Men on Pointe
Les Ballets Trockadéro de Monte Carlo
by David Mead
Published December, 2008 -- Birmingham, England
In 1974, a group of ballet enthusiasts founded a small company with the aim of presenting a playful parody of classical ballet en travesti. Thirty-four years later, Les Ballets Trockadéro de Monte Carlo, or the ‘Trocks’ as they are affectionately known, that small group that originally performed in late-night shows in off-Broadway lofts, is a huge worldwide phenomenon. During their recent visit to Birmingham, ‘Trocks’ dancers Joshua Grant (Katerina Bychkova, Ashley Romanoff-Titwillow) and Raffaele Morra (Lariska Dumbchenko, Pepe Dufka) took time out to talk about pointework and dancing with the company.
The company seems to have a different attraction for each dancer. Josh had been dancing a fairly traditional ballet repertory for about six years, starting with Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle, then with the National Ballet of Canada in Toronto. “I was getting to the point where I was kind of getting bored with it,” he said. “I wanted to do something different.” Two years later, he feels the move has been hugely beneficial, has made dance something new, opened up so many options for roles, and showed him a completely new way of looking at ballet.
Raffa came to the Trocks from the Compagnia di Danza Teatro Nuevo di Torino, where, although classically trained, he danced mostly in more contemporary works by choreographers such as Jiri Kylian and Mats Ek. For Raffa, the attraction was the comedy. He recalled the first time he saw the company live, and how the audience laughed and left the theatre so happy. He said, “This is how a performance is supposed to be. People enjoying what they have seen.”
So, had they tried pointe before joining the company? “Only once,” said Raffa, adding that it was enough to say never again. “And here I am,” he laughed. Josh had done a little more, his teacher having encouraged him to try it when he was about ten years old. He explained that he has very flexible feet, and his teacher said it would make them stronger and strengthen his ankles. While this may be a rather unusual approach to male training, he said that teacher was correct, and that pointework for boys is not the crazy idea it first sounds. Having said that, he added, “I maybe took about five classes on pointe, and after I had fallen on my butt about 45 times, like Raffa, I said ‘never again, never again’.”
Although a boy on pointe is hardly normal, the others in Josh’s class were OK about it and didn’t really react much at all. “I guess they didn’t really know any different,” he said. He said that there was much more of a reaction when he started wearing pointe shoes for class at the National Ballet of Canada as preparation for coming to audition with the company. “But the girls were really good though, helping me out. They were really excited for me.”
After two years in the company, Josh said that, if anything, it is now weirder for him to see girls on pointe. When they are at home, he and some of the other dancers take class at Steps in New York. He said, “When I see a girl on pointe, it’s me that does a double take. It’s like, what are you doing? Oh yeah, that’s normal!” While agreeing with the sentiment, Raffa said he never takes class on pointe, and he wears pointe shoes only as Lariska Dumbchenko, his Trocks character.
Josh explained how different he finds dancing on pointe. He said that flat shoes allow you to use all five toes, both as support and to help pull or help push yourself around, but on pointe you have to balance on something like a two-inch diameter. “If it goes over, you go over. Everything has to be so much stronger, so much more pulled-up and lifted.”
Although everyone tends to think of pointework calling for strong ankles, both he and Raffa feel that core strength is at least as important. You really need strong abdominals and a strong back, said Raffa, suggesting that this eases worries about going up on pointe, which in turn helps you stop tensing. Josh agreed. “Being able to hold your upper body, and not sitting in your hips, is really important,” he said.
But what about a man’s extra weight? While admitting to not knowing much about the technicalities of it, Josh feels that your feet are meant to carry your body weight, albeit not on the ends of your toes. A girl may be considerably lighter than a man, but a man’s foot is stronger, and, on pointe or not, should be able to bear more weight, he said. Raffa added that a man’s stronger leg muscles help too.
Having said that, both dancers admitted finding balancing on pointe, finding just the right place to put their weight, was something of a problem as they were learning. Although both were able to call on people to help, they agreed that it really is something you have to discover for yourself. Everyone is different. When Josh was learning in Toronto, he said the women in the company insisted he could not leave the barre for the first three days. “So I was there doing relevé after relevé. I would have one girl come up and push my hips forward. Thirty seconds later, another would come up and pull my hips back. Another would come and push my weight forward, then another would come and push my weight back.” But as he agreed, it really is little different from finding your own way of thinking about or through pirouettes or any other technical aspect of dancing. You take bits and pieces from lots of people and find what does and doesn’t work for you, he said.
