Raffaele Morra looked at himself in the mirror, up and down. A male dancer wearing pointe shoes, feminine stage makeup and a tutu smirked back from at him from behind the glass.
“What the hell am I doing?” Mr. Morra thought, taking in his reflection.
Shaking away any residual fear and lingering doubts, Mr. Morra took the stage for his first performance 12 years ago with Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo—a classical company comprised of professional dancers that will balance on toe as swans, princesses, water sprites and angst-ridden Victorian ladies on Sunday night at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center.
The catch is, all of the ballerinas are men.
“I really don’t do a very good makeup,” Italy native Mr. Morra laughed shakily last week during a telephone interview from the company’s Manhattan-based studios. “I’m not going to say that I’m a good makeup artist because it’s not true, really, at all. It’s good enough for the show, but if you see me up close, you say, ‘Oh my God, what is that?’”
Makeup and tutus aside, Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo—known to the theater world as “The Trocks”—is far from a drag show, artistic director Tory Dobrin explained. The 16 dancers tackle traditional ballets, such as “Swan Lake,” with straight technique, humor and charm, he said, not to mention a certain brute strength that female ballerinas do not have, nor particularly want.
“They have to have more finesse. We don’t,” Mr. Dobrin said. “We don’t really think of it as men dancing women’s parts. They approach them as men dancing these roles, who happen to be in costumes a woman would normally wear. The guys dance as guys. We’re not looking to imitate Dolly Parton.”
He paused for a beat, thoughtfully, and continued, “Although I love Dolly Parton, of course.”
Mr. Dobrin joined The Trocks in 1980, six years after a handful of ballet enthusiasts founded the company on the grounds of traditional dance en travesti, in parody form. At the time, the gay liberation movement was in full swing, Russian ballet dancer and choreographer Mikhail Baryshnikov had just moved to the United States and the world was in a huge dance boom, Mr. Dobrin explained.
“There was a lot of drag going on in New York bars and clubs and off-off Broadway shows, but it was still something that was more unusual than usual,” he said. “This company came out of those movements. And over the years, we moved into more of a professional milieu, where you’re actually not doing shows at midnight but starting to do tours at legitimate theaters and opera houses.”
The troupe’s reputation spread and, with it, an army of prospective Trocks came forward to join the corps. Typically, they’ll train en pointe before their audition, Mr. Dobrin reported, which was unheard of 40 years ago.
“It’s becoming a career choice for some dancers,” he said. “We don’t find them. They find us.”
While studying with the Ohio Ballet in the early 1990s, a number of Paul Ghiselin’s classmates kept pushing the dancer to audition for The Trocks. He was a natural class clown and loved nothing more than poking fun at ballet.
“The silly little mannerisms, there’s so many,” he said last week during a telephone interview. “Ballet is just so not human.”
In May 1995, Mr. Ghiselin reached out to the company and nailed his audition. He was 33 years old when he put on pointe shoes for the first time.
“It was kind of like starting all over again,” he said. “I felt like a clown with stilts from the circus. That was an adjustment. They taught us like little girls learning how to dance en pointe. They whipped me into shape.”
Now the company’s ballet master, Mr. Ghiselin is “the old lady of the bunch,” he said, but still feels a rush when he transforms through one of his many costumes, particularly that of the Dying Swan—a career high when he performed the role on the Bolshoi stage in Moscow, Russia.
“Oh, are you kidding, you become a whole other being,” Mr. Ghiselin said of the costuming. “You put on the pointe shoes and the wig and the tutu and the makeup and the eyelashes and you become a grande dame of the ballet. You take on a new character. You feel like queen of the world.”
The men are usually given an hour before performance time to get into costume and makeup. Mr. Ghiselin, a seasoned pro, has the process down to a half hour flat, he said.
Before joining, the dancer had never experimented with drag, he said, which is true of most of the men. In fact, Mr. Morra said he doesn’t try to look like a woman at all. His dark chest hair often pokes out from the top of his costumes.
“I’m not trying to be like a girl,” he said. “While some of my colleagues have a very nice makeup when they perform, I do mostly stage makeup I would say because I don’t really blonde my eyebrows. They’re very thick and difficult to cover. Sometimes, they might show.”
The Trocks are a complete departure from Mr. Morra’s serious, modern dance background—and a welcome one. When he saw the company perform in Italy, he couldn’t believe his eyes.
“All the little funny parts, as dancers, we always think about it, but never dared to put them on stage. They were just doing it and I loved it,” he recalled. “I really wanted to change my career, to give it a twist. I was very attached to my hometown and I said, ‘If I have to go, it has to be for the something special.’”
It was, he said. And he did.
Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo will perform a selection of greatest hits from the dance company’s repertoire on Sunday, July 7, at 8:30 p.m. at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center. Tickets range from $55 to $85. For more information, call 288-1500 or visit whbpac.org.