Rebels With a Cause… And Poise

February 16, 2018
Drag and ballet make a winning and emotional combination in filmmaker Bobbi Jo Hart’s documentary Rebels On Pointe, which screens at the 2018 Mardi Gras Film Festival.

It seems only right that the all-male drag ballet company Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo should have originated in New York’s “meat-packing” district. It’s also fitting, after 40-plus years, that the men who have devoted themselves to a life in pointe-slippers, should finally have their story told. After all, they’ve managed to take their impeccably-timed, highly skilled mix of high-art and high-camp from off-off Broadway lofts, to some of the most prestigious stages around the world. Now a new film titled Rebels On Pointe screens at Sydney’s Mardi Gras Film Festival, documenting the laughs and tears, of these rebels with a cause… and poise.

FilmInk caught up with Canadian-based Director Bobbi Jo Hart to talk about her entertaining feature-length documentary.

For those who can’t normally be dragged kicking and screaming to a ballet, Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo performances represent a unique entry point to this otherwise “highbrow” world. The dancing is flawless, but humour plays a big part in the company’s appeal. Whether it’s a highly choreographed and spectacular fall-flat-on-one’s-arse gag, or a not-so-surreptitious dagger stare from one dancer to another, after being elbowed out of the spotlight, these moments of humour declass the audience, in a sense reshuffling everyone to the same-priced seats. Even pre-show theatre announcements are more like bingo calls at the local pub than the “ladies and gentlemen, please take your seats” of regular opera houses. It’s during these, that the company’s principal dancers’ assumed stage names (from classic drag puns like Helen Highwaters to the impossibly-mispronounced and Russian-inspired Tatiana Youbetyoubootskaya) are trotted out. Everyone laughs, save perhaps the Russians in the audience.

It’s so refreshing to hear audiences laughing during a ballet performance. Were the members as fun to hang out with off-stage and at rehearsal?

Oh yes! yes! yes! The guys will often dress up in drag on a night off and go out on the town, and although I did film them going out for Chase Johnsey’s [Yakatarina Verbosovich] birthday in Edinburgh, I wished I was able to go out with them on one of those drag evenings, and I still would love for them to make me up in drag so I could go out with them!

Obviously Trockadero performances attract audiences not well-versed in ballet and more in-tune with say, queer cabaret, but do you think the audience cross-pollination works in reverse?

I know that a lot of people who already love traditional ballet are often fans of the Trocks as well, once they get a chance to see a show! Those who know the repertoire of the Russian Imperial Ballet can really get the inside jokes going on… and at the same time can appreciate the impeccable ballet technique these young men achieve!

What was your introduction to the Trockadero company and how did the idea of making a film about them come about?

The Trocks came to Montreal about five years ago and I noticed an ad in the newspaper and was immediately intrigued by the photo of men dressed in ballet drag. I had never heard of the company and wanted to know more about them. Once I did a bit of research that day, I couldn’t resist and called Tory Dobrin, Artistic Director of the company, and asked if I could film alone backstage during their Montreal concert at Place des Arts. He said okay and the footage I innocently shot that night ended up being the opening scene in the film, which includes a shot of an Australian dancer, Christopher Lam, dressed as a prince, shuffling off onto the stage. From that first night of filming, it took four years to complete the film, and it has been touring international film festivals for a year now. I really hope it gets picked up by Australian TV as well!

Some of their stage names are great – Eugenia Repelskii being one; hearing them reminded me of the opening scene from Torch Song Trilogy and Harvey Fierstein’s trail of drag names: Anita Man, Bang Bang LaDesh etc. What is your favourite from the Trockadero cannon?

It has to be Natasha Notgoodenough! Perhaps because it is in the film and I just laugh out loud each time I hear it watching the film. But they are all so funny and well thought out!

Artistic Director Tory Dobrin says during the film: “It’s not a gay company from a political sense.” Although that is qualified with other statements from him and others, in a sense doing what they’re doing, especially at the outset in the 1970s, is political and an ongoing act of artistic activism. Would you agree? 

