Trock & roll: Primo ballerino Robert Carter on his unique career

  • by Jim Provenzano
  • Tuesday January 23, 2024
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Olga Supphozova (Robert Carter), Lariska Dumbchenko (Raffaele Morra, current Trocks ballet master), Ida Nevasayneva (Paul Ghiselin), Sveltlana Lofatkina (Fernando Medina Gallego). (photo courtesy Les Ballet Trockadero de Monte Carlo)
Olga Supphozova (Robert Carter), Lariska Dumbchenko (Raffaele Morra, current Trocks ballet master), Ida Nevasayneva (Paul Ghiselin), Sveltlana Lofatkina (Fernando Medina Gallego). (photo courtesy Les Ballet Trockadero de Monte Carlo)

Robert Carter may play a dying swan with Les Ballet Trockadero de Monte Carlo, but he's more of a unicorn in real life. As the longest performing member in the company, he's also one of very few men, and a Black gay man, who performs ballet on pointe.

Loved around the world for a depth of fine technique mixed camp drag and humor, the company's celebrating its 50th anniversary, with performances of their classic takes on "Swan Lake," "Les Sylphides," and other works.

While on tour with the company in Houston, in a phone interview with the Bay Area Reporter, Carter shared his experiences as a young child studying ballet, and how this eventually led to his touring the world as dual characters Olga Supphozova and Yuri Smirnov.

The company will perform January 27 and 28 at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley as part of Cal Performances' 2024 season.

Robert Carter  

You recently performed near your home town, right?
We started the tour in my hometown of Charleston, South Carolina. Then we went to Florida, and then came back up and did further upstate in Greenville.

You mentioned Tokyo as a city that was one of your favorites. You have a big fan base there. What is it about Japanese culture, you think, that they love the Trockaderos?
Oh, my goodness, so many things. We are different, for sure. But the Japanese people have such a profound appreciation for artists and when they find something unique that they like, they truly support it 100%. I mean, we have a fan club. Especially after being in the company for so many years, I have a lot of fans. It's just so funny. They buy a block of tickets, so when the curtain opens at a different theater, and it's almost as if they have assigned seating. You know where they're all sitting.

I thought there might be a parallel between the makeup and the costumes and Kabuki theater, that there's a recognition or a parallel?
I think so. They appreciate that because like Kabuki, traditionally the males pass it down from father to son and so on, but there is a beauty in the art of impersonating women. I think that's what they really appreciate about it, aside from the comic spin that we put on classical ballet.

Some of the works don't initially start out as being broadly funny. There's a subtlety of wit, of the gesture, or a slight stumble that builds in the pieces that are not shtick.
Right. Generally, the way that our program is set up for an evening, we'll have our opening ballet, and then we'll have an intermission and then three short pieces in the middle, and then the final ballet with the whole company.

Robert Carter as Olga Supphozova in 'Swan Lake' (photo: JL Marerro Medina)  

As it's structured, our opening pieces are generally a little bit broader in comedy, kind of the expected gags, like "Swan Lake Act II." We have "Les Sylphides," which is another opener. That's a little bit more subtle, but still just as funny in my opinion. By the time you get to the ensemble pieces in the middle, you'll see the comedy is still present throughout the show. But the dancing takes more of a focus so that people understand that while they're enjoying it and they're getting a good laugh, we are still first and foremost a dance company and we have some very accomplished dancers.

You live in Brooklyn with your husband, Elmaz Adzemovic. You mentioned that he doesn't go on tour with you.
It would just make things more complicated, unless it was a foreign destination we both want to visit, and we've never really discussed it because it's just always ruled it out anyway. It would just be not a good situation. I'm sure he would probably be bored and want my attention, but I have to focus on my work.

You've been with the company since 1995, and the primo ballerino? Are you the primo primo?
I have graduated from Auntie to Mama, as far as helping everybody with hair and makeup, sometimes advising the steps, choreography, and so on. But yeah, I mean, I'm the longest running member in the history of the company.

Les Ballet Trockadero de Monte Carlo's 'Swan Lake' lead dancers (photo: courtesy Ballet Trockadero de Monte Carlo)  

That's quite an accomplishment, because many dancers have short-lived careers, if they don't transition to teaching or other roles, but you've been able to continue for this long.
I am quite fortunate and I credit good genetics, I guess, and an indomitable spirit. With this kind of job, I get to see the world doing what I love to do and getting paid for it. The perks are seeing the world and experiencing all these different wonderful things that have happened along the way.

This job is unique in the dance world in the respect that coming up on 49, I'm able to get on stage and dance. In another conventional setting, I would've been forced out earlier just because that is just the societal standard within the dance community.

But nowadays, there are stars of the dance world that have extended themselves well past 50. I hope to be one of them, as long as you're able to bring the quality of your artistry. I never want to be in that position where people are watching and say, "Well, you used to be good." I have enough vanity to tap my own shoulder to sit down before someone else has to. When that comes, I'll know it. But so far, I've been quite fortunate. I don't have any issues with my joints or muscle problems. As long as I take care of myself.

You have an additional physical demand in dancing on pointe. It's rare for men, and you started young.
I got my first pair when I was about 11. I would squirrel them away in my bag and use them in an empty studio, so as not to get caught, because I thought I'd be in trouble. But it turns out the opposite happened when I got caught. My teacher said, "Well, if that's what you want to do, then get into pointe class." So, I did, in addition to my technique classes three times a week. By the time I had gotten a little bit older and left home and gone to New York, I was quite comfortable on pointe shows when I joined the company.

Robert Carter as Olga Supphozova
(photo: courtesy Les Ballet Trockadero de Monte Carlo)  

But did you know of any other dancers or companies that did that, or did you know other guys who were interested in it before the Trockaderos?
I didn't. At that time, it was discouraged by a lot of people. I wouldn't be caught dead trying to bring out a pair of pointe shoes in someone's studio, because most teachers would flip their lids. But now it's not such a foreign thing, and some of them actually encourage it because there are benefits to it.

Ankle and foot strength?
And a sense of balance. For most guys, not to say that they're going to put them on and do a two-hour program like we do necessarily, but I think if they get comfortable enough on pointe, then it makes them better partners.

Let's talk about the dances. You perform the Dying Swan, and you mentioned "Les Sylphides." Is there other repertory that we can expect in a Cal performances concert that are old favorites or newer ones?
We're still using our classics. The beauty of this company is we might have a lot of the same repertory, but we have a lot of new dancers. One of the one fun quirks with this company is that you could see my interpretation of Odette in "Swan Lake" or you could see one of the other guys have their interpretation, and it might be the same ballet, but it's still different because they put their total personal character spin on it, so that's what keeps it fun for us.

Yes, different dancers bring their interpretation.
Even if there's a joke that's choreographed into a section, it still has to be as genuine as possible in order for it to register and not look contrived. That's what we try for. We adjust the different jokes for whoever might be doing that particular position at that time, just so that at least it's genuine to them. I wouldn't tell them, "React the same way that I'm doing it," because it wouldn't look real.

Les Ballet Trockadero de Monte Carlo, January 27, 8pm and Jan. 28, 3pm at Zellerbach Hall, UC Berkeley campus. $37-$119.

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