Irving — When I asked dancer Jack Furlong what’s changed for Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo in recent years, he told me that these days, more recruits enter the company having already learned to dance en pointe during their training as students. For the Trockaderos, an all-male comedy ballet company in which men dress in drag and don pointe shoes to play female roles, that’s saying something. The world is changing — and it’s changing thanks to the pioneering leadership of boundary-breaking artists like the Trocks.
The Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo returns to the Irving Arts Center this Tuesday after a performing there last in 2018, to the delight of audiences across North Texas. I talked with company Jack Furlong, who has been with the company since 2014, about the upcoming show.
The Trockaderos were founded in 1974, in the wake of the 1969 Stonewall Riots, which brought the gay rights movement into the public eye and spurred an effort to strengthen gay culture across the United States. Their first performances were in the New York Meatpacking District, when the neighborhood was better known as a haunt for destitute gay and transgender individuals forced into prostitution or other dangerous work because they were refused employment elsewhere. The Trocks, as they came to be called, were all men — and at that time, all gay — who combined excellent ballet technique with drag, performing parodies of ballet that spoofed classical representations of masculinity and femininity in the art form. The goal was not only to parody ballet, however, but to give male dancers a chance to perform in pointe and in female roles that were otherwise off-limits to them. From the beginning the Trocks hired ballet dancers who had traditional training so, despite the comedic elements of their performances, the quality of the dancing was top-notch.
Fast-forward to 2020, and the ballet world is changing — many would say finally changing. Major companies are beginning to showcase same-sex partnering and same-sex romance on stage, and top choreographers are experimenting with putting men on pointe and in roles traditionally dance by women. While gay men and women of previous eras found themselves masking their identities and “transforming” into straight characters on stage, gayness on stage is slowly becoming less taboo.
This is due not least because of the work the Trockaderos have done to develop a massive worldwide following. They have, like their namesake, the Ballets Russe de Monte Carlo (which was not a comedy troupe), one of the most rigorous touring schedules of any ballet company across the globe. They are as popular in Japan and China as they are in their home city of New York. Furlong, who uses the stage name Guzella Verbitskaya in female roles and Mikhail Mudkin in male roles, said that when it comes down to it “most people are just excited to see a funny show.”
But their role in changing the ballet landscape also stems from their proof that men can, in fact, dance successfully on pointe and in female roles. While their portrayals of women characters might differ from the way women might portray the roles, the Trocks have demonstrated that they can offer interpretations that appeal to audiences and present technical expertise that maintains the integrity of the ballet form.
Furlong, however, reminds that serving as ambassadors of changing gender norms in the dance world is not the official mission of the company. Instead, this role came about more organically over time as the Trocks gained fans. Their grassroots appeal has had a special impact on young boys, for whom the Trockaderos serve as an example of free and non-normative gender expression in dance.
Furlong explained, “There is that sense of responsibility that unknowingly gets put with you, and it is very exciting. You don’t realize that it’s happening. The other day we had a boy come in Clearwater, and he’s come before. I hung out with him last year . . . and he came after the show again. And his dad pulled me aside and had a talk with me and said that it was really helping him in school, to meet someone that was older. I was nearly in tears. I didn’t realize you could have an effect like that.”
The Trockaderos are masterful performers, and, given their busy touring schedule, they know how to appeal to different audiences. “I definitely change the humor for where we are,” Furlong said. . . . In Italy you can take your time with stuff because they like to clap and they are very much old-fashioned about things. So that’s the difference. We have to be very aware culturally of where we are.”
On Tuesday the Trocks will be performing Swan Lake, a repertoire staple, along with Go for Barocco, their nod to — and spoof of — Balanchine’s neoclassical choreography. They will also present Walpurgisnacht, which they recently revived. According to Furlong, the Trockadero version of Walpurgisnacht goes back to the original Russian choreography. “It’s not a ballet that people internationally perform very often,” he added. “So I don’t think people would know what it’s about. But it’s colorful, it’s bright, it’s a simple — it’s more free. It’s not a Petipa ballet so it’s not as codified. It’s just a sweet, fun piece.”
Furlong explained that the company typically showcases two kinds of comedy on stage: a slapstick, laugh-out-loud version that they show in Swan Lake and a more subtle humor intended to lampoon the choreographic and stylistic codification of ballet, a humor that will appear in Walpurgisnacht. While it might seem that audience members not trained in ballet might miss this more subtle humor, Furlong said that he is often surprised by how many people seem to get it, even if they’ve never set foot in a ballet studio.
Whatever your background or reason for attending the show, you’re in for a good time. Whether you want to support changing gender norms in art, whether you’re in it for the beautiful dance, or whether you just love comedy, the Trockaderos know how to bring it to the stage.