Backstage at the Folies Bergère, a transformation is taking place. The corridors of this Paris theatre have been home to many a glamorous dancer (Josephine Baker’s former dressing room is just down the hall) but tonight I’m watching a different kind of beauty unfold.
A member of Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo since 1995, Robert Carter is no stranger to the elaborate routine that precedes every “Trocks” show. Sitting at an illuminated mirror, he’s about to metamorphose from a short-haired American man in jogging bottoms into Russian ballerina Olga Supphozova.
The attention to detail is impressive: lip liner, false eyelashes, various shades of foundation and powder to make his cheekbones and nose look more feminine, wax procured in Japan to smooth down eyebrows, followed by a layer of glue to ensure they don’t pop back up when he starts to sweat under the stage lights.
Face finished, it’s time to brush the platinum blonde mane that crowns his glory each night. Long and straight, it’s whisked into a tight ballet bun, before being topped off with a sea of ringlets. The look is complete. Carter has left the building and Olga is most definitely in the house.
The following morning, having watched Carter and his fellow Trocks entertain the Folies Bergère crowd with their unique blend of humorous yet fiercely good classical ballet, we meet again.
All of the dancers have two alter egos, one male, one female. Carter is so well known as Olga, that her male counterpart – Yuri Smirnov – rarely gets an airing. But as he points out: “Nobody joins this company to do the male roles.” So why do they join? For Carter, it was all about the pointe shoes – and has been ever since he was a young boy growing up in South Carolina.
“My mother wanted me to try ballet, and said that if I didn’t like it, we could always find something else for me to do,” he recalls. “But after that first lesson, I couldn’t wait to get back to class. I was immediately fascinated by the pointe shoes, and I would beg girls for old pairs they were throwing out. Then I would go into an empty studio and play around with them.”
Eventually, Carter’s teacher let him join the pointe shoe class. “He would use me to demonstrate to the others – much to the chagrin of a lot of the girls,” says Carter with a laugh. Quite what he would do with this new-found skill, was still a mystery – until he discovered there were kindred spirits out there.
“When I saw Trockadero, I thought, ‘This is it.’ From the moment I found out there was a group of guys who did what I wanted to do, I envisaged myself being part of it. I can’t imagine having a career that didn’t involve a pair of pointe shoes.”
All the Trockadero programmes are drawn from existing classical ballet and modern dance repertoire, with the upcoming Edinburgh show featuring excerpts from Les Sylphides and La Vivandière. Likewise the characters, with each dancer drawing from ballerinas past and present, then lacing it with their own comedic personalities.
“Olga is her own entity,” says Carter. “She’s a character that I’ve built up over a long period of time, and she has many facets. My inspiration comes from a number of different ballerinas, who are all unique with their own eccentricities. I try to incorporate all of that into one being.”
Parody is only one aspect of what Carter and his colleagues do. As the show progresses, the trips, gaffes and bloopers are gradually replaced by pure, top notch dancing. So much so, that Bolshoi-trained prima ballerina Polina Semionova has used YouTube clips of Carter to perfect her arm movements (“ain’t that a kick in the pants”, he says, with obvious pleasure).
But while female ballerinas may inspire, and be inspired by, the Trocks, this is most definitely a group of men – as the tufts of hair poking out from behind their tutus testify.
“If a dancer has chest hair, they keep it,” explains Carter. “Because in the end, we’re not trying to be women, we’re men. I’m naturally smooth on my chest, but I do shave under the arms because it goes along with my character. My dancing is very refined, and as you saw from my make-up procedure last night, I love to be the glamourpuss.”
Pointe shoes and glamour aren’t the only things that have kept Carter tied to Olga for over 18 years. In most companies, opportunities to share your personality with the crowd, and make a role truly your own, are few and far between. At the Trocks, it’s positively encouraged. “Here, I’m given the freedom to run with it. Whereas in another setting, I might be constrained.”
On the night I watch Carter transform into a ballerina he is, in his words, “in good spirits”. But as with any job, there are times when a tutu and tights hold little appeal. It’s then that Olga pulls him through.
“This is my passion, but there are days when my feet are sore and the last thing I want to do is put on a chunk of make-up, a wig and pointe shoes. But as soon as that music starts and I take my breath and it’s time to go on, it all goes away. It’s my medication.”
• Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo are at Edinburgh Festival Theatre, tomorrow and Saturday. www.trockadero.org