When it comes to classical ballet, the all-male Trocks are en pointe
NORTH ADAMS — In tutus, toe shoes and stage makeup, Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo dancers look gorgeous and work hard. Bodies are muscular, broad shouldered and tall, with unapologetic body hair. No wraith-like waifs in this company of men.
Saturday evening, Jacob's Pillow brings The Trocks to Mass MoCA for an evening of classical ballet and entertainment. On the bill is a signature work, Act II from "Swan Lake," plus "La Trovatiara," based on Verdi's "Il Trovatore," and a remake of Petipa's "Raymonda's Wedding."
The company last visited North Adams a decade ago, and Jacob's Pillow a few years after that. They haven't aged a day, with glamorous garb, taut torsos and flexible feet.
As company members dance male and female roles, stage names are a hoot to hear — Sonia Leftova, Helen Highwaters, Ludmila Beaulemova, Minnie van Driver, Mikhail Mypansarov. While princely partnering is de rigeur in ballet circles, balancing burly ballerinas is not.
The company began in 1974, performing late night shows in New York's Off-Off Broadway lofts. While it now plays prestigious venues around the world, their mission persists: To present high quality traditional classical and modern ballets inspired by legendary choreographers in parody and "en travesti" (in drag). Humor stems from exaggerating dancing's idiosyncrasies and accidents, from falls and fatigue to errant steps.
Unlike many touring dance companies, this is the only Trocks ensemble, with new members arriving as others move on.
Artistic director Tory Dobrin joined the company in 1980, when a ballet classmate in New York told him they were auditioning for a South American tour. After two weeks of rehearsal he was on the road, size 11 feet in borrowed toe shoes. "It takes about a year to get used to being on pointe," he said.
Dobrin danced for 14 years before directing the company full time. "40 years later, I'm still there, it's a unique experience and super fun."
He still remembers that early enthusiastic South American audience, "cheering and screaming" like a soccer match.
The 14 company dancers, some 20-year veterans, hail from all the Americas, Europe, Far East and Africa. Everyone dances principal roles, corps work and male partnering, switching for each tour, with 100 performances each year as far as Australia and Japan.
"It builds a camaraderie," Dobrin said. It also gives more experienced dancers a break and ensures coverage for inevitable injuries.
So what attracts dancers to the Trocks? Some are class clowns, others want pointe work and drag. All are hard-core ballet dancers, "because the work is too detailed and vigorous," Dobrin said.
Joshua Thake — a.k.a Eugenia Repelskii and Jacques d'Aniels — came late to ballet at age 13 and trained at ballet schools in Boston and San Francisco. He also performed in drag before joining the Trocks in 2011.
Envious of what ballerinas were doing, he "focused a lot on feminine qualities of dance," he recalled. His slender build, 6'2" frame and sloping shoulders didn't fit the "manly" persona required by American ballet companies. Now he dances male and female roles from Taiwan to Texas.
When he first strapped on toe shoes, he was "excited to wear something I'd always wanted to wear, but denied myself," he said.
His preparation is arduous and specific. "I try to sit in a lotus [position] when putting on makeup," he said.
Saturday he performs as a Swan and also lead Pirate Girl in "La Trovatiara" — a role he describes as a 15-minute marathon. "Those are the best pieces to do, by the end of the performance you feel as though you've given back to your soul."
Don't expect to recognize him from his company photograph; he recently donated near waist length hair to "Wigs for Kids."
"There isn't another company like them in the world," said Jacob's Pillow director Pamela Tatge. The Trocks have long explored the boundaries of gender identity, she explained, "trailblazers in terms of looking at what men can do."
"They're fierce dancers and hilarious, and at this time to be invited to laugh in really smart and fun ways is a blessing. If people haven't seen them before, see them once in life at least just because of their brilliance."
She encountered them 20 years ago in New York, "really not knowing what to expect," she said. "Frankly, to see so many men en pointe is thrilling, the farcical comedy they manage to do while maintaining fantastic technique is spectacular."
Tatge believes dance needs to be "a lively and active part of the cultural scene here." So did late Pillow board member Irene Hunter — for whom Mass MoCA's Hunter Center is named — who left an endowment so the Pillow could present high-quality dance at the museum. The collaboration "helps keep dance alive in the Berkshires between festivals," Tatge said, "and enables us to really bring excellent work."
"There's a real appetite for year-round programming," she noted. "We're only limited by our resources."
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