I agree 100%! They bring a gay sensibility to the world through dance and humour, often in places where gays still lack basic human rights, which sadly is still a reality in many parts of the world. So just by the sheer nature of their art, they are making a political statement and taking part in artful activism so to speak!

One of the amazing things about being a documentarian must be the trust people accord you, giving you access into their personal lives, bedrooms, family homes, and in this case their work dressing room as well. I imagine following Italian dancer Raffaele Morra on a visit to his sick father’s home, would have highlighted how intensely personal some moments on set can be. 

It is definitely an honour and a privilege to be invited into the intimate worlds of others, and to share in part of their life’s journey. My degree is in International Relations, not Film Studies, so I became a documentary filmmaker first because of my fascination with our shared humanity, and a desire to build bridges of mutual understanding. So, it is the intimate moments that I cherish the most, when people trust me enough to share their experiences, their highs and lows. And although my heart went out to Raffa and his family in Italy, I found his father and family so loving and brave (and fun!) that I was inspired by that most. Sadly, both Raffa and Bobby’s fathers have passed away since the film was completed, so the footage now is a celebration of their lives and connection with their sons and wives, something very special and sacred. Otherwise, a filmmaker walks a fine line between intimacy and invasion, and building trust with those whose lives one follows, is absolutely vital.

Two of your other documentaries were based around the lives/work of women: Rise and I Am Not A Rock Star. What usually draws you towards a story and the desire to put it on screen?

Actually, Rebels On Pointe is my first film in 20 years as a filmmaker, that focuses on men! I am drawn to stories of the marginalised, the underdogs, and those who live lives outside the box, so to speak. And women’s stories and histories are missing in our collective consciousness, so I am drawn to help bring some to light on their journeys in our world. I never set out to make films only about women, and it is quite serendipitous how I choose what my next film will be. In Rise, the film celebrating our Canadian women’s national soccer team, it was during the semi-final match against the USA that I watched in the 2012 London Olympics, where I had the epiphany to make a film about them. I felt they were robbed of going to the Gold Medal match by poor officiating, and saw how devastated this underdog team was, lying on the pitch after the game. I said to myself that I wanted to follow their journey forward from there, including a celebration of the sacrifice women must make for a fraction of the returns men receive for a lifetime of selfless dedication to a profession.

In I Am Not A Rock Star, I was drawn to the story of this 12-year-old girl from Montreal who was commuting every weekend to study piano at Juilliard’s Pre-College Program in New York City. I had made a film, She Got Game, about the women’s pro tennis tour, when I became intrigued by the journey a child makes when they are so young and yet already have a vision of exactly what their career will be, and are single-mindedly (for better or for worse) pursuing that lofty goal… including its impact on the family around them. Ultimately, I feel that I am drawn to stories that are a celebration of our shared humanity. We all have dreams. We all have family and friends of one sort or another. We all fall in and out of love. We all have highs and lows and must find resilience within ourselves to overcome life’s inevitable obstacles. So, I feel I am drawn to stories that help us connect with a way of life that we may not have understood before. And that connection comes by shining a light on those shared human characteristics that connect us all.

It’s heartwarming that many of Trockadero dancers have found partners/lovers within the company, given life on the road isn’t always conducive to maintaining a relationship. It also highlights the sense of “family” within the company. Was that sense really evident to you?

The sense of family within the company is palpable. They truly love each other and support each other as family members, as it is a very tough life living on the road, but they are doing what they love… to dance… so they share in that passion. I would have liked to film some of the dancers in their part-time drag queen lives, where they have “mothers” and “daughters” they love so much, but I never had the chance to capture this on film. But it is very beautiful.

 

Rebels on Pointe screens at 3pm, Saturday February 17 at Event Cinemas George St for Queerscreen’s Mardi Gras Film Festival. Tickets here.

 

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