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From the archive: Dancing on his tip-top toes

Posted on September 12, 2018

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Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo broke all box office records at the Peacock Theatre during its season in March this year [2006]. Jonathan Gray talks to the company’s prima ballerina Robert Carter (aka Olga Supphozova) as the company prepares for a return visit on September 19. Photographs by Zoran Jelenic

JG: The Trocks are back in London in September. Does the company enjoy dancing in the UK, and how different are British audiences from those, say, in the US or Japan?

RC: We love it here in London. Not only is the city a comfortable place for most of us because of its familiarity, there’s the added plus of not having a language barrier. The audiences here are wonderful. The great thing is that they not only come to enjoy the comedy, they come to appreciate good dancing because they are knowledgeable about dance. I believe that their experience is enhanced a little more, and perhaps the jokes that are funny with most audiences, are understood and appreciated a lot more. I think all of our audiences are different because of the nature of their individual cultures and societies. So it’s safe to say that the majority of our audiences enjoy our show to the utmost, however they may show it. The beauty is that as a company who travels the globe, we are able to grab every audience and bring them into our world.

JG: The company has a big London fan-base, and your female alter ego Olga Supphozova has a dedicated following. How does it feel to have a tough ballet critic like Clement Crisp lavish your dancing with praise?

RC: The review Clement Crisp wrote about me was one that still makes me tingle a little bit. I was completely bowled over. It was the best review that anyone could receive from one of the top dance critics ever. For someone of his reputation to write such complimentary things has been part of the reason I still challenge myself to go further.

JG: The Trocks performed at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow recently – what was that like? Were the Russian audiences enthusiastic or mystified? I also understand that Maya Plisetskaya is a fan of the company?

RC: For me, in the context of what I do with the Trocks, dancing on the Bolshoi stage was a major highlight among the many I’ve had so far. I think in the beginning many of the Russian audiences were quite mystified, but that quickly turned to enthusiasm once the word spread. For a lot of them, I think we brought back a sense of nostalgia with our exaggerated style and eccentric characters. I don’t think they thought they would enjoy our company as much as they did, so all in all it was a great experience. Maya Plisetskaya is a fan. When we performed in a gala programme in Palermo, she was the honoured dancer. It was such a thrill to see her, let alone dance on the same stage. I remember as I did the fouettés in the coda of Paquita, she was cheering me on from the wings. One of the most memorable moments I’ll ever have, it was incredible.

JG: What struck me about the recent Ballets Russes film was how accurately the Trocks impersonate the extraordinary dance personalities of those old Russian companies. When you joined the Trocks, did you invent the dancing name and personality for Olga, or were they ready created characters?

RC: As with everyone who joins the Trocks, you are given the names. There was an Olga Supphozova before me, and according to him his character was very different. One of the greatest things about this company is the freedom we’re given. So even though we are given the names when we join, the character build-up is completely our own.

JG: The Trocks are famous for spoofing the onstage/offstage rivalry between ballerinas. Is there any rivalry amongst the dancers in the company, or are you all great friends?

RC: A huge part of the success of the company has been the fact that we are like a big family. Some of us are closer than others, but for the most part we all get along. The survival of the show depends on it. Everyone in the company is given the opportunity to excel and be recognised, so if there is any rivalry it is only with the individual, not the other dancers. At least that’s what I think.

JG: You were born in Charleston, South Carolina. How did you become interested in ballet, and were your family supportive when you started taking dance classes?

RC: My mother had nine brothers and sisters and grew up on a farm in upstate South Carolina. She did not have the luxury of being exposed to so much culture like the people of my generation. With my sisters and myself she pledged that we would have access to everything she did not. So she became very active in exposing my siblings and me to all sorts of things concerning the arts. I was in a children’s performing group at an arts festival when I caught the attention of my first dance teacher, Robert Ivey, and he told my mother he saw great promise in my talents. He asked if she would be interested in letting him teach me some dance. My mother, like many who had only ever seen ballet on TV, didn’t know what to think, but she wanted me to try. She told me that if I didn’t like it, we could find something else. I went for my first class, and I couldn’t wait to return. Ballet has been my life ever since. So I guess you could say that my family were very supportive.

JG: I’ve read that you started to dance on pointe when you were only ten years old. How did that happen, and were you worried about the damage you might have inflicted on your feet at such a young age?

RC: I began training in ballet when I was eight years old. From the beginning I was fascinated with pointe shoes, and so I asked the girls to give me their old ones instead of throwing them away. I would put on the ones that fitted and imitate what the girls were doing. One day my dance teacher caught me and I thought I would be in trouble, but I wasn’t. Instead, he made me take pointe classes and encouraged me more and more. I think I was too young to worry about any damage I might have been doing, and besides, I don’t think he would have pushed me if it were not a wise thing to do.

JG: You obviously have a great facility for dancing on pointe, and your pirouettes and fouettés are stunning. Do you find the technical aspects of dancing as a ballerina difficult or easy?