It should not come as a surprise that pointework has affected Josh and Raffa’s dancing on the flat. “We certainly point our feet more,” joked Raffa. But, as he quickly added, it can also have a negative side. He explained that, when wearing pointe shoes as dancing female roles, they try to be lighter, especially when jumping. Both felt it can be hard to be grounded again like a man. When we have to do something like a strong manège, “If we’re not careful we find ourselves jumping like butterflies,” said Raffa.
Raffa feels that one of the biggest plusses from taking the female role is a much better understanding of partnering issues. He now has a much greater appreciation of what a woman needs from a male partner, and tries to apply that when dancing male roles. Both Josh and Raffa feel strongly that reversing the partner roles occasionally during training would benefit all students. Josh remembered one ballet master asking him to do this once, and he found it so useful it is something he incorporates sometimes into his own teaching. Of course the girl is never going to partner a guy well, he said, but it is important that each understands the other’s problems and what they have to deal with.
Moving on to dancing on stage, Raffa explained how they tackle the femininity of the characters and roles. “We aim for the feminine detail, but we accept we cannot be women. We are still going to be men, even if it’s men on pointe. That is what makes the Trockadéro,” he said. Josh said that there is a fine line that they try to be right on, but never cross: to look like women, act like women, but never be women.
Raffa said that Tory Dobrin, the company artistic director, likes to make a comparison with tennis, saying that male and female tennis players hit the ball in the same way, but that men hit it much harder than women. It is the same with the Trocks, he continued, both dance on pointe, but they attack much more than women do generally, and try to be more sporty.
While looking and dancing as women is not a problem, both dancers said that switching between male and female roles during a performance could be. Although it doesn’t happen too often, Josh said it was a particular issue if he has to go boy, girl, boy; or especially girl, boy, girl. On a very practical note, feet do swell up after being on pointe. So if you are a girl first, your feet swell up, which is OK when you switch to flat shoes, but, “Then you have to put the pointe shoes back on. And they kill by the end of the night,” he said with great feeling.
He finds switching between characters can be rough too. All the company dancers have single and well-defined male and female characters, each with their own personality that they try and keep not only throughout each show, but throughout their career. He said, “It can be hard, especially if you are going back and forth between them. You do have to remember which wig you have on.”
Raffa felt slightly differently about it, and said he never tries to be anything but himself on stage, whether dancing as a boy or a girl. “The only thing I do is look at myself in the mirror before I go on stage. I think, ‘OK, I am different now. I have a wig, a tiara, and long eyelashes. I am Lariska. Then I might change make-up and wig, and I say, ‘OK, this is a different thing.’ I just focus on it and go.” Putting on the make-up and seeing yourself in the mirror as Lariska or Pepe is hugely important, he added.
Being yourself isn’t quite as odd as it sounds. Josh explained that when a new dancer is given their Trocks name, Dobrin gets to know him first, and then tries to pick one that he thinks suits the dancer, based on his personality. “And I can be a huge bitch,” he joked. The dancer then has some licence to develop the character’s personality in their own image. Josh continued, “So, when I think of my character, I think of it as my personality showing on stage. I don’t try and be somebody else. I try and put my character into Katerina.”
Although it is the humour that attracts most people to the see the company perform, the more you watch them, the more you realise the dancers are also very good technically. As Josh pointed out, the company’s performances are programmed accordingly. The first act is always really punchy and funny, but by the third, it’s more technical and a bit less humorous. Even those who don’t expect to like ballet are lured in by the humour, and before they know it, end up watching dancing, he said. “That is the great thing about our shows,” said Raffa, “they are for everyone. There is something interesting in them for everyone. You don’t have to love ballet to enjoy the performance.”
Watching them in class, rehearsal and performance, Raffa is spot on when he says that to be a Trockadéro dancer you need comedy and good ballet training. That doesn’t mean you have to be equally good at both. As he said, “some people tend towards the more technical side of things; others become the clown of the show.” It does take time for people to find their place in the company. Josh said that even after two years, he was, “Still really trying to find that comedic aspect to it. It does take time for it to gel in and become natural.”
Looking ahead, is there a limit to what the Trocks can parody? It seems not. As Josh and Raffa point out, “We find humour in everything!” The Birmingham shows focused on the classics, which are ideally suited to the Trocks humour, much of which is based on stretching out the old Russian style. It is all about going that little bit further and emphasising that little bit more in everything, whether that is how you hold yourself, breath, looks or movement. But, as Josh said, “You can do that in any choreography and find humour.” Indeed, as Raffa pointed out, the company repertory includes “Go For Barocco”, a parody of Balanchine, and even a piece based on an original Cunningham work. “I think the Trockadéro has the potential to do anything,” he said.