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#PBSForTheArts Artist Spotlight: Tory Dobrin

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(Sascha Vaughan)

By Elisa Lichtenbaum

As part of #PBSForTheArts, a multiplatform campaign from PBS and The WNET Group celebrating the resiliency of the arts in America during the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown and reopening, we’re pleased to present a series of artist interviews spotlighting the inspiring pandemic survival stories of artists across the country. From Broadway dancers and concert performers to classical musicians, visual artists, and beyond, discover how these creative, resourceful artists have kept the arts vivid and vital during the pandemic.

Tory Dobrin is Artistic Director of Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo (The Trocks), the internationally acclaimed, all-male comic ballet company that has delighted critics and audiences alike with their witty, flamboyant send-ups of Swan Lake and other ballet classics for nearly 50 years. American Masters tells their remarkable story in Ballerina Boys, which premiered on June 4 on PBS in honor of Pride Month and is now streaming on pbs.org/americanmasters and the PBS Video App. In the following interview, Dobrin talks about the Company’s recent “bubble residency” and virtual performance event at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Massachusetts, his favorite memories from performing with the Trocks, and more.

 

Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo in “Stars and Stripes Forever,” inspired by George Balanchine’s famously patriotic ballet. (Zoran Jelenic)

What is your dance background, and how did you first become involved with Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo?

I started to dance in high school. I’m from Los Angeles, and there was an earthquake during my teenage years that destroyed a neighboring high school and caused an influx of students at my high school. We all went on a half-day schedule to accommodate the additional students. When I attempted to enroll in the required Phys Ed class, the teacher said the classes were all filled and suggested — possibly tongue in cheek and never expecting me to take his advice — to take the dance classes in the girls’ Phys Ed department. I walked over there and thus began the road to becoming a professional dancer that took me to various studios and dance companies in Los Angeles, Texas, and finally New York.

I auditioned for the Trocks in March 1980, in time for a nine-week South American tour. It was a time where military dictatorships were rampant in several countries. I’m sure that some of these governments, who had to grant permission for visiting theater and dance groups to perform in their countries, had no idea that we were all-male comedy drag ballet company. But the public knew or found out, and the Company had a huge success with these audiences. There was a sensational feeling in the theater during the performances and huge bravos at the end. I believe it was a way of expressing a type of freedom they could only experience in the theater during a very repressive time. I got totally hooked on the message and mission of the Trocks as a result.

The Trocks’ comedic take on “Swan Lake” – laughter guaranteed! (Sascha Vaughan)

How has the Company evolved over the years?

The original concept of the Company has not changed. It is a company of professional male dancers who perform the full range of the classical ballet canon, as well as some modern works. We incorporate comedy in a variety of ways, but mostly by exaggerating some of the idiosyncrasies of these dance styles and in drag, and we do this to encourage the audience to laugh a little and have a fun night at the ballet.

Society has changed more than the Trocks. In 1980, joining the Trocks was considered a career wrecking move. Now it is a valid, widely respected professional choice. The Company now is hiring dancers right out of their academies and with experience dancing on pointe. The technical level has consequently grown immeasurably. This expansion of the technical level allowed for the comedy to become both more varied and more extreme.

The audience has also grown considerably over the years. Children were never in the audience in the early years. Now we have lots of kids in the audience. The Company is a good introduction for children to the ballet world. It is not a children’s show, per se, but kids love the show and enjoy the comedy, the colorful aspect, and the extreme look of the dancers.

How has Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo continued to thrive in the face of cancelled performances and other challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic?

I cannot say the Company has “thrived” in this period, but thankfully and miraculously, we have survived. We’ve stayed connected and in shape via our Zoom Company class and continued our work in the community with virtual events like the Dying Swan and make-up workshops hosted by the Wortham Center for the Performing Arts in Asheville, North Carolina.

That said, it has been a challenging and stressful time for us — as a dance company, and as dancers — as it has been for other performing arts organizations and businesses that deal with the public, such as those in the hospitality field. That we survived, to my mind, is an amazing accomplishment in itself. We thank our supporters and funders for their help in this time to keep us going, and for their continued support as we work towards the return to live performances.

 

The Trocks recently completed a COVID-safe “bubble residency” at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Massachusetts, culminating in a virtual studio performance event on May 25. What was the rehearsal process like, and what was the most rewarding part of the overall experience?

It was a wonderful time, and it was so exciting for us all to be together again. We lived together on the grounds, rehearsing and spending lots of time with each other. It was a great way to find the energy as a group again. This very special time together helped to re-activate the “glue” that is so important to a dance company, especially a comedy troupe.  The experience also had an unusual aspect to it as we are usually preparing for a tour or performances and not just spending rehearsal time solely on the creative process of generating new work. This was refreshing and energizing — and less stressful!

Will The Trocks resume live performances in 2021 as theaters and arts venues begin to reopen?

The Trocks are hoping to have a New York season in December 2021, and it looks like 2022 will be a very busy year, as well, with tours planned around the USA, to France, Japan, and the UK. Most of these engagements are re-scheduled performances and tours that were cancelled due to the pandemic. We are in discussion now also with our partners in China and Australia for a return there.

(Courtesy of Tory Dobrin)

 

The Trocks recently completed a COVID-safe “bubble residency” at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Massachusetts, culminating in a virtual studio performance event on May 25. What was the rehearsal process like, and what was the most rewarding part of the overall experience?

It was a wonderful time, and it was so exciting for us all to be together again. We lived together on the grounds, rehearsing and spending lots of time with each other. It was a great way to find the energy as a group again. This very special time together helped to re-activate the “glue” that is so important to a dance company, especially a comedy troupe.  The experience also had an unusual aspect to it as we are usually preparing for a tour or performances and not just spending rehearsal time solely on the creative process of generating new work. This was refreshing and energizing — and less stressful!

Will The Trocks resume live performances in 2021 as theaters and arts venues begin to reopen?

The Trocks are hoping to have a New York season in December 2021, and it looks like 2022 will be a very busy year, as well, with tours planned around the USA, to France, Japan, and the UK. Most of these engagements are re-scheduled performances and tours that were cancelled due to the pandemic. We are in discussion now also with our partners in China and Australia for a return there.

Tory Dobrin performs “Pas de Quatre.” (Courtesy of Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo)

Favorite or proudest memory, as a dancer with Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo and as Artistic Director?

The Company has performed in so many sensational theaters and venues, in over 600 cities worldwide, so it is hard to have a favorite memory. But if I had to pick one, I’d say that performing at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow was the most sensational memory. To think that a dance company that started in a loft in the Meat-Packing District of New York, with midnight performances and the audience perched on folding chairs, would someday perform at the majestic, historic  Bolshoi Theater is truly awe-inspiring.

Other favorite memories include Guatemala, where we performed at a festival in front of ancient church ruins in the town of Antigua. In Paris, we danced at the beautiful and historic Châtelet Theater. We performed at the outdoor festival in Ravello, Italy overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, and in lovely opera houses all over the globe. There is a world of memories there.

What do you hope audiences take away from attending a performance by Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo?

The most important takeaway is for the audience to come expecting a high-quality comedy show. We would also hope that they leave impressed with the sensational skills of the performers, not only as comedians, but accomplished dancers. If they’re singing or dancing their way out of the theater, full of joy, we have done our job.

 

Enjoy a preview of American Masters: Ballerina Boys, now streaming on pbs.org/americanmasters and the PBS Video app.

Stay up to date with Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo via their website, or follow the Trocks on FacebookTwitter, or Instagram.

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