Tory Dobrin with the cross-dressing Trocks, keeps the ‘balls’ in ballets
From their roots in the gay underground, where some gay men gathered their skills for what was probably thought at the time as being a one-shot season, to their position as one of the most popular troupes in dance for nearly 40 years, Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo has made the ballet world just a little gayer — and a whole lot funnier.
It took guts, all those years ago, for men to dance Swan Lake as both the male and female roles, achieving both elegant movement and humor in pointe shoes and tutus. Indeed, at the time, dance wasn’t the overriding emphasis.
“In the beginning, there were dancers with some training, but they were more actors than dancers,” says Tory Dobrin, artistic director of the troupe, affectionately known as The Trocks. “Of the 10 original members, only three or four true dancers.”
That’s simply not the case anymore — and hasn’t been for a while. When Dobrin joined the company in 1980, he was an experienced dancer with training in ballet, jazz and modern dance. Now, the cast is populated entirely by gifted “ballerinas.”
“From the start, we did not have the respect of the dance world but were always popular with audiences. Now in 2014, it’s a completely different story. We get dancers who would fit into any company around the world,” Dobrin crows. “We have one Cuban dancer who has won two gold medals in international competition and one who left to join the Pacific Northwest Ballet.”
The Trocks, in other words, are here to stay … and they merit your respect.
It wasn’t always that way. In 1974, when the first performances were given, no one expected The Trocks to survive four years, let alone 40. And in the first season or two, the style of the company was evolving.
“In the first show, we had women doing the male roles, but it was not really comedic because the women wore slacks, and they couldn’t lift the men,” Dobrin says.
“So if quickly fell into an all-male comedic ballet.”
That might be good for an occasional performance in Greenwich Village, The Castro or West Hollywood, but how did they survive? Pure determination, it seems.
“Drag was not popular nor considered ‘normal’ back then — it was still thought of as weird,” Dobrin says. “There was lots of pressure from my colleagues in dance not to join; they said I would be ruining my career.”
Dobrin, and dozens of others, rejected the naysayers. By the time he joined in 1980 — as an incoming class of six — The Trocks were a popular touring act, and all the dancers had superior skill levels. (They are based in New York City.) The men who join The Trocks (almost exclusively gay men, though in the early 1980s there were one or two straight dancers in the company) do so not just because they love to dance, but because they have a desire to show a different, comedic side to their talents.
“It’s not that they want to dance in a dress, though there are benefits to that,” Dobrin laughs, “but they are also comedians.”
The comedy probably stems from The Trocks affiliation (slightly tangential) to the famous gay absurdist playwright and impresario Charles Ludlam. Ludlam initially named his troupe The Trockadero Company of Thrills and Spills, before changing it to The Ridiculous Theatrical Company. One of his company members decided to form his own company, and some members of that troupe branched out to form The Trocks with the express desire to satirize “those old, dusty Russian ballet companies that used to tour the world,” Dobrin says.
Since the 1930s, in the post-Diaghilev era, being Russian was considered a necessity in order to be taken seriously as a ballet dancer — men and women would even change their Anglo names to something more Cyrillic to gain entrée into the best companies. The Trocks continue that tradition, with the dancers adopting camptastic names like Euphenia Repulski.
Incorporating humor into traditional (and well-executed) ballet techniques is the constant challenge for Dobrin, who says he likes to take a collaborative approach to creating works for the company.
“The program is really strong, and we keep the rehearsals kind of fun. The process is sort of like a comedian trying out new jokes on the road,” he says. To fill a two-hour performance that people will want to come back to see demanding different kinds of comedy, different styles of ballet, of music and of costuming so “you’re not seeing the same thing all night long. My chief objective is to set the tone we want to project to the public,” Dobrin says.
Although they bring in new ballets all the time, there are some recurring standards.
“Swan Lake, which we do in Act 2, is very campy, but it changes around. We take jokes out, put them in … and the last piece is always a big Russian ballet with great 19th century music.”
So what has the reaction been to drag ballet in Red States and smaller markets? Over the years, The Trocks have developed a hide.
“We’ve been in 600 cities worldwide, in all lots of tiny towns in Montana, Kentucky, Mississippi and Siberia, villages in Italy, Spain, France,” Dobrin says. “Early on, sometimes we were not received so well by the local population. Once in Mexico City, someone said we were responsible for Mount St. Helens blowing up. But our audiences have always been very friendly, and we’ve been popular.”
And anyway, a little resistance helps you keep on your toes — and that’s always a good thing for a ballet dancer.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 4, 2014.