RC: The real difficulty in doing the ballerina roles is the polishing and refining. That isn’t to say they aren’t difficult at all, but because I am a man doing things normally performed by a woman, the hard part isn’t in the show of strength but the control and look of effortlessness.

JG: The Trocks’ classical repertoire is based on the authentic 19th century choreography. Who stages these productions for the company, and do you get any individual coaching for the ballerina roles that you dance?

RC: Most of the ballets in our repertoire come from the original choreography, so we set everything the way it was intended and then we add the jokes. We work with lots of people as far as coaching is concerned. Elena Kunikova has worked with us a great deal and set many of the wonderful pieces we perform. I have grasped a great deal from her on the Russian style, which is all about what we do.

JG: One thing I have always noticed about your dancing is how much you relish the technical challenges of the great female classical roles – you never look scared! As a man, do you find the ballerina roles easy to interpret, and are any of them particular favourites? Is there a role you would like to perform but haven’t yet?

RC: Not at all. Women are naturally complex, and to evoke feminine qualities without making them look forced and unnatural is the challenge. In our company, I have done most of the roles I wanted to do. The one that has yet to come my way would be Giselle. I would like to dance this role because there is nothing in it like the others I’ve performed. I have always been very comfortable in quick, spirited pieces [Paquita, Don Quixote, Stars and Stripes Forever] but Giselle is totally different. I’m ready to work in the slower, earthier roles.

JG: Do you have any favourite roles when you appear as your other alter ego, the male dancer Yuri Smirnov?

RC: Funny you should ask. He’s not seen very often, but I have my favourites for him: Le Corsaire and Basilio in Don Quixote. Every once in a while I relish the chance to work with this character. Doing the male roles is good for keeping my male technique sharp and giving my feet a rest. Sometimes, even after all this time, the pointe work can get to me.

JG: The Trocks are almost constantly touring. Do you ever get time to relax at home or have a break from dancing?

RC: We get enough time in between tours to relax at home. The funny thing is that even when I’m not working, and not with the boys, my thoughts always are. The great thing is that even on tour we are still able to do our own thing, and if we like, we can do things together. But I like my alone time and take full advantage of it as much as possible.

JG: Can you tell me about your dancing career before you joined the Trocks? You danced with Dance Theatre of Harlem at one stage, didn’t you?

RC: I had a short run before joining the Trocks in the conventional side of ballet. I briefly danced for the Bay Ballet Theatre of Tampa, Florida, before it folded. Since it was my first professional job, I was a little depressed to have to go back home to South Carolina, but after I’d returned, Dance Theatre of Harlem [DTH] came to town to perform at the Spoleto Festival, and I arranged an audition. Shortly after accepting a scholarship to the school, I joined the DTH ensemble. I was there for about a year, but I wasn’t happy and decided to look for other things.

JG: You joined the Trocks in 1995. How did you come to audition for the company? Was it an accident, or something you deliberately set out to do? Are you happy to keep on “Trockin’”, or do you sometimes think of moving on?

RC: After I left DTH, I was working in a hotel part-time, taking classes and looking for auditions when I ran into a guy who had been at DTH with me. We began discussing auditions and he told me he would be auditioning for the Trocks, upon which I almost died! I begged him for the contact information, and spoke to Tory Dobrin the following week. I guess everything happens for a reason because I had seen the company when I was young, and I knew that this was the company for me. After that first day, I’ve been here ever since. After ten years I’m still happy to keep on Trockin’. I guess you can say I’m spoiled in a good way. I couldn’t be happier anywhere else.

JG: I’d love to see Olga dance the Rose Adagio from The Sleeping Beauty, and I think that Gamzatti’s wedding scene from La Bayadère is ripe for some Trock treatment. Any chance of either of these things happening?

RC: At one time the company learned Gamzatti’s wedding, and costumes were made, but I don’t know what happened. As for the Rose Adagio, I would love to dance it but it hasn’t come up for discussion. Who knows? We’ll have to see.

JG: What does the future hold for Olga and also for Robert Carter?

RC: Well Olga is still dancing and not ready to put the pointe shoes down yet. As for Robert Carter, I plan on dancing until the day comes when common sense tells me it’s time to stop. Even then, I plan on helping to keep dance alive and thriving.

This interview was originally published in Dancing Times in September 2006.

Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo is on tour in the UK until November 3, 2018. Click here for tour details and further information.



Jonathan Gray is editor of Dancing Times. He studied at The Royal Ballet School, Leicester Polytechnic, and Wimbledon School of Art where he graduated with a BA Hons in Theatre Design. For 16 years he was a member of the curatorial department of the Theatre Museum, London, assisting on a number of dance-related exhibitions, and helping with the recreation of original designs for a number of The Royal Ballet’s productions including Danses concertantes, Daphnis and Chloë, and The Sleeping Beauty. He has also contributed to the Financial Times, written programme articles for The Royal Ballet and Birmingham Royal Ballet, and is co-author of the book Unleashing Britain: Theatre gets real 1955-64, published in 2005.

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