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“I guess you could compare it to Laurence Olivier doing Hamlet, and Laurence Olivier doing Cleopatra,” Tory Dobrin says of the difference between performing ballet in traditional tights and in drag. “For Cleopatra, he was doing for comedy purposes, and for Hamlet, he was doing for dramatic purposes.”
Ballet is a mostly dramatic artform, which is why Dobrin, naturally, didn’t start his career as a professional ballet dancer donning drag. You have to be serious before you can get silly. Still, Dobrin’s had a long career in drag ballet — ever since he first auditioned in 1980 to dance with Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo and add some zip and zing into his routine. When he retired from dancing two decades ago, Dobrin stepped into the role of artistic director for the company, touted as “the world’s foremost all-male comedic ballet company.”
The New York-based company has only gotten better, bigger, and more popular with time. “The dancing is better, more technically secure,” Dobrin says. “And that has allowed the comedy also to broaden out a lot, to be less subtle and more campy.” Yet the shows are only as gay as they’ve ever been — which is to say tacitly. “You really can’t speak about drag without at least talking about some sort of gay sensibility,” he says. “I mean, gay people aren’t the only people who do drag, but it’s certainly a very large percentage. And it’s also very important in the history of gay and lesbian culture.”
All 16 members of the current ensemble identify as gay, and Dobrin can only recall two straight members in the group. And while the audience has certainly grown, the makeup is still largely the same — a “sophisticated” mix of gays and gay-friendly aficionados of dance and theater. The biggest difference? “When I joined there were no children in the audience,” he says. “And now we have a lot of children.”
The biggest change, however, has been the venues the troupe now fills.
“I can’t imagine in the ’70s being invited to go to the Kennedy Center,” he says. “Our very first performance was done in a loft in New York City in the Meatpacking District in 1974. [We had] plastic chairs, maybe 25 of them, looking at a stage that was probably 12 feet by 12 feet.”
He marvels over the fact that Trockadero will be settling in for two nights in the KenCen’s 2,300-seat Opera House, with a house orchestra offering live accompaniment. “That is a really long way to go in a very short amount of time — for the company, the dance world and society.”
Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo performs Tuesday, March 21, and Wednesday, March 22, at 7:30 p.m., at the Kennedy Center Opera House. Tickets are $29 to $99. Call 202-467-4600 or visit kennedy-center.org.
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