The audiences laugh, sometimes the dancers laugh, but getting a dozen or so male dancers on pointe through more than one hundred performances a year is no laughing matter. Being a Trock is a serious business. I talked to three of the Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo company – Alberto Pretto from Italy, Chase Johnsey from America and Carlos Renedo from Spain – about the tricks and tips to keep a Trock in top shape.
DANCING ON POINTE
Getting those shoes on and joining the company seemed like destiny for Chase,
After seeing girls on pointe in ballet school, I bought a pair of Sansha pointe shoes from Discount Dance Supply – which were far too small – and I begin working on pointe on my own. Eventually, I became quite good, and brave, on pointe and my teachers began to notice and introduced me to a video of Les Ballets Trockadero. Once I saw the company, I felt as if my future were already planned for me. My teachers even began choreographing pointe pieces for me to help me achieve my dreams.
For Carlos it was a different story,
I grew up wanting to become an actor, and studied acting, as well as taking voice, Spanish guitar and magic lessons. It was later, when I was 17 years old, that I discovered the dance world. The Ballets Trockadero came and performed in Barcelona in 2004. I left the theatre awed by their show, but never imagined I would become a Trock. I asked my ballet teacher, though, to let me start taking class on pointe. It was basic, but I wanted to know the feeling of dancing on the tip of my toes like the Trocks. Just a few exercises, some relevées at the barre. I liked it, but it was a bit painful.
Alberto, too, had tried on pointe shoes as he was growing up,
I trained at the Académie de Danse Classique Princesse Grace in Monte-Carlo. I used to put the pointe shoes on at ballet school and try a few things at the barre. I also used to take the Friday class with the girls, which was a pointe technique class, but always at the barre and that was it.
However on joining the Trockadero company they all had to up their technique to perform the classical repertoire well.
When I saw that the Trockadero was holding auditions, I started wearing them more often in preparation. But it is not until you are on stage every night that you really develop the physical and mental strength you need for this job. Dancing on pointe changes your centre of balance completely, and puts a lot of pressure on ankles, toes, tendons… The in-between steps are even harder than just standing on pointe. Also the male body is built differently than the female one, which changes the rules a bit for men on pointe. We have to take into account that most of our weight is in our shoulders, whereas women tend to carry their weight in their hips.
explains Carlos. Men are also heavier, and not all of the Trocks are razor-thin.
While dancing on pointe, we put three times the pressure of our body weight on only two to four toes, and it hurts! We do it so often that we build up a very strong pain tolerance, leading to some injuries and constant pain. I would say I did not have enough previous experience with pointe shoes before joining the company. Usually male dancers do not grow up with pointe technique. It definitely takes a lot of practice, strengthening, maintenance and mental power.
At first I used to get terrible blisters everywhere on my feet. Now, not as often. My alignment has changed, my strength has improved, and specific muscles of my body have developed differently through length.
Chase felt as though he was having to learn everything from scratch in order to create the right technique.
Pointe work is terribly hard and detailed. It requires very strong, yet meticulous, work to do it any sort of justice. I felt as if I was doing ballet on a tight rope, where one wrong move resulted in me falling down. Balance is a lot more important on pointe than on half-pointe. Also, you really have to have the entire body involved in order to make it all the way up there, and take into account where you shift the weight of your body.
The pointe shoes did eventually make my feet stronger and more flexible, and gave me a different “pulled up” feeling in my legs and demi pointe. It also changed the shape of my legs to a much longer and streamline look.
But one thing didn't change,
My feet are very ugly. My mother often describes them as looking like someone took a hammer to them!
You can't have everything…
Working with pointe shoes increases the risk of injury, or at least of having bloody feet, so feet and ankles need to be treated with care. Here is Alberto's regime:
The day before the performance I ice my ankles, especially after a long day of rehearsal. Inside the pointe shoes I wear ouch pouches; my previous teachers will have to excuse me for this: ouch pouches were forbidden to the girls when I was in the academy! As soon as the performance is over and I am in my hotel room, I ice my feet again and go to bed with a layer of arnica gel on my ankles.
Carlos' procedure is quite similar,
It is very important to warm up the feet and the whole body in general. Stretching is important, but activating the muscles, too. I like to go on stage already sweating, with the body feeling ready. I use a baseball to roll under the bottom of my feet to release tension.
