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How A Bunch Of Boys Changed Ballet Forever

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In some ways, Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo is like any other ballet troupe you might see pirouetting and dancing on pointe.

CHANA GAZIT: It's a group dressed up in tutus and heavy makeup and just ballerinas on the stage.

SHAPIRO: Chana Gazit is one of the directors and producers of a new PBS film that gets into what's different about the group. Her film is called "Ballerina Boys" because all the ballerinas in this troupe are male. Peter Anastos co-founded the Trocks, as they're known, in 1974.

PETER ANASTOS: So when you see the company's "Swan Lake" Act II, it's pretty much "Swan Lake" Act II like you would see it anywhere in the world. It's just it's slightly more brutal, I would say.

SHAPIRO: I asked him to explain a contradiction at the heart of the group's performances. The Trocks are a comedy troupe that also does serious ballet.

ANASTOS: You have to have a complete working knowledge of what it is you're making fun of and respect it and love it. Otherwise, it doesn't work. It's just mean and nasty and also not funny. And so most of us - me especially - were passionately interested in ballet history. I mean, we knew all the names of these crazy, forgotten ballerinas of the 19th century, and a lot of that was funneled into how the Trockaderos formed and how we made our ballets.

SHAPIRO: And, in fact, you all took Russian-sounding comedic names.

ANASTOS: I was Olga Tchikaboomskaya.

SHAPIRO: And what - give us a couple of your other favorites.

ANASTOS: Well, there was Ida Nevasayneva and the princess Eugenia Repelski because she was quite repellent.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) Paint a picture, if you would, of the culture when you founded this group in 1974. What was happening in the U.S., particularly in gay rights in that moment?

ANASTOS: Well, you know, Stonewall had just happened, although I must say we weren't so connected to that as we were just to the art scene. And the art scene, the dance scene in the 1970s - and certainly in '74 - it was called the dance explosion for a reason because there was a ballet company every 10 feet in New York. Everybody had their own modern dance company or little ballet company. And so we sort of appeared at the right moment, and people were ready for comedy and ready for a sendup of everything that was happening in the dance world.

SHAPIRO: Chana?

GAZIT: Well, it was really important for us in the film to really point to the Stonewall riots as kind of an ignition point, not only for politics, but this extraordinary creative energy that was unleashed by the movement. And I think that kind of energy was just in the air and was really fueling the ability to take the kinds of risks that the Trocks took. I mean, you're talking about a time when it was still illegal in some states for a man to wear women's clothing.

SHAPIRO: How aware were you that what you were doing was more than subversive? It was literally illegal in some states.

ANASTOS: We weren't totally aware of that, although we couldn't have done it probably in 1964. And by 1984, it was old hat. Politically, the Stonewall event made it possible for all this to become much more aware and people to have awareness.

SHAPIRO: The Trocks not only broke gender barriers, there were also racial barriers broken.

ANASTOS: Well, our leading ballerina was a Black man whose family came from the Caribbean. And Tony Bassae, his name was. He's since passed away, unfortunately. But Tony was chubby. And he was short.

SHAPIRO: And also the best dancer in the company.

ANASTOS: Phenomenal pointe work. I mean, we used to scream just watching him dance because it hurt so much, but he was unbelievable. And he was our first principal dancer.

SHAPIRO: And the top ballet companies at the time did not have Black ballet dancers in the leading roles.

ANASTOS: No. That's right. Misty Copeland's a little late to this party. I mean...

(LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: No shade to Misty Copeland, who is boundary breaking in her own right.

ANASTOS: I know. It's a shame that Tony Bassae never got the endorsements from, you know, like refrigerator companies and shoes and everything else and became a millionaire himself because he was doing this in the 1970s. And, you know, in a way that punched out another ceiling going forward. It wasn't just gender. It was also race.

SHAPIRO: The longevity of the group is incredible, particularly given the challenges that you overcame, including the AIDS crisis, which wiped out so many gay men across creative fields. How did it affect the Trocks?

ANASTOS: Well, I was already gone from the company by time that - the AIDS crisis got to be a real crisis. But I know that - and Chana could speak to this maybe a little bit better - I know that the company did lose an extraordinary number of people, more than decimated.

GAZIT: For me, the story of the Trocks is very much a story about survival. The AIDS epidemic was so profound. I mean, they lost half of their dancers. It was something I asked about a lot. You know, why did you keep doing this? And there was something about the need to affirm life and affirm beauty and in the belief in the power of art and beauty to give strength to move forward that I think motivated the survival of that company at a very, very dark time.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. Chana, if I could ask you to pretend Peter isn't here for a moment, 45 years after he founded this company, what do you see as his legacy?

GAZIT: You know, I think Peter was the one who just had that - whatever innate comedic sense was and how to bring comedy into ballet, I think that's Peter. The irony is that they took very classical ballets that often contemporary companies just don't perform anymore. It's too kind of boring and stodgy, they might think. And in a funny way, the Trocks now are the archive of these very classical ballets.

SHAPIRO: Peter, most people would be lucky to create anything in their lives that lasts nearly 50 years, perhaps longer. How does it feel that this is the thing you're known for, like, this is your legacy?

ANASTOS: Oh, God. Well, I don't know how to deal with it. All I know is my - I think my legacy is two really bad hips because all the work I did in those days. It's interesting that it did last all this time. You know, I'm surprised. I'm delighted. It's kind of really great. I went to work at the company a couple of years ago to stage another ballet for them. You know, I walked in the door. It was like Moses coming down with the tablets.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

ANASTOS: I mean, just - they could all be my grandchildren. I mean, that's what's so really bizarre about all this.

SHAPIRO: But to see young dancers who want to join this company that you founded in 1974 must be quite a feeling.

ANASTOS: They're way better dancers than I ever was, because technique has come so far. You know, it's just really, really rewarding. And it feels great.

SHAPIRO: Peter Anastos is one of the founders of Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, and Chana Gazit directed and produced with Martie Barylick the new documentary "Ballerina Boys." It's out now streaming on the PBS American Masters website.

Thank you both.

ANASTOS: Thank you.

GAZIT: Oh, thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.