We visit the world’s premiere drag ballet company just as an alum’s Drag Race success garners them fresh attention.
The arts of Ballet and drag share some surface similarities. Creatures of impossible beauty take to the stage, where they create art through stylized movement and eye-catching costumes. Yet in other key ways, they diverge. Ballet requires years of rigorous formal training, in which adhering to rules earns opportunities to exhibit one’s skills. Meanwhile, the path to a drag career often involves experimenting – to find venues, audiences and styles that best suits the performer. They may join forces with colleagues and mentors to learn and grow, though rarely in something as formal as a school. And often a drag queen’s biggest success comes from breaking the rules.
Yet for decades, there has been a place where drag and ballet meet: Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo (affectionately nicknamed “the Trocks” ). We spoke to their Artistic Director Tory Dobrin and dancer Duane Gosa about where the company has been and where it’s going. They revealed the unique triumphs and challenges of a career in drag ballet — from losing toenails to losing partners, and how they’ve kept on dancing through it all.
Along Came Brooke
Forty-five years ago, a group of ballet enthusiasts came together to form a dance experience unlike any other. Over time, they’ve seen extraordinary changes in how society regards LGBTQ rights, drag and dance. Then this year, along came RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 11. The fact that Trocks alum Brock Hayhoe (a.k.a. Brooke Lynn Hytes) was the season’s runner-up has shone a new light on the company’s special place in the world of drag.
“Brock was a great guy and he danced with us [until] he didn’t want to tour anymore and he started doing drag in clubs,” remembers Dobrin, who joined the dance troupe as a performer in 1980 before going on to become artistic director. “We were super-thrilled,” he adds. “He comes across as very nice and chill and that’s exactly who he is.”More Content from Metrosource
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“I think that it’s kind of cool that she has brought something that we do to a mainstream audience,” says Gosa – who joined the Trocks at 27 and has been dancing with them for six years now. “A couple of episodes when she mentioned the company on the show, I got so many messages from people that I met all over the world.” How would Gosa judge Brooke’s performance? “She really did well on the show — very impressive drag queen, very talented — which I think really helped for people to be even more excited about what we do.”
Who Are the Trocks?
For those unfamiliar with the Trocks, let’s get some basics out of the way: Male dancers perform all the roles, both male and female. They embody all the grace and athleticism of classical dance and blend it with a comic sensibility that makes the combination instantly accessible. “It’s classical ballet and it’s parody of classical ballet,” Gosa explains. “So you get to see classic works that are famous throughout history like Swan Lake and Don Quixote, and parody of even more contemporary works like some Merce Cunningham and George Balanchine. But you get to see it with a twist and you get to laugh at it.”
“You will go home astounded by the dancing and super happy about the comedy,” says Dobrin. “I would just say it’s a really great show, time well spent in the theater, basically not that expensive ticket-wise.” He emphasizes that although they have an enthusiastic gay audience, their fans include straight people, too. It’s a show where, for example, a woman who loves ballet can take her husband who hates ballet and both leave having had a good time. “That’s part of our longevity and popularity.”
Not Female Impersonation
Though Trocks must be many things, Dobrin is firm in his insistence that they are not female impersonators. He notes that hey were born just five years after the Stonewall Uprising as the community sought to throw off straight misconceptions about gays and girls. “In the ‘60s, the thing about the straight world … everything was always about: ‘What do you want to be – a girl? Is that why you’re a gay?’” recalls Dobrin. “We’ve gone way past that. But back then it was really trying to prove to the world that no, we don’t’ want to be girls. We’re men who fall in love with other men. That’s what makes us gay.”
Instead, Dobrin traces their philosophy to Charles Ludlam and the Theater of the Ridiculous. Ludlam, Dobrin explains, would create adaptations of great female roles from Camille to Cleopatra and play the characters without the pretense of feigning womanhood. He points to Glenda Jackson in King Lear as a recent similar example. “The point of Trockadero is not that the audience thinks that we’re women. We’re men doing these roles in these costumes for comedic effect. Whether we’re gay or straight is immaterial, even though we’ve had maybe two straight people in the company in the past 40 years.”
“I don’t ever feel like I’m dancing as a woman,” Gosa offers. “I enjoy dancing with qualities that are more identified with women dancing . . . soft or lyrical … or demure or coquettish.”
Nor does he feel bound by traditional masculinity when dancing men’s roles. “I was never really interested in men’s roles in ballet, so I have tried to find a way to play these characters in a way that’s interesting for me,” Gosa adds. “I do Prince Siegfried in Swan Lake and for me, trying to be a prince is kind of a joke because I don’t see myself as being this strong, big, cavalier type.” Instead, Gosa makes it fun. “I’m really puffing my chest up, and I’ve always got the one eyebrow raised. And you know I put on this wig that has like a really big kind of like pompadour in the front. I just try to make it like a Disney character.”
