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Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo

A peek beneath the tutu From Austin's Mike McKinley

By Jonelle Seitz, Fri., Feb. 3, 2012

Tatiana Youbetchabootskaya as the White Swan
Tatiana Youbetchabootskaya as the White Swan

On Feb. 7, Austin balletomanes will meet their match. It appears that no one loves ballet more than the drag ballerinas of Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, the 40-year-old New York–based parody ballet company, which will give one performance at the Long Center. In 1974, dance critic Arlene Croce perceived an affinity for "broken-down, touring-trunk, desperate-last-stand ballet" as the epicenter of the troupe's success. Since then, the repertoire has acquired parodies of neoclassical and modern dance, but the Trocks remain faithful to their stalwart and hilarious interpretations of classics like Swan Lake and Pas de Quatre, which pay homage to the originals while camping up the melodrama and diva-ism that ballet-lovers love (and others love to hate).

One balletomane who will be in the audience is Mike McKinley, who danced with the Trocks for more than a decade. McKinley's passion for and knowledge about the art are to be reckoned with, despite his unconventional education and trajectory. A native Austinite, McKinley began his artistic life as a talented member of the Austin High orchestra. Later, as a drama student at the University of Texas, he answered a call-board notice for men with "any acrobatic or gymnastics experience." Though he had no dance background, McKinley had arched feet and a good jump, and he soon found himself training with famed dancer Igor Youskevitch in the style of the old Russian school, practicing pirouettes and double tours as well as knocking back vodka shots while Youskevitch told of his days with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo.

After graduation, McKinley killed time shimmying among tables at the Country Dinner Playhouse until he was spotted in class by the Trocks' drill-sergeant ballet mistress and her charge of tour-weary, hungover, and at times lascivious New Yorkers, during a tour stop in 1978. When the company needed a replacement months later, McKinley, who had never seen a full-length classical ballet, was called to New York to spend entire workweeks rehearsing parodies of Swan Lake and Don Quixote. Feet calloused over, imperial choreography ingrained, McKinley took the stage and metamorphosed into the perky, high-jumping ballerina Tatiana Youbetchabootskaya (and, in male roles – all Trocks play both – a danseur called Igor Teupleze). He performed with the Trocks until 1991 (with a two-year break in the early Eighties), when he realized, before a fanatic Japanese audience, that Youbetchabootskaya's once airy pas de chat had begun to deflate.

Having never adjusted to life in New York, McKinley returned to Austin and UT, earning a degree in film studies and accepting a staff position at the university, where he works today. Now 57, he's at work on a memoir, Blood and Satin: Confessions of a Drag Ballerina, and he graciously let me read the first few chapters. Aside from documenting, from a unique perspective, the dance boom of the late Seventies and subsequent terrible losses to AIDS (McKinley counts two of his dearest friends among them), the manuscript refers to a "vortex of tulle, vodka, and rosin" that the Trocks inhabited during that period. I asked McKinley whether this vortex had something to do with the obsession with old ballet.

The diva-ballerina personae and real identities merged, he says. "The management at the time seemed to be under the illusion – or delusion – that we were really a Russian ballet company. And they loved to sit, like a bunch of Russians around a table, drinking into the wee hours, and talk as if we really were a company of exiled Russian ballet dancers who had escaped a revolution. And even though we did not wear diamonds – we wore rhinestones – there was enough of the old world lying in shrinking puddles around us that we could really sort of believe that we were carrying the flame, if nothing else. And that is the vortex of rosin, tulle, and vodka, where you really start to believe that you're a Russian ballerina."

It's no wonder that assimilating your identity with an impossibility has permanent and painful effects; McKinley struggled with alcoholism after retiring from dancing and hasn't had a drink in 12 years. But for him, "being a dancer is the most wonderful thing in the world, because once you're a dancer, you're always a dancer" – with or without the rhinestones.

Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo will perform Tuesday, Feb. 7, 7:30pm, in Dell Hall at the Long Center, 701 W. Riverside. For more information, call 474-5664 or visit www.thelongcenter.org.

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