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By Joseph Carman
It's hard out there for a vamp.
Not only do the ballerinas of Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo tackle the daunting responsibilities of a diva, but they also portray their Prince Charmings. This all-male troupe has the pressure to demonstrate technical proficiency on pointe, perform double tours en l'air, and, yes, be funny. They tour most of the year, dancing nearly 200 shows annually at whistle stops from Poland to Pittsburgh. And the bulk of the glamour - bulk being the key word - takes place as an illusion on the audience's side of the footlights. Gender-bending comedy aside, they're a hard working group. Because of the company's tenacity, devotion to crowd-pleasing ballets, and display of past-era ballerina glamour, the Trocks share more than a little in common with the old Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo.
So here's a startling fact to ponder: The Trocks have now been an institution longer than the post-Diaghilev Ballet Russe during its several incarnations from 1931-1963. This year, the company celebrates 33 years of grand diva entertainment. The Trocks recently completed two sold-out seasons at the Peacock Theatre in London and snatched the Theatrical Management Association's Award for Achievement in Dance from venerable troupes like The Royal Ballet. They work 40 weeks per year (they could work 52, but nobody wants to mess with a batch of burned-out drag ballerinas) and are booked through January of 2009.
So what's the key to their success? Like the old Ballet Russe, they give the audience what they want. Tory Dobrin, the artistic director of the Trocks, once worked for a theatrical manager and found out that understanding what presenters and audiences want doesn't require a brain surgeon's skill. "The minute we started going for glamorous, old-time ballets, people started asking why other ballet companies weren't doing them anymore," says Dobrin. Slavic chestnuts like Paquita and Raymonda's Wedding, as well as Swan Lake, Pas de Quatre, and Fokine's Les Sylphides provide the Trocks' bread-and-butter repertoire. This season, they are reviving Susan Trevino's version (after Massine) of Gaite Parisienne , the Ballet Russe's perennial Offenbach program closer.
But beyond that, audiences want personality onstage, the kind that Alexandra Danilova and Frederic Franklin brought to Gaite Parisienne. "What was great about the recent Ballet Russe documentary is that those dancers loved to perform," says Dobrin. "Even when they were sitting on the couch, they were entertaining. I can't imagine Danilova or any of those ballerinas going onstage and being boring or not wanting to be adored." Who hasn't heard the complaints-justified or not-about the emotional sterility and detachment of today's dancers, some of whom look like they're performing with iPods in their ears? The Trocks never suffer from that malady.
So if the key is personality, how do you create it? Dobrin starts by assigning the outrageous Russian names associated with the Trocks. Robert Carter, who joined the company in 1995, dances as both Olga Supphozova and Yuri Smirnov. Fernando Medina-Gallego doubles as Prince Myshkin and Svetlana Lofatkina ("the Chernobyl Cherub"). To help establish their diva personas, Dobrin calls them by their stage names in rehearsal. "Some of the younger dancers try to act like a gay guy imitating a girl," says Dobrin. "Imitating Madonna is not what we do. You have to find your character and blow it up."
For his inspiration, Carter, who throws around some fierce technique, drew from ballerinas as different as the Kirov's Olga Chenchikova and Dance Theatre of Harlem's Virginia Johnson.
When dancing Raymonda, Medina-Gallego (Madame Lofatkina) imagines her as a "blood-driven woman, a bejeweled Hungarian princess, a strong woman, proud and elegant - and a little bit of a bitch." He also says, "The audience wants to see how far this ballerina will go to entertain."
Paul Ghiselin, who recently gave his final performance as the indomitable Ida Nevasayneva (although farewell promises from divas like Barbra Streisand and Cher are often broken with the right fee) had ideas about his character from the get-go: "I always imagined Ida as this very lofty, hard-working ballerina who has danced perhaps a little too long. She believes she has a large following and is a legend in her own mind."
To bolster their interpretations, the Trocks watch vintage videos of the classics performed by Russian stars. Dobrin brought in Elena Kunikova, who has been an invaluable coach. "I've gotten a strong sense of the Russian style from Elena, particularly the epaulement," says Carter. "Elena is witty with a sense of humor. The steps and the style are there, and it's a good partnership," says Medina-Gallego. In rehearsals, Dobrin also gives face notes to improve the ballerinas' stage presences. "I'm not talking about mugging," he says. "I mean basic acting skills."