One Night in Monte Carlo
Dobrin likes the use the word “dynamic” in discussing the balance between dance and comedy that goes into any given performance by the Trocks. “You try to mix it up so that the balance comes out right,” he explains. In a typical three-act evening, they’ll begin with what he calls a “white ballet” — something grand like Swan Lake or Les Sylphides — and really camp it up. They begin act two with something more on the serious side and then close it with high camp again, for example: Dying Swan. And then they’ll close the evening with a big ballet like Don Quixote or Raymonda’s Wedding which brings the entire cast onstage.
Dobrin says that the company’s aesthetic evolved in response to other companies abandoning some of ballet’s more grand trappings. “I guess it was in the early ‘90s when I started becoming the director, I would go to ballets,” he remembers. “A lot of other ballet companies were coming into New York and they were doing nothing but spandex. No tutus at all. Classical ballet companies were doing this, and I thought: ‘That’s ridiculous. You’re going to see a big ballet company. You want to see a tutu. You want to see the classical canon. And we’re not seeing that.’ So I said: we’re going to go in the opposite direction.” They started working with a woman in New York named Elena Kornikova, who staged classics for them seen rarely outside Russia.
At the comedy end of the spectrum, Dobrin points his dancers back to the Marx Brothers “with Margaret Dumont, how she’s reacting to Groucho Marx,” he says. “The use of her eyes, the use of her faux shock. Or Gracie Allen responding to George Burns, or even Lucille Ball.”
Getting the Pointe
“Usually in the audition process – we assume everybody who is auditioning is really more interested in doing the pointe work and the drag roles,” says Dobrin. The trick is that male ballet dancers are not traditionally trained in this. “When I joined in 1980, no open class teacher would let me take class en pointe,” remembers Dobrin. Nevertheless, he says, “when the teachers would give the corrections to the girls en pointe, it’d be like, if you – as a music comedy person – you’re not necessarily interested in opera,” Dobrin explains. “And then you’re in a class and they talk about opera, and you would listen because you’re interested in the voice.”
“I always felt this way,” Gosa admits. “Any guy in ballet class who sees that, you’re definitely interested and curious about it, especially the homosexual ones.” Gosa had additional reason to focus on the females. “I was never that good at the male roles. I wasn’t really strong in my upper body. My legs are strong but I couldn’t lift or press anything; so I struggled a lot with partnering, which is the man’s main role. … I convinced the faculty to let me take pointe class a couple of semesters so that I could ‘see what’s going on in the shoe’ — so I could understand better how to partner.”
Dancing professionally en pointe took some getting used to for Gosa. “I was only doing it like three times a week for an hour,” he recalls. “So then once I got to the Trocks and having to do it for five plus hours out of a day, every day of the week, it’s a different kind of strength and challenge. I lost my first toenail actually last year which I was pretty proud of.”
A Trock Is Born
“When I first started with Trockadero, I was 27; so I had already been dancing for a little bit longer,” says Gosa. In addition to the rigors of dancing en pointe, another major challenge was makeup. “You kind of pick up things here and there as you go. I got a lot of tips from some people in the company. There’s some pretty fierce makeup artists that are there like Bobby [Robert Carter] and Albie [Alberto Pretto].”Find LGBTQ-Friendly Resources
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“If you haven’t been in drag and then you get into a tutu, a wig and a headpiece and pointe shoes, you feel a little bit like you’re mummified, so it’s a little disconcerting for the first time,” says Dobrin. “It usually takes two or three performances before they start becoming comfortable. The audience hopefully doesn’t realize that they’re not comfortable, but certainly I do.”
Dancers also get Trock names: one female and male, often hilarious. Gosa is Helen Highwaters and one of the Legupski Brothers. “When we come in, they have a stock of names that they pick from,” Gosa explains. To him they traditionally correspond to certain aspects of a dancer’s personality or appearance. “The Helen Highwaters, for me, were tall, lanky black girls,” he says. So he’s part of a line of Highwaters? “Yes,” Gosa says with a laugh, “of the Manhattan Highwaters.”
The Physical Challenge
But even once you’re an official Trock, it’s not all tutus and applause. “I’ve had like bunion pain, which I don’t wish upon anybody. I had a stress reaction [which comes] just before a stress fracture a few years ago, which was pretty painful.” Whether or not a dancer has had pointe training, it’s trial by fire. “You’re going to make mistakes, and until you learn how to do it correctly – injuries make you stronger.”
Gosa has learned how to help his body cope. “I got my certification in Pilates ten years ago, and that has really helped my body and helped me understand how to use my body and how to take care of my body if an injury or some kind of stress happens. So that’s probably been my saving grace for a lot of my dance career.”
