The following is excerpted from a Sep 17, 2010 interview by Ismene Brown published on TheArtsDesk.com:
As opening night’s star prima, Fernando Medina-Gallego, told me while he was dressing for his performances in ChopEeniana and Raymonda’s Wedding, being a Trockadero ballerina is a highly exacting profession. It took an hour, as we talked, for him to transform himself from Fernando (pictured above right) - a man in adoring thrall to Uliana Lopatkina and Darcey Bussell - to the inexorable Sveltlana Lofatkina, just squeaking on stage in time for 7.30ish curtain-up.
ISMENE BROWN: Fernando, you’re originally from Spain and you have a good classical training - where were you before you joined the Trocks?
FERNANDO MEDINA-GALLEGO: For classical I was with the Basel company in corps de ballet, then I went to Holland to do modern dance for two years, Introdans. After than I joined the Trocks.
Because the Trocks was the place for me! I went to the see the show and I was very attracted to the idea of doing comedy with ballet. I was always the clown of the class. I wanted to see if it was possible to do humour with ballet. Tory [Dobrin, artistic director and a Trock since 1980] thought I had potential too, so he offered me a contract, and a year later when there was an opening, and my papers were approved by the US government I could join the Trocks.
The comedy is the hard part!
We hire professional classically trained dancers, so they know what the dancing is. But the shock is doing the comedy. Of course you haven’t done female dancing, and you have to get on pointe, but that’s a small adjustment, not too far from what you’ve been doing. Comedy though is quite far away. Now, first I put on a dance belt and pink tights for the diva.
Your feet look quite normally shaped - not horrible, like lots of ballerinas’ feet.
That’s because they work on very tiny shoes to make their feet look beautiful, but I don’t care for beauty that much. Health comes first for me!
What size are your feet?
41 in Europe. It’s not difficult to find that size in almost every brand. I wear the American Gaynor Mindens. They last, they are healthy, they never lose shape.
How long did it take you to learn to go on point?
To be able to be on stage and fake it about an hour. To do more, then a few weeks really.
You do the hopping on point?
Does it hurt?
No, the shoes have a lot of protection inside. They last a long time. My record is 20 performances from one pair. Some ballerinas use three pairs in an evening performance, three pairs into the garbage. But not I. When my career is over, I will get healthy feet back.
Now to make-up. I notice you’re putting on lots of moisturizer. Is that because the lights dry your skin?
At 39, you have to moisturize.
You are 39? I simply cannot believe that.
Thank you very much. You’ve made my day. No, I’ve been doing this for 12 years, I joined the Trocks in 1998.
You have the most desirable name: Sveltlana Lofatkina. Was that the first name you had?
When I came in, Tory, the director, baptized me - like he does every other new dancer. Sveltlana Lofatkina was the name he gave me. Half and half Uliana Lopatkina and Svetlana Zakharova [the Mariinsky and Bolshoi primas]. It’s a wonderful name. Actually I think it was created before Zakharova came up, but obviously it came from Lopatkina. I love Uliana. The joke was Svelte-lana Lo-fat. But I have the honor and privilege to be named after those two wonderful ballerinas.
So they become your muses? You have them in mind all the time?
They would be my muses anyway, even if I was never a Trock ballerina. I always follow the careers of incredible dancers around the world, both male and female. And I like those two in particular.
They’re not known for comedy though.
Not yet. Not for some years yet.
I suppose you couldn’t ever have a woman in the Trockaderos?
There were in the beginning. But it wasn’t as comedically effective to see a lady dressed as a man as to have men dressed as ladies.
I suppose the laughter is the same all over the world when a man dresses as a woman.
Yes, very similar, though there are some parts of the show that might be harder to get in certain societies. But in general if you see someone out of line and falling over you don’t need to have any kind of background to find that funny.
Have you performed in the Middle East?
The closest was in Turkey in Bodrum, a fairly holiday-oriented place. So perhaps not typically Turkish. But it was as successful as anywhere else.
How about Russia? You’ve been asked back there several times.
The Russians know ballet more than anybody else, so they probably have the education to enjoy our jokes better than anybody. We are very rooted in the Russian school, we’re always trying to emulate it - so it’s very easy for them to see what we’re doing.
And how do they enjoy your jokes at the beginning about the Bolshevik ballerinas and Soviet gunfire?
Actually… that line was taken out in Russia!
That’s why ballet critics like you because you’re not just funny, you do show and highlight stylistic points of the late 19th-century style of dancing that’s lost now.