Over the years with Trockadero, I have discovered where I tend to get blisters so I have learned which toes I like to protect by wrapping them with paper medical tape. I also use a little gel toe separator between the big and second toes in order to align them and have less pressure on my second toe. Since it is a bit longer than the big toe, it has caused me tendinitis in the past.
After the show, I massage my feet while taking a shower. Most of the time, I like taking a hot bath, then running cold water at the end to help blood circulation. Before going to bed, I like to make a mask of Arnica, Lavender Oil, Horse Tail and Green Clay. When I rinse this off, I massage my feet with Arnica with Menthol. And I always make sure my toe nails are perfectly cut and filed. Genetically, I tend to get ingrown toe nails, and it can really be very painful sometimes.
THE RIGHT SHOE
Choosing the right shoe is vital for not damaging the foot and Alberto, like most of the company, uses Gaynor Minden's,
They don't really need a lot of work to prepare them, I call them the prêt-à-porter pointe shoes. Also they stay pretty much the same from day one, so they are definitely a shoe that you can trust. I have my special order from the boutique in New York.
Chase uses the same brand,
I wear very custom ordered Gaynor Minden pointe shoes. It took me a few years to get just the perfect cut for my feet. It takes a lot of trial and error because you want them to look good and also feel good, but the people at Gaynor Minden are wonderful!
As far as treating them, Gaynor Minden last longer when you air them out and keep them dry. Also, when I break them in I wet the satin so that they mould to my feet. The shoe should become a part of the leg and not look like you are wearing a shoe.
But Carlos breaks from the group and uses Bloch Serenade pointe shoes.
I certainly have big feet and I am only 173cm! I have the biggest feet in the company and it is quite hard finding a pointe shoe maker that provides my size. I do not think there is any ballerina in the world wearing a size 45 (European).
Unfortunately, I do not get the chance to choose from different makers and have customized shoes. So when I get them, I have to make sure they fit the best they can by wetting some parts to soften them, and Jet Glue-ing other parts to harden them. Also I bend the sole, or shank, and sew on ribbons and elastic.
All techniques that ballerinas know all too well.
Of course, getting those shoes on again for a second show – the Trocks regularly do matinées followed by an evening performance – is not always easy.
Sometimes it's a hell of a time, especially when your feet are swollen and they barely fit in the shoe. But we just suck it up and go… the life of a ballerina!
quips Alberto, and as Carlos says,
It takes an extra push, especially mentally.
Chase, though, has some good advice for dancers everywhere, male or female, on or off pointe:
I have found in my ten-plus years in the company that you should always do a ballet barre before the second show. In a way, you have to press the reset button and start all over again for the second show, and that includes warming up. When the body is warmed up properly, it has a lot more vitality than if you sort of “slam” through the second show with the body cold.
The Trocks' use of exaggerated female make-up is closer to that of a drag-queen than a ballerina, and it takes time. Alberto prefers an hour and a quarter, “But I can squeeze it to 45 minutes when I am really rushed”, though Carlos just needs between thirty and forty minutes, “Which is very quick!”
But isn't there a risk of all that slap running down your face and dripping onto your costume?
The trick to keeping your make-up looking fresh throughout the show is to POWDER!
It is important to literally pound the powder into your foundation in order for it to become like your second skin. Even still, there are shows that your make-up will start sweating off.
Often times it is a matter of the temperature of the theatre. Sometimes in the summer, we all come off stage looking like the end scene from Death Becomes Her. It can also depend on how much you sweat in a certain role. I have gone on stage looking like Odette and come off looking like the Zombie of Odile. It really depends.
Carlos, too, has had his zombie moment:
When we are getting ready for the show, some of the dancers glue their eyebrows in order to make them disappear with professional make-up and draw new ones higher for a more feminine look. At the beginning I tried this technique, but I sweat a lot. A lot! During a show the glue started falling apart showing my real eyebrow underneath, making my whole face fall in pieces and I looked like Michael Jackson in the Thriller video! Now I have developed my own technique to create the illusion of my brows being higher, so that I don't have to constantly touch up my make-up.
And when there's a double show, and no time to take it all off and then reapply it, what happens if they need to pop out for a sandwich?
I usually wear a head band à la Makarova over my own hair with big sunglasses and go about the city incognito. But it's only to cross the street to the closest coffee place or grocery store and come back very quickly.
says Alberto, but Carlos is more brazen:
I simply go out in full make-up. I am a performer, I really do not care what people may say on the street. It is my job, my reality.
