Published on February 18th, 2015 | by Ricky German1
Tradition and transcendence with Les Ballets Trockadero
The stringent culture of ballet is regularly portrayed as a cut-throat world in which hard work, dedication, and discipline rarely pay off for young hopefuls. The culture of ballet is brutal. Long hours, misshapen feet, eating disorders, and a sickly pallor marks a dancer’s sacrifice for their art.
On the plus side, it is an art that delights every sense. Ballet performance can be riveting, gravity defying, and (in a world that gives way too many standing ovations) truly deserving of an ardent bravo from the fiercest critic.
As a theatre maker, I notice that the spectacle of ballet is viewed by many theatregoers as archaic and, dare I say, stuffy. Drag ballet, even now as drag has entered mainstream consciousness, sounds passé, another gimmick for the masses.
But is it possible, that by employing a gimmick, the Trockaderos are changing the way we see ballet and high art all together?
Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo came on to the scene in 1974, started by a group of ballet enthusiasts in New York for the purpose of presenting a playful view of classical ballet in parody and en travesti.
Although playing roles en travesti has been practiced for centuries we are slowly inching away from the practice. As demonstrated by Alexander Cooke, Sarah Bernhardt, Danny LaRue, Mary Martin, Harris Glenn Milstead, Harvey Fierstein, and Martin Lawrence, there was a time when donning clothing of the “opposite” gender drew attention to one’s versatility and the basic art needed to play any role. Although the discussion of gender was limited, audiences appreciated the artists who brought us, respectively, Juliet, Hamlet, Dolly Levi, Peter Pan, Divine, Edna Turnblad, and Shenehneh.
As our cultural scope and consideration of gender evolves, so does the scope of performance and art. If the history of theatre, dance, visual art, and music are any indication of a public discourse, then I’d say it’s been a lively discussion. We have been exploring gender and sexuality for as long as we have been doing drag.
Ballet’s practices and disciplines reflect a very clear hegemony. Dancers of all kinds aren’t solely valued for their craft, but for the presentation of that craft. Often, male dancers are pressured to play more masculine and some have to learn to code switch between their actual presentation of self and something more acceptable to the vernacular.
It’s complicated because on one hand, that is what it is to be a dancer, or an actor, or a singer; one must get on stage and embody something that is different from who they are. But on the other hand, even great actors rarely play roles that they don’t in some small way resemble.
For a performer, who trains and lives the aspirational life of a perpetual student, (which for dancers can sometimes mean daily, back to back, four hour rehearsals and classes) performing is also a little about instinct: learning to trust an instinct that operates in a specific way on stage.
When that instinct is denied, it can become an enemy to expression. This is what makes it so great when we see travesti roles, or roles that alienate us from our vernacular, a vernacular that so often supports just romantic relationship between male and female characters.
When I watch the Trocks, as they are affectionately known, I see a group of men who communicate a solidarity and respect to their female counterparts, feelings you would have to have as a man portraying a woman.
From the toe shoes to the hair and makeup, I see a respect for the art and an aspiration to embody it. I also see men who have had to find their place in a world that does not reflect them and own it.
Yet in their solidarity and respect for the traditions of ballet, Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo transcend that centuries-old hegemony and expose us to new possibilities and a deeper connection with characters we’ve become familiar with over the years.
And they dance beautifully.
All featured photographs by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images.