I suppose we have to. Every company wants to have a good grasp of style. For us it’s more important because you have to know well what you are parodying before you can build on top. If you just goof about with it it would be insulting. And we are not insulting.
So your classes are very serious.
Oh yes! Terribly serious! (laughs)
Who teaches you the style? Who keeps you detailed and correct so you can do the jokes?
When it comes to Russian style we are lucky enough to have as our coach Elena Kunikova, who worked in the Maly Theatre in St Petersburg, and she is very knowledgeable about Russian style, and has set many many pieces on us, from Harlequinade to Paquita and so on. She knows. So it’s easy for us to get it right when someone like her is watching us. And then she is very able to make tweaks and comedy on top of it - she is a funny lady. For Balanchine, we have Iliana Lopez, who was a principal ballerina with the Miami City Ballet.
Balanchine used to be your more modern parodies. But you have much more modern ones now.
He just passed away recently, but we are doing a Merce Cunningham spoof, set and choreographed by one of his dancers, Meg Harper. So yes we have even come into the 21st century. Actually, there are dancers in the company who have been contemporary-dance-trained.
And you have a Pina Bausch Trock cover on the go.
Yes, we have I Wanted to Dance with You at the Cafe of Experience. I think it’s a good exercise on her work… dark, but still funny.
You are doing classic ballerina eyes? Or are these Sylphides eyes?
No, I’m doing neutral ballerina eyes for the entire evening, because there isn’t enough time in the intermission to change them.
Are these ordinary cosmetics or waterproof ones, so nothing moves?
I go for hypoallergenic.
Yes, you can’t have your eyes weeping on the stage.
It only might melt if we are really hot on stage, but mostly it stays. If you have to do three pieces in one evening, you may end up with not a stitch of makeup on your face.
Do you all do your own style of makeup or is there a book you look at?
No, actually, everyone goes their own original way. When I joined the company I only knew how to do make-up for male roles.
You have a male character called R.M. “Prince” Myshkin too, don’t you? Does he have different eyes?
Well, if I haven’t got time to change them, he will have ballerina eyes too. He would only change the lips. A darker shade. Sveltlana likes bright red.
Tell me about Sveltlana’s character. Is she fussy? Is she one of the ones who goes mad when she hears Bolshevik gunfire?
Oh yes, she is easily scared!
How old is she?
I suppose Margeaux Mundeyn and Ida Nevasayneva must be at least 85 by now. If you do different ballerinas in the evening you have to inhabit different characters.
Well, Sveltlana is going to do two roles tonight, Sylphides and Raymonda, so she will have to modify her character. But she will still always be 19.
Do you ever suddenly do something Sixties with your eyes, something Dusty Springfield, or something wholly different?
Actually, I’m not very good at makeup. Mine changes very little. There are other dancers in the company who can transform themselves into anything… they are really good at makeup. But not me, I’m only basic and I’m not fancy at all.
You have very blue eyeshadow there - it has to be blue?
Well, in this evening it’s suitable. When we do Swan Lake or Paquita I would go for orangey-red or pink eyeshadow, but with Raymonda, the lead is in a dark blue tutu, and the sylphides have hints of blue in their crown, so blue works for this program. This particular one is a very intense blue, which works for the cheap seats in the theater.
Do you look at photographs of certain ballerinas to get the detail into costuming and makeup? As a child I used to collect photos of ballerinas, they would have nail varnish and rings and necklaces and very very shiny shoes. They were so glamorous.
Dangerous for your partner! Well, when we do our photo shoot once a year for our program books, Tory always brings copies of photos of fabulous ballerinas of the past and we go as far back as we can, because they have the best pictures.
It’s a pity that today’s ballerinas don’t dress up so much. Sylvie Guillem, for instance, hardly dresses up at all.
It is a great pity, because she is such a fabulous model. But I don’t really care what they do in their private life, I’m only interested in what they do on stage. It can be interesting if you see an interview with Darcey Bussell, who is a clever person and has interesting things to say, but I wouldn’t care what she was wearing.
You trained with Victor Ullate in Madrid? A renowned teacher.
Yes, a couple of years. It was two intense years when I already had decided I wanted to be a dancer. His teachers were fantastic and had great demands on us.
He seems to have produced a remarkable crop of major dancers. Though I hear he was a kind of frightening man, too.
I guess to have that kind of result, you need to teach the kind of discipline that’s required. And for a 15-year-old, even more for a 10-year-old, that’s scary. But there’s no other way to succeed. There is not time for play, only for work. And that’s too early for some children to do. But by the time I got to his school I was nearly 20, and he didn’t scare me. I would always have smart answers, more for his teachers than for him. One of them told me I was creating trouble. But actually I enjoyed taking her classes, she is a wonderful friend.
