From the outside, ballet appears to be a matter of convention. And for the most part it is, especially in classical ballets. But a meeting with Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, the New York ballet company affectionately known as The Trocks, will blow all preconceptions.
As the company embarks on its 17th visit to the UK, it’s clear why they’re so loved. They are a group of dancers (with stage names to match) and a queer institution that doesn’t discriminate in height or size. They have always been, and always will be, unconventional.
“That’s the beauty of this company,” says Robert Carter (aka Olga Supphozova and Yuri Smirnov), one of the longest-serving members of the Trocks at nearly 27. “We all have different shapes and sizes. It has always been like this ”. This inclusiveness highlights the extraordinary technique the company demonstrates in its classic repertoire.
“When we’re together in a group we are able to come together and move in unison, and heights, color 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. “Many European companies, if you are not 1.8m [tall], don’t even bother sending your materials, ”says Ugo Cirri, one of the company’s new recruits (her alter egos are Minnie Van Driver and William Vanilla). Fortunately, a particular height or body type is not a requirement for membership in The Trocks. Carter was “a little too short for conventional troupes,” but unlike other male dancers, she had an advantage, having learned to dance on pointe from a young age.
As a boy growing up in South Carolina, perhaps surprisingly he did not suffer from a lack of opportunities, quite the contrary, because “boys are a rarity and hard to find commodity, I have been very sneaky”. Carter practiced and practiced, begging for old pointe shoes from 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 at the time he “knew”. He says, “It was just the fact that there was a bunch of guys who did what I wanted to do in the end, which was to dance to pointe on stage.”
One of the greatest advantages of the company is that male dancers have the opportunity to dance en travisti – playing both male and female roles. He was and still is a revolutionary in ballet. Cirri describes how her traditional ballet education did not allow for the kind of fluidity and freedom the Trocks so spectacularly demonstrate: “When you are in these great dance schools and dance academies, you are indoctrinated in that male and female role.” He was “more and more interested in the roles of girls anyway”, although for him “it was not about dressing up as a girl, but about an art form”.
Unsurprisingly, the conversation about gender identity and fluidity is a common topic for The Trocks. Men in tutus are simply not the norm in ballet. But playing with the expectations of gender identity and fluidity isn’t necessarily at the forefront of the performer’s mind or the audience. “Most of the time, I don’t think it really comes to most of our audience until they watch something; they have an ‘aha’ moment, “says Carter. The surprise isn’t necessarily that it’s the men on pointe, but the sheer skill and grace of the dancers. And the comedy. If you’ve never seen them, check out the video for YouTube of Trocks dancer Ida Nevasayneva (Paul Ghiselin) who plays The Dying Swan from Swan Lake to see the feathers fly. “The humor is universal,” says Carter.
The Trocks perform in front of avid fans all over the world. From Japan – where they have a “very attentive” fan club – to Europe and, of course, to the United States where “too many” people apparently watch the show in flip-flops. And while the humor can be found in going against the conventions of ballet, the artists are adamant, it’s also because they are “honoring the tradition of classical ballet”.
As Ugo says, “There are these little added jokes, like the prince driving the Swan Queen in a motor boat in Swan Lake … these little things are what makes it fun.” For the dancers it’s all about parody because, “I think if it was just men on pointe, like a bunch of gay guys acting crazy, I don’t think it would be that funny.”
That’s why even though the company is itself a queer institution, that queerness doesn’t define it. “I think what really unites us is the love of ballet … more than the fact that we’re a queer institution and we’re gay,” says Carter.
When the Trocks formed in 1974, it was in the wake of the Stonewall Riots when the LGBT + community was fiercely fighting for their rights. Carter says the company faced “public stigma … just because the group was a group of gay men.” But he jokes: “Now I am able to walk instead of run.” The challenge at the heart of The Trocks – both against the norms of society and against the conventions of ballet – is what makes them iconic.
The increased visibility of LGBT + people and culture since 1974 has undoubtedly made things easier too. Nowadays, references to drag tend to evoke RuPaul, which is not surprising given how Drag Race has so strongly distorted pop culture and cultivated a global fan base. In many ways, the franchise’s resounding success has highlighted one kind of resistance, but The Trocks offers a completely different experience, although they’ve also felt the impact of traditional resistance.
“The drag has taken a form of its own in recent years,” says Carter. “It’s not the shock it might have once been.” For him, the explosion of mainstream drag has only “broadened our appeal”.
In the world of ballet, however, Carter believes the company has had a tangible influence on the stance of male dancers. “This company and the broadening of prospects in general has allowed the dancers – the most unlikely ones – to find their place and be able to shine,” she says.
Sure, there may be humor in men on pointe, but there is also power in men on pointe. Carter now receives messages from parents asking for advice about their children dancing on pointe, a development he finds extraordinary. He couldn’t have dreamed it when he was younger, he says. What was once taboo is now celebrated and made accessible. This is the beauty and power of the Trocks: they have been ahead of their time all this time.
Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo (aka The Trocks) begin their UK tour at the Peacock Theater, London, from 6 to 17 September; book tickets for the program a hereand program b here