A mother’s pride never diminishes. Even when she’s seen her baby perform a hundred times. Even when that baby is a 30-plus-year-old man in a tutu. That was evident last night at the opening performance of Spoleto’s Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo. As the curtain rose on Yuri Smirnov, a.k.a. Swan Lake’s evil Von Rothbart, a.k.a. Charleston’s own Robert Carter, a voice whispered from behind me, “That’s my son!”
There in the flesh was the ballet dancer’s very own mother, Ms. Carter, just as tickled at his performance as if it were the first time she’d seen him on stage. Incidentally, the audience was just as tickled too. It seems that even after 36 years of performing the most famous ballets in drag, the Trocks are just as funny and relevant as they were when they began in 1974.
The show opened with Act II of Swan Lake. A simple painted scrim provided the backdrop, but the action was all on stage. Odette made her appearance in the classical tutu, something in the shape of a Frisbee made of tulle. Her moves were precise, her body pure sinewy muscle, and for all intents and purposes a convincing prima ballerina if only for the lack of tits and the very obvious hint of chest hair.
For the record, there was more than one audience member convinced a rogue woman had invaded the all-male cast, so petite were some of the dancers, but I digress. The point is the Trocks ham it up, but only because they have the chops to get away with it. The key to the company’s success is their perfect blending of classic dance with camp. It’s kitsch en pointe. As Odette flitters and flutters across stage it’s all in mock movements that at once reflect the original choreography and yet mimic an actual swan, with a head peck here and head peck there. The chorus of dancers minces about falling on one another, accidentally kicking each other, fluttering their lashes and having what appears to be a ball of a time, and the audience ate up every cheesy bite of it.
The second act was an ode to the avant garde, loosely based on Merce Cunningham’s Patterns in Space. The delightful farce included three dancers in varying shades of spandex uni-suits gliding in postmodern movements to the eclectic sounds of a two-person orchestra. Like all good spoofs, this one works in that it’s funny because it’s true. The two boho musicians, dressed like beatnik leftovers, accompany the dancers with instruments like an egg beater, kazoos, and their own voices mooing. It’s ridiculous and yet, festival-goers will certainly see the humor and incidentally probably see a real performance at Spoleto this year that’s exactly like this. No joke intended.
Go for Barocco, the third movement in the evening, managed to truly showcase some exemplary dance while maintaining the Trocks signature brand of humor and included the classic dying swan scene. I won’t give away the sight gag (if you haven’t already seen it on YouTube), but it’s a classic. So good, even the audience members who’d seen the Trocks before eagerly anticipated it as another woman seated nearby grabbed her husband and said, “Oh yes, they still do the dying swan bit like when we saw them in the ’80s!”
All this aside, last night was really all about Robert Carter, the ballet dancer raised in Charleston, bred under Robert Ivey’s tutelage and delivered back to the Lowcountry stage in all his blond wig-wearing glory. As he made his entrance for his pièce de résistance, the principal dancer in Paquita, the audience broke out into applause and Ms. Carter could contain herself no longer. Whoops and cheers echoed behind my seat. Uncontainable giggles emerged from her row. Clapping in sync with each rotation of Carter’s impressive pirouette’s began with her lead. There was not a person in that audience more thrilled to be there than that woman and given the overwhelmingly jovial atmosphere, that’s saying a lot.
At the first intermission I had the chance to speak to Ms. Carter. I asked her how many times she’d seen Robert perform. “Oh, I go to Atlanta a lot and Charlotte, whenever I can,” she said.
I asked her if she had the show memorized, and she admitted that yes, she pretty much did. “I just love hearing the opening music,” she added with a smile.
And even though most of us in rows I through L heard her say it the first time, throughout the show she continued to say under her breath and almost with a hint of surprise, “That’s my son.”
Ms. Carter, he certainly is, but for the 17 days of Spoleto let me just say on behalf of the city, we’re proud to call him one of Charleston’s own.