Dancing in the Trocks, you do have to repeat the jokes every time. How do you keep the repetition of the jokes fresh?
How do you keep them fresh? That is the million-dollar question. Well, they never happen the same way twice. You are not the same person today that you were yesterday. Many little things modify you each day, your mood, things that happened to you during the day, whatever you ate, all of that might affect the way you do the joke. I mean, when it’s most successful is when we do it the way we know it works, but there is always a little room for a nuance here or there, to wink at a colleague and keep a complicity on stage. And they might laugh.
If you laugh on stage, does that make it funnier?
Actually, the audience will not enjoy seeing me laugh on stage unless they know why I am laughing, what the joke was. It’s dangerous. There’s a line not to cross. We know the piece, we know something went wrong, and if we laugh, the audience won’t know. So we have to be pretty serious about our comedy.
And you have to be pretty serious about putting on your mascara and eyelashes too… Is it a qualification to get into the Trocks, great eyelashes?
Ah, but then you put these false ones on. These fantastic things come to the rescue.
They must be nearly two inches long. Are those special Trockadero eyelashes, or would Sylvie Guillem or Darcey Bussell wear these?
I don’t think so! You just buy them in professional makeup stores in New York City and trim them as you like them. Eyebrows! I forgot the eyebrows!
I suppose there are upsides and downsides to being a Trock. An upside I guess is that once you’re in you stay for a long time and make good friends.
It doesn’t always happen. I’ve been here 12 years and I’ve seen quite a lot of them come and go. It didn’t work for them or they found somewhere else they wanted to go.
Is it that they can’t take the relentless joking every night and want to dance seriously?
It’s what you said before. It’s if there comes a point where they can’t keep the joke fresh. And the repeating of the repertoire gets to them. We do change the repertoire a lot but of course whenever we go to a new city and a new audience that hasn’t seen us we take our highlights. And it can get really boring to do the same things over and over again. So if you are interested in new things, this is not your place. You have to be content with the results of what you are doing, to know you are bringing enjoyment to audiences all over the world. But sometimes that is not enough. You want a different professional horizon. Also the travelling can get to you. Jetlag, performing when your body is telling you you should be in bed. You are yawning and you have to get on stage to perform. That happens very often. There’s not much time to recover from a 12 hour flight and a 12 hour time difference.
Are you funded entirely from box office or do you get subsidy?
I think we rely majorly on the box office, that keeps us going in times of crisis when there’s nobody putting money into the arts. We have more work than ever now.
So you are not feeling the pinch now, whereas a lot of subsidized ones in America are.
Well, we’ve always relied on our box office, so it’s very easy for us so far. I do wish more people would come, but at the same time theaters are scared, and they put higher prices on the tickets. It might not be easy. The only numbers I’m really familiar with are 1 to 8 - 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8. If you’re talking about hundreds of thousands I don’t know anything.
When do you get holidays?
It’s usually a pattern that we take about a month off after the usual Japanese tour, but this year we had no Japanese tour, so it’s in November I think we get four weeks off now. And we get a week off here and a week off there.
[Tannoy: half-hour call, and an American woman’s voice reads out the repertoire]
You hear we’ve having the program announced? It seems unnecessary because we’re going to dance this program the whole week. But… we had a situation in Japan once, in Tokyo, the opening night. One of our dancers, new in the company, decided to change his dressing room. And he doesn’t know that we are doing Go For Barocco that evening, and he is the lead in it. So he’s in his dressing room - nobody knows where he is because he changed without telling anybody - with his headphones on listening to music, totally oblivious to the fact that his music has started and he is not on stage. And ever since then we’ve had the stage manager announce every evening what the program is. He was pale when he discovered what happened. It is the nightmare of any dancer. You wake up in the middle of the night sweating, thinking, I’m locked in the bathroom and I should be on stage.
Do you ever get asked to appear in cabaret shows or gay things?
Actually, we are well known with the drag movement, but I don’t think we’ve ever been asked to participate in that.
It always seemed to me that it was a line you needed to tread very carefully, because your comedy is serious. And there is a drag ballerina troupe in St Petersburg, I think, which is broader, isn’t there?
Actually, I think they are even more serious than us. That’s why they don’t have a large audience. There’s about three troupes in the world who do what the Trocks do, with different levels of success.
In England there’s a very strong music-hall and cabaret tradition of men dressing up as ballerinas. I assume you distance yourself from that.