Disinterested in weightlifting since childhood, Gosa found other ways to strengthen his body, including jumping rope and doing push-ups. In terms of diet, he has experimented with intermittent fasting, but says he generally burns enough calories dancing to not make extreme dieting necessary.
And then there’s dealing with the drag. “As far as my skin is concerned, I think moisture is key. Always moisturizing will save your face or any part of your skin. I swear by coconut oil. I can literally take a jar and just pour it over the top of my head and let it run down,” Gosa says with a laugh. “I think it’s great for everything. Oils have really saved my skin or at least preserved it. I think as far as with the makeup,” he says, “I think one thing that I get more of an issue with is shaving so often. That’s one thing I struggle with. So I have found that I can’t use these razors with seven or eight blades on them. I use the disposable, the two blade razor and it’s much better for my skin.”
Trock Around the World
“The greatest thing about being in the company is getting to travel. We see a lot of the world, and we get to do something gay and take it around the world and show people and make people laugh and entertain, which is the most amazing gift,” says Gosa. He also admits that it’s one of the hardest parts of the job, too. “Traveling and touring definitely is exhausting and is a skill that you have to develop. And being able to rehearse all day and then do an evening show and then go back to the hotel and not even have eight hours of sleep to recover. And you’re up with your bag packed on the bus at six in the morning flying to the next city.” This goes on for weeks, and presents additional challenges like finding healthy eating options and balancing the need to rest with a desire to get out and see the world.”These days in my free time, I’m happy to do anything that involves sitting.”
Dobrin remembers moments when the Trocks met hostility on the road. “We were in Mexico City,” he recalls.“1980 I think, and someone stood up and accused us of causing the explosion of Mt. St. Helen’s. We were picketed in Medford Oregon. We were in Owensboro Kentucky, and it was after the show, and I was waiting on a street corner. Some guy was talking on the telephone, and he said ‘I don’t know what they were doing up there, but they definitely were all lost in sin.”
“And then in 1994, we were in Russia and we went to Novosibirsk, which is in Siberia in the middle of nowhere. And it was a really interesting kind of town. We went to the train station and it felt a little bit like in Star Wars when they go into the bar with all these weird characters. Anyway, I was the director already at that point, and it’s polite to go to the theater director and introduce yourself and say hello. So I went. And the guy was an old Stalinist type,” Dobrin remembers. “He said, ‘Well, you’re on our stage tonight, but last year you all would have been arrested.”
“The little thing that I worry about now is that our young gay guys are so comfortable and they don’t realize that when we go to Birmingham in the UK and they’re walking around holding hands…” Dobrin says with a sigh. “Unless you know your environment and you know it’s safe, you really still have to be careful in a lot of places that we go. And a lot of the young gay guys don’t have that DNA. And I’m happy that they don’t have that DNA, but I worry about the caution that is still necessary.”
“Even a few years ago when we were in London, some of the guys smoked,” Dobrin remembers. “They can’t smoke anywhere in the buildings anymore, so they were standing at the stage door, which was on a street, and three of them were attacked, right before the show. So, yeah, it still can happen. So I worry. And I also worry they’ll go out in drag at night after the performance. Some of them do and I say: you gotta be careful.”
Gosa says he hasn’t personally experienced this kind of confrontation. “I have not usually wanted to go out in drag as much as everyone else does. I’ve gone out a few times in drag, and we usually go to a gay bar or something and everyone is pretty excited for us to be there and really enjoying it. So I haven’t really experienced anything threatening or hostile,” he says. But he knows what it’s life to feel the danger of being different. “I grew up a black boy in white suburban America, so I’ve felt uncomfortable. I know that feeling. And I was gay too.” However, he also points out that most of the places they tour tend to be pretty accepting — or else they wouldn’t be booking a drag show.
“I’ve been at Ballets Trockadero almost 40 years,” says Dobrin. “This has been my entire adult life.” He says he does not miss dancing. “I was with somebody. I had a partner in the company. Even though we had broken up as a couple, we were still very close as family members, as gay people do, and he died of AIDS. And so after he passed away — I’m talking about in the mid-’90s — I just said, ‘Okay, I don’t want to do this.’” These days, Dobrin says he does not have ambitions beyond keeping the Trocks in good standing. “If I were ever to leave, I would probably go sit on a beach and just look at the ocean and a tree,” he says. “And I would be very happy to do that.”
Conversely, Gosa will be 34 this year. “I’ve thought about going into something other than dance,” muses Gosa. “I think I maybe want to take a break from dance being my full time job and explore different things after this.”
“I don’t really think there’s a set expiration date on it,” Gosa says. “It’s just kind of how you feel and what you want to get out of the career. I feel great about my career so far, and I just I want to leave it on a good note,” he adds.”But I think I’ve got a little bit more time here.”
Learn more about Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo — and when they will be coming to a theater near you — at trockadero.org.
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Last modified: July 25, 2019