As for the comedy, the hallmark of a great Trocks evening, it's serious business-as any comedian will tell you. "There's a fine line between vulgar slapstick and comedy," says Dobrin. "I always ask the dancers, 'What are you trying to communicate here?' "
Carter says it took him a while to find his own sense of comic timing. "If you are doing beautiful dancing, you don't want to suddenly come across with this blatant slapstick moment that cheapens the whole thing," says Carter. "When is it too much or not enough? You have to find the balance." Dobrin admits that he had to rein in Medina-Gallego in the beginning; he was doing 25 extraneous things when one would suffice.
Anyone who has been paying attention to the Trocks can't help but note the improvement in the technical finesse of the company in the last decade. Carter, who started experimenting with pointe work as a young student in South Carolina, can easily crank out quintuple pirouettes and jackhammer hops on pointe. It took Medina-Gellago, who trained at Victor Ullate's school in Madrid, only two years of practice in his Gaynor Mindens to comfortably finish his 32 fouettes.
But credit has not been paid to the fact that many of the dancers excel in the male roles, as well. Carter has danced both Kitri and Basil in the Don Quixote pas de deux. This season he'll dance the male lead in La Cage (Robert LaFosse's parody of Robbins' The Cage) after switch-hitting as the ballerina in Paquita. Medina-Gellago recently performed Ali in Le Corsaire pas de deux and then slapped on his pointe shoes to dance Odile in the Black Swan pas de deux ("That adagio alone is seven minutes long," he groans).
Dobrin sees the interchange of gender roles in ballet as simply an extension of the evolution of a dancer's training. To illustrate, he gives a tennis analogy: "I don't differentiate between male and female dancing-one happens to be in pointe shoes. It's like Steffi Graff and Andre Agassi-they do exactly the same thing, it's just that Agassi hits the ball harder." Carter enjoys the gear shift and appreciates keeping the male elements of his technique, like jumping, intact. "The basis of my training was male dancing," says Carter. "Doing the ballerina stuff doesn't necessarily make my male dancing less masculine. The vocabulary is the same; it's just the implementation that's different."
Whether in white tights or tutus, the Trocks have come a long way, farther than Tobrin imagined when he entered the company in 1980. Joining the Trocks is now viewed by many as a bona fide career move, one that dancers sometimes seek right after graduation from their ballet academies.
"We started out in a loft at midnight in 1974," says Tobrin. "Now we're playing the Theatre du Chatelet in Paris and the Bolshoi in Moscow in the same year."
Joseph Carman is a Contributing Editor to Dance Magazine and the author of Round About the Ballet (Limelight Editions).
Tips For Developing Your Diva Skills
By Ida Nevasayneva
1. Always hold the arabesque balance at the end of your variation until whichever screams first: the audience or your bunions.
2. Don't allow anything or anyone to upstage your lipstick, mascara or tiara. Remember that your face is always your center of gravity.
3. If you start to lose your focus during your 32 fouettes, spot the patron in the 5th row center-the Russian guy who owns several corporate conglomerates. It helps.
4. Your eyebrows are capable of expressing 73 subtle emotions. Use them liberally.
5. If your bows and ovations don't clock in longer than the coda of the piece you just danced, you flopped. Back to the corps.
6. Always complete your makeup with large Ballet Russe red dots in the medial corners of your eye sockets. They help to evoke inconsolable grief in The Dying Swan, or rage in La Bayadere when, as Gamzatti, you smack Nikiya upside the head.
7. With age, backs can turn into ironing boards, arches become petrified, and extensions may lose their oomph. But port de bras and mannerisms are forever.
8. If you splat face down center stage, crawl gracefully offstage on all fours---in character.
9. Prima ballerinas require discipline, commitment, poise, and perfect eye shadow-.not necessarily in that order.
10. If a ballerina drops dead backstage or accidentally gets locked in a broom closet, always be prepared to jump into her costume. And please remember: Never say never.