We are doing real ballet. It’s true that we can make fun of the Queen or of Darcey Bussell, but we are actually good dancers too, making fun of what a dance performance is. So it does require a level of discipline to command respect from the dance community.
Which is what sets you apart from the others. Dancers respect what you do and see how genuinely good you are.
We don’t want to go too far on that, but they have come to our classes and seen that what we do in class is what they do in class, with different results. We’re not going to compare with the Royal Ballet, but you compare corps de ballet class here or there, and they’re similar. We are men and we still struggle a little to reach the level of the real ballerina status, but we do it with heart and soul.
And do you get praise from your idols? Like letters from Lopatkina?
I’ve never been in contact with one of my idols. So far, no. I know that Leanne Benjamin [principal of The Royal Ballet] came to one of our shows and participated - she did one of the entrances in our Swan Lake, and the audience recognized her and were ecstatic. It was very nice to see a prima ballerina could contact us in such a friendly way. She was very good friends with one of our dancers. Zenaida Yanowsky [also a Royal Ballet principal] was here at a show once and having a drink with us afterward, saying, “Guys, it was fantastic.” Dancers are really pleased with us, and they wish they could do what we do now and then when things get too serious.
So now finishing touches: lipstick and rouge. It’s amazing how it changes one to put on lips.
Definitely. I think that’s why Sveltlana likes red. It brings her up. Don’t try this in the street.
Have you ever had any bother after shows? Tory told me he had a nasty experience in Russia - some guys jumped on him. I presume the world has moved on. The Trocks have been going so long, 30 years.
More. I think it’s since 1974. 36 years.
So people in the company now were not even born.
Oh, half the company now are 19.
No wonder you are worried. But you don’t look your age.
I miss my old wig. If I was trying to look like a real lady I would try one with real hair, but this one isn’t, not at the price.
Actually it’s a lovely color - quite Cheryl Cole.
I’m afraid she’s not smelling very fresh today, I must give her a bath tonight. I must make it very tidy for the stage. You don’t want stray bits. You use a hairnet over the top.
Your chignon is like Alicia Markova’s. I imagine she is an idol for you - I look at those Ballets Russes hands of hers and I often think of the Trocks.
We have learned from all those generations and we adore all of them. Right now the world of dance would not be the same without having passed through Pavlova, Spessivtseva, Plisetskaya, Danilova, Ulanova. Markova, Zakharova, Darcey Bussell. They are all inspirations. They have their place in dance history.
What is your strength?
Darling, it’s my face! Believe me without this face I wouldn’t still be in the company. When you hit 35 and you can’t go up any more, it’s artistry - or your face - that keeps you in the company. I can do the basics of all dance movements, except balancing. I could jump, I could turn, I could move. But standing still on point was never my strong point.
I thought Gaynor Mindens helped?
Absolutely! That’s true, I’ve improved my balancing since I got them.
Am I holding you up?
No, it’s absolutely normal. Usually I’m just starting my bun at this point and starting to freak out.
Do you ever have complete malfunctions of your wardrobe on stage?
All the time. Yonny Manaure had a total open back in his dress in one of our pieces called Dance School. He was in a long dress, playing a ballet teacher, and his dress zip undid. And he didn’t know it had happened, and went on. He didn’t have to dance, just to parade around and present the ballerina. But when he turned to bow to the ballerina the entire audience started laughing and so were we, and he didn’t realize what was happening. He was looking everywhere. Yonny your costume’s open. He tried to go into to a corner and fix it, but it didn’t work. It was hilarious. Unfortunately it was impossible to reproduce again. We tried to incorporate the incident in the show but it didn’t work.
I saw Darcey Bussell dancing the final variation in Sleeping Beauty, and her tiara caught her tutu skirt and wouldn’t let go. She was doing her diagonal, the tiara was pulling down her hair, and she finished her final turns with her skirt up over her ears, her tiara down by her bosom and her hair everywhere.
Darcey! My heroine! She is very down-to-earth. That’s what I love about her, a real person with a true ballerina on top. A rare quality. I adore her. She is such a trouper. Raffaele and I came to London once just to see her on her holidays. We bought tickets and three nights in a hotel to see her doing Swan Lake with Roberto Bolle. She was injured and couldn’t do it. We got second-best. We got Marianela Nuñez. But we didn’t see Darcey.
Who are the Trocks of tomorrow?
Well, it’s difficult to make fun of the idols around us right now. You need a really good joke that works on their name. And you need people who have performing qualities to play the joke. I love Alina Cojocaru - and she has a name that has potential for a joke. Maybe one day… Two minutes to go. Now must get my dress.