NORTH ADAMS — In tutus, toe shoes and stage make-up, the dancers of Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo are gorgeous and hard-working. The bodies are muscular, broad-shouldered and tall, with unabashed body hair. No wraith-like waifs in this company of men.
Saturday night, Jacob’s Pillow brings The Trocks to the Mass MoCA for an evening of classical ballet and entertainment. On the bill is a seminal work, Act II of “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 ten years ago, and Jacob’s Pillow a few years later. They haven’t aged a day, with glamorous outfits, tight torsos and supple feet.
As company members dance male and female roles, the stage names are a delight to hear – Sonia Leftova, Helen Highwaters, Ludmila Beaulemova, Minnie van Driver, Mikhail Mypansarov. While princely partnership is de rigueur in ballet circles, balancing beefy ballerinas is not.
The company started in 1974, performing late night shows in New York’s Off-Off Broadway lofts. While it now performs in prestigious venues around the world, its mission persists: to present high quality traditional classical and modern ballet inspired by legendary choreographers in parody and “in drag” (in drag). The humor derives from the exaggeration of the dance’s idiosyncrasies and accidents, from the falls and fatigue to wandering steps.
Unlike many touring dance companies, this is the only Trocks ensemble, with new members arriving as others leave.
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, height 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 leading the company full time. “40 years later, I’m still here, it’s a unique and super fun experience.”
He still remembers that first enthusiastic South American audience, “cheering and shouting” like a football game.
The company’s 14 dancers, veterans of some 20 years, come from all over the Americas, Europe, the Far East and Africa. Everyone dances lead roles, body work and male partners, changing on each tour, with 100 performances each year as far away as Australia and Japan.
“It creates camaraderie,” Dobrin said. It also gives more experienced dancers a break and provides coverage for unavoidable injuries.
So what attracts dancers to Trocks? Some are classy clowns, others want cutting edge work and drag. All are hardened ballet dancers, “because the work is too detailed and vigorous,” Dobrin said.
Joshua Thake – aka 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 the feminine qualities of dance”, he recalls. His slender figure, 6-foot-2 frame, and drooping shoulders did not match the “manly” persona demanded by American ballet companies. Now he dances male and female roles from Taiwan to Texas.
When he first donned toe shoes, he was “excited to wear something that I had always wanted to wear but turned down,” he said.
Its preparation is arduous and specific. “I try to sit in a lotus [position] when you put on makeup,” he said.
On Saturday, he stars as Swan and also directs Pirate Girl in “La Trovatiara” – a role he describes as a 15-minute marathon. “These are the best bits to do, by the end of the performance you feel like you’ve given your soul back.”
Don’t expect to recognize him from his company photo; he recently donated mid-length hair to “Wigs for Kids.”
“There is no other company like them in the world,” said Jacob’s Pillow manager Pamela Tatge. The Trocks have long explored the boundaries of gender identity, she explained, “pioneering in terms of looking at what men can do.”
“They are fierce and hilarious dancers, and right now to be invited to laugh in a really smart and funny way is a blessing. If people have never seen them before, see them once in a lifetime, at least just because of their brilliance.”
She met them 20 years ago in New York, “really not knowing what to expect,” she said. “Honestly, seeing so many men on point is thrilling, the wacky comedy they manage to pull off while maintaining fantastic technique is spectacular.”
Tatge believes that dance should be “a lively and active part of the cultural scene here”. So was Pillow board member Irene Hunter, after whom the Hunter Center at Mass MoCA 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 really allows us to deliver great work.”
“There is a real appetite for year-round programming,” she noted. “We are only limited by our resources.”