From an early age, Robert Carter knew that Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, an all-male drag ballet company founded in 1974, had to be part of his future in dance.
“Upon seeing the company, I thought, ‘There’s a group of guys that does what I do, or what I want to do,'” says Carter, a Charleston native who began his training at the Ivey Ballet School at age 7. “And so I thought, ‘I have to be there. That’s the company for me.’ … I didn’t know how, when, where, under which circumstance, but one day I had to be with that company.”
Trockadero, which perform at the Gaillard Center this Thursday, pokes fun at the established conventions of classical ballet by having all company members dance “en travesti,” meaning they play both male and female roles. The latter requires a mastery of “en pointe” technique, or the ability to support oneself while standing on the tips of one’s toes.
It’s a style traditionally reserved for female dancers, borne out of a desire to make them appear even more graceful and lithe onstage. But for Carter, seeing “en pointe” in action as a young boy was what made him fall in love with ballet.
“I guess that was my reference at that time, not understanding and really knowing [ballet] at a young age,” he says. “I recognized, I guess, at that time that was what I considered a true symbol of dance or something like that. But at any rate, it fascinated me.”
Carter would ask the teenaged female dancers to give him their old pointe shoes when they were done using them, and he would sneak into an empty studio prior to his regular lessons to practice.
“And then one day, my dance teacher, Robert Ivey, caught me in the studio and was like, ‘What are you doing?'” Carter says. “And I was like, ‘Oh my gosh!’ I thought I was in trouble.”
But instead of reprimanding Carter, Ivey encouraged him to begin pointe classes.
“After a while, I was demonstrating for the pointe class, much to the chagrin of a lot of the girls,” Carter says with a laugh.
Carter later moved to New York City and continued formal training at the Joffrey Ballet School. He joined the Dance Theatre of Harlem’s ensemble company and the Bay Ballet Theatre in Tampa, Fla., before becoming a member of Trockadero in November 1995. As he approaches his 24th anniversary with the company later this year, Carter says he’s “never felt the need to go elsewhere.”
“There are not many dancers, let alone drag queen ballerina impersonator dancers, that can tell you that for the last 25 years, they have been gainfully employed,” he says. “And I’ve seen the world, and I’m continuing to see the world. So it has been quite an existence and one that you cannot put a dollar amount to.”
Much of the inherent humor in Trockadero shows is found in the spectacle of seeing men wear ballerina tutus, dance en pointe, and adopt exaggerated feminine mannerisms. Although a Trockadero performance may generate plenty of laughs from the audience, the dancers are not aiming to make a mockery of ballet. Rather, their performances stem from their deep respect for the art form.
“You have to know a lot about whatever it is you are talking about when you want to pontificate on a subject,” Carter says. “And in respect, that’s what we are doing. We know about ballet. We research these things. And that is the reason why each and every one of us that is a member of the company is here.
So as much as we, yes, do these things that seem to make fun of it, we glorify it. And in secret, we really, truly want to be that. And we want to bring people to hearken to that sense of grandeur.”
And for Carter, the impact of performing in drag can be interpreted through both a traditional and modern lens.
“At first, [ballet] was just for the elite, and then at that time, it was improper for women to be displayed in public like that, so men played all of the female and male characters in plays, as well as dance or opera and what have you,” he says. “And so if you want to look at it from one standpoint, we’re kind of bringing back a traditional aspect from the roots of where ballet came from and sustaining that and maintaining that into this modern day.
“But then you also have to look at it from a modern standpoint and where we are today in society. And I think that we are … showing the possibility of diversity within the classical ballet realm, which has always been so staid and so uniform and so unbreakable in its tenants of having to be all one shade, one shape, one movement all together.”