Making a pointe: Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo returns to Zellerbach Hall

  • by Philip Mayard
  • Tuesday January 25, 2022
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Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo
Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo

Although he's only 33 years old, dancer Joshua Thake's life journey has brought him from a self-described "low-key suburban childhood" in rural Massachusetts to some of the world's most revered stages, as a member of Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, the celebrated all-male drag ballet troupe.

Having started dance classes at age 5, Thake spent the next 15 years preparing for a career in dance, including his final years of training at San Francisco Ballet School. Not surprisingly, making ends meet in one of the most expensive cities in the world was challenging for a young ballet student.

"I was working at Starbucks 35 hours a week and on Sundays I worked at Calvary Presbyterian's child care program, looking after 20 rambunctious two-year-olds," said Thake. I don't think I could do that anymore. Back then it was fun, but it was really hard work. And I was doing this while taking a full load of ballet classes."

Joshua Thake as Eugenia Repelskii  (Source: Zoran Jelenic)

When he moved to the city, he lived at the SF Ballet's Jackson House, a large Victorian home near the Presidio, where the company's older ballet students were housed at that time. He said, "It was a lot of fun if you didn't mind living with 20 young people all sharing one small kitchen. I'd bring back leftover pastries from Starbucks. I remember unwinding in the living room late at night and hearing the ballerinas scurrying down the stairs like little mice to get their pastries."

When he finished his training at SF Ballet School, he says there were no job prospects for him with the company.

"I met with the director of the trainee program and he said, 'If Béjart (the famed French choreographer who ran Béjart Ballet Lausanne) were still alive he would hire you, he loved string beans.' They were looking for linebacker, big muscle types and I did not fit that mold."

Gogo-ing strong
But Thake loved living in San Francisco and thought his lean body might be suitable for other kinds of performance.

"Ballet wasn't working, so I started gogo dancing at Q Bar and working other jobs, just trying to make a living," Thake said. "Then I did my first drag performance at the Cinch Saloon on Polk Street. I did 'Mein Heir' from Cabaret, and I guess people liked that I could lift my leg above my head! After that, I started booking gigs at other clubs."

Thake found himself embraced by the city's sisterhood of drag.

"The first queen who looked out for me was Honey Mahogany (San Francisco's first-ever contestant on RuPaul's Drag Race)," Thake recalled. "She and Peaches Christ sponsored me to do a one-woman show. I lip-synched the entire Judy Garland Carnegie Hall concert. It was the very last performance at Supperclub in SoMa. I did the Desperate Divas pageant that Donna Sachet emceed. I was living in an SRO on Hayes Street, so I'd walk over to do the Saturday night drag shows at Marlena's. San Francisco's drag community is incredible."

Thake's ballet training and his knack for campy drag came together before he became a part of the world-famous Trockaderos, when he auditioned for a smaller company that used men on pointe.

"Luckily it was just me and another person," he said. "I had no formal pointe training and I didn't have any ribbons or elastics to keep the pointe shoes on, so they kept falling off. I made the 'ouch pouch' (typically a carefully constructed bundle of cotton used to pad the toes) out of some old socks. But I guess it went well. I remember the person running the audition saying, 'Let me see a little Liza in that pirouette combination!' I know I was in pain, but when you're 'swimming in the river of denial' you don't really feel anything."

Dance and drag
After performing with that company for two years, he auditioned for and was offered a contract with the Trockaderos in 2011. He believes that the dance world is evolving.

"Nowadays, it's more common for boys to have pointe training. Schools are starting to see that it accesses a different muscle group and strengthens them in their own technique. For the Trockaderos, it's now almost a prerequisite that they have some pointe training."

Although the Trocks are primarily known for their spoofs of the big 'story ballets' — in particular Swan Lake — over the years the company has performed works inspired by choreographers ranging from Balanchine to William Forsythe.

Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo trio  (Source: Zoran Jelenic)

"I think it's important for the Trockaderos to always be a commentary on the ballet world," Thake said. "When the company started in the '70s, audiences would come from the Met Opera House for a midnight performance by the Trocks in a loft in the Village. They came for something that was openly mocking what they just paid a lot of money to see. We are still artists who are actively commenting on the ridiculousness that ballet can be. Swan Lake and Paquita will always be part of our repertoire. But we have to shift gears, venture out and create new things. The ballet world is evolving and so are we."

Thake, whose Trockaderos drag persona is Eugenia Repelskii, is excited to return to the Bay Area, having already performed with the company twice at Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall.

"The audiences in that auditorium are electric," said Thake. "They are ready to party! Everyone goes in with an open mind. Whatever fierceness you want to serve them, whatever synapses are being fired from that stage, it's all accepted by the audience unconditionally. They love you for exactly who you are. It's one of the best feelings an artist can have."

Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, Zellerbach Hall, UC Berkeley campus. $35-$104. February 4 and 5.

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