DIFFERENT STAGES, DIFFERENT AUDIENCES
When the Royal Ballet go on tour they take their own sprung dance floor with them if the stage is not suitable, but few companies can afford such a luxury.
It is very difficult to adapt to the different stages. Especially when we dance on very hard floors. Not to mention the old raked theatres in Europe… that's when you start falling during the turns in class. I always try to look higher over the first ring to get my body in the right balance. And I go for single pirouettes!
says Alberto. But there is a group of people who work together to make the best out of every situation, explains Chase:
We have an AMAZING team of women who deal with the technical aspects of the company. They work very long hours to make sure that not only the show looks its best, but also to insure that the stage is ready by the time we get to the theatre. Realistically, we have a system that has worked for 40 years, and it sort of foolproof. Anything you can imagine we have dealt with, and it is part of the life of an artist. Most artists have to deal with less than perfect venues at some point in their career.
Different theatres, different cities, different countries… how do the audiences differ? According to Alberto…
Humour is pretty much the same everywhere even though there are differences in the way the people laugh at our jokes. Or sometimes the audience will laugh during a certain moment of the show whereas in other countries they won't. We have some ballets that have some free choreographic moments, that's where we try to do an hommage to the country we are in. For example in Italy we would perform some belly movements like Raffaella Carrà.
Carlos believes that going for funny doesn't work as well as playing it straight.
Even though the humour and the jokes are choreographed and rehearsed, I believe in the spontaneity of “the moment”. Being right there, feeling the audience and feeling how the show is going. And above all in order to make them laugh, I do commit to the jokes making them as real as possible and I do not “try-to-be-funny”.
But, as Chase says, in the end the result is the same:
Culturally, every country laughs and applauds differently. The American audiences are quite boisterous, while the Japanese audiences are very well mannered. Nonetheless, the ending applause is usually the same, which is a standing ovation!
BEING A TROCK
Dancing is no ordinary job, and dancing with the Trockadero company is even more out of the ordinary, and these guys are certainly anything but ordinary. I asked each of them what they got out of being a Trock.
Alberto, aka Nina Immobilashvili and Stanislas Kokitch:
Being a Trock has totally changed my life in every little way possible. It made me move to New York, even though I am rarely home due to the touring schedule. It made me take life in a different way. I take myself less seriously now. I learned how to make fun of myself and that's very important at times!
Carlos, aka Maria Paranova and Boris Nowitsky:
Being a Trock is definitely a life style. Touring can be hard sometimes. Being away from home, from one country to another, from hotel to hotel, from theatre to theatre. It is a rhythm that not everybody could handle. Personally it took me quite some time to get used to the new job, the new life, all the travelling and the hard work. Dancing on pointe was a challenge too. At first there was pain everywhere!
I have grown not only as a dancer, actor and performer in general, but also as a person. I have had the chance to visit new countries, learn from their cultures, eat new foods and perform in many different theatres and opera houses I had never thought I would. It is a very fulfilling experience. Being on stage and being watched by hundreds, or even thousands, of people is not easy, but it humbles you somehow. Being a Trock has made me appreciate the art form even more. I have such an array of interests and passions in the performing arts that it seems it all came together in one place.
I love being a ballerina!
Chase, aka Yakatarina Verbosovich and Roland Daulin:
Trockadero has given me a place where I can openly be myself on and off stage. The company is so interested in having individual and unique artists working for them that it sets an atmosphere of freedom. I never fit in where I came from (Winter Haven, Florida). I always felt I was an outcast with a slightly different outlook on life. I was always creative, artistic, and a free spirit. When I came to Trockadero, not only did they employ me, but they are my family. In a way, Trockadero has raised me. They have taught me how to be a professional, educated me, cultured me, and even loved me.
Of course the life of a touring dancer isn't easy, nor is it for everyone. As I have noticed, it is the artists in the company that keep the bigger picture of what the company really does that last. Trockadero brings laughter, gay culture, and ballet to a HUGE range of audiences and many different cultures around the world.
We get to bring joy to people's lives over 100 times a year. And in a world that is struggling so hard to find peace and happiness, I feel honoured that I get to participate in spreading joy and even get paid for it!
Read the full interview with Alberto: The Tricks of the Trocks: questions and answers with Alberto Pretto
Read the full interview with Carlos: The Tricks of the Trocks: questions and answers with Carlos Renedo
Read the full interview with Chase: The Tricks of the Trocks: questions and answers with Chase Johnsey
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.