a lot of the audience felt the same. So I started going in that direction, and the more I got into it, and when I started looking at the old Soviet and Russian works, I discovered there was a lot that we just didn’t see very much in the United States, if at all. The older works also have such a wonderful classical vocabulary. The wealth of steps in those works is remarkable.”
The dancers too were special, Dobrin continues. “These Russian dancers tended to have huge personalities. They dominated the stage with their force. I found them totally captivating.” This was at a time, he explains, when dance in the United States was headed in another direction. “Everything was taking on a very clean quality and not so dramatic, but audiences still like a lot of the dramatic stuff.”
Although the Trockaderos are about comedy, they are also very respectful of the ballets they are parodying. “We’re not mocking anything,” insists Dobrin.” What we are doing, he explains, is “making a different kind of theatre piece out of something that we love, changing it just a little for entertainment value, and doing a bit more with the characterisation. In the olden days performances were really dramatic and we’re trying to emulate that, and just push it a little bit further.”
Patterns in Space
Trocks versions of ballets are invariably specially made. The Balanchine-inspired Go for Barocco and Cunningham-inspired Patterns in Space on the second London programme, for example, are not adaptations of Balanchine and Cunningham originals. “Rightly so, choreographers don’t like their work fooled around with once they’ve choreographed it,” says Dobrin. “When a work gets to the stage they want it to be representative of their art. But it’s really important for the audience enjoy what we do. So, if I have to make changes to something, then I will make them.”
The Cunningham piece is a little unusual in that after it was choreographed, we found that there wasn’t really any place to joke up the choreography, says Dobrin. “So what we did was put two musicians on stage who appear to be improvising and doing pretty ridiculous things in the manner of John Cage. That’s where the humour comes in. It usually stands out from anything else on a programme, and it will in London.”
Fringe performers to international respect
There have been a few hiccups along the way, but over their forty-plus years, the Trocks have come from being a fringe show in Manhattan lofts to a highly professional company with excellent dancers. Dobrin observes that there was a time when the dance world was rather dismissive and disdainful of them but says they have got a lot of respect for persevering and succeeding.
The company’s diary is impressive. “Except for Alvin Ailey and Pilobolus, I don’t think any other dance company in the United States can even come close to doing our touring schedule. Actually, dance doesn’t tour much at all any more in the United States. It’s a pretty dire situation over here.” They may dance a lot, but Les Ballets Trockadero is not a rich company. Dobrin points out that they get no funding and have to do everything entirely commercially. “If we don’t tour, if we don’t go abroad, we don’t exist.”
On being a Trock. It’s all about teamwork
The company used to hold general auditions, but these days they get enough dancers reaching out to them. If he’s interested, Dobrin says he usually invites them to take company class, preferably for a couple of days.
“I’m looking for a few things. The first, of course, is the standard of the dancing, which you can tell pretty quickly. The second is the dynamic between them and the other dancers. The members of the Trockaderos are very welcoming, supportive and friendly. There’s always a nice atmosphere and energy in class and among the group. I’m looking for someone who kind of flows along with that, has an easy smile, gets along with people and is respectful; all things that sort of suggests they are a team player.
“The dynamic in our group is really, really important. That’s why we finish the evening with everyone in a single straight line, usually applauding the audience. It’s a group of dancers who enjoy working together and who are doing this for the fun of themselves and the audience.”
What draws dancers to the company? “I’m an older guy, so I can only guess,” says Dobrin. What he does know is that, “The younger guys are very comfortable with their sexuality and the idea of dancing in drag. They’re very comfortable with the idea of dancing in pointe shoes and with the ballet as entertainment.”
In his day, it was a little bit subversive, he says. “We were ending our careers and wanted to have some fun.” Now the company gets dancers applying to join straight out of the academy. “That was unheard of twenty years ago. They graduate from school and they want to join the Trockaderos. I’m a little shocked by that, but hey, it works.”
The “male-female thing”
One thing the Trocks don’t really talk about is what Dobrin calls ‘the male-female thing.’ He says they don’t really ever talk about being male or female, and are definitely not men pretending to be women. All the roles are characterisations, he continues, and as a dancer, you are really getting involved in the character rather than being Maia Plisetkaya or any other particular diva.
Each dancer is given a female (and male) stage name and encouraged to develop a stage personality. “It takes time to develop, but the character is never a female character. It’s whoever you are as a guy. Everyone is encouraged to dance within the realm of their personality and the character they have developed. But it’s done with a male type of attack. We’re not looking to dance like females because we can’t. Our feet are too big, our legs are too big, our shoulders are too big. You are still dancing as a guy albeit in those costumes and wigs. That’s really important to me.
“We watch a lot of the old ballets, especially Russian. We also watch Margot Fonteyn because she had so much class. We watch Ulanova, Maya Plisetskaya, Marina Semionova. They had big personalities. You didn’t think there’s a woman, you thought there’s a diva; a big personality. So that’s what we go for.”
The root of the approach goes back to when the Trockaderos was started. The company was born as part of the explosion in gay culture that followed the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York City. Dobrin explains, “It was a time when the gay movement was trying to say to the straight world, ‘we’re not girls, we don’t want to be girls, we’re men who fall in love with other men, and we are happy to be men.” As he says, society is way past that now with gay marriage, gays in the military and much more accepted.
British audiences invariably lap up the Trocks, but is it the same everywhere? Dobrin says it varies somewhat but audiences in English-speaking countries tend to be the most boisterous, something he puts down to the traditions of music hall and vaudeville. “We go to Italy and Spain a lot. Sometimes it takes audiences there a while to warm up and a little longer to get involved in what we’re doing, but generally speaking it’s not that different. In Japan they are very polite, they laugh, but at the end they clap a lot, but that seems to be an Asian thing.”
“The one big difference between 1980 when I joined and what happens now is that then we never had any children in the audience, but now we get a lot. We get a lot of dance students. Cory Stearns [principal dancer at American Ballet Theatre] was telling me recently that he came to see us in Long Island, where he’s from, when he was eleven years old.” That goes back to what do the dance world think. “You get a lot of respect for longevity. When you last a long time, people come around,” he laughs.
Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo are at the Peacock Theatre, London from September 15-20 (Programme 1) and 22-26 (Programme 2). For details and tickets visit www.sadlerswells.com or call the box office on 020 7863 0222.
Full details of the nationwide tour can be found here.