Men in tutus, feathers flying, dancing Swan Lake en pointe. At first glance, it might be easy for people to dismiss Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo as something silly and frivolous, and it certainly is that, but it’s so much more. Their website describes what they do as “Savagely funny satire meets seriously stunning ballet. Dancing the fine line between high art and high camp.”
I’ve seen many different dance companies, but I have to say that seeing the Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo last time they were in Philadelphia was one of my favorite experiences. I’m excited that they are coming back this weekend, and I was delighted to have a chance to meet a longtime member of the troupe, Giovanni Ravelo.
Tell me about your origins.
I’m originally from Colombia. Philadelphia was the first city I came to in March 2003. It’s gonna be 19 years pretty soon. I started dancing a little bit late, when I was 17 years old. As a kid I did folk dancing in my country but I never realized that ballet existed until I was already a teenager. For many reasons in my home town there was no ballet available, in part because of the culture; ballet was not for boys. [Laughing] But when I did take my first ballet class, I fell in love and I started taking as many classes as I could to catch up! My first seven years in Bogata, which is the capital of Colombia (I’m not from there, I’m from a smaller city), I started dancing with the Ballet Colombia, which does a lot of folk dancing, but they also teach technique from ballet and they asked me to take classes. So I was performing folk dance and learning ballet at the same time, but it was amazing. I had great teachers who sent me to Cuba on two occasions to do intensives, which helped me to have a good basis for a career in ballet.
How did you get here?
My ballet teacher used to come here to do a ballet in Scranton every spring. I told her that I wanted to have the American experience, and to please help me to do that, and she’d say, “Okay, okay, let me see…” I think probably she was waiting to see if I got stronger as a dancer so she could recommend me. Finally she said, “This year we’re going to do Romeo and Juliet in Colombia so I’m going to propose we do it in Scranton too and I’m going to tell them I want you to travel and do Romeo.” So in 2002, I came to Scranton, touring with Ballet Colombia and at the end of the tour I asked for permission to stay in Scranton. I didn’t know a lick of English, nothing, and everyone was like, “Why do you want to go to Scranton?”
Yeah, I never imagined Scranton as a mecca for dance!
Right? It would have been another thing if I’d said I’d want to go to New York, or Philadelphia, they would have understood that. But that’s what it was. Later, I was traveling by bus and it stopped in Philadelphia and we had a layover for about 2 hours. So I was like, “Okay, let me go look around” and it was so amazing. I liked it better than New York and I thought, “I wish I could one day live here.” Little did I know that in just 6 months I would move to Philly. So back to Scranton, I went there and auditioned — they trusted my teacher from Colombia that I was good — but they wanted to see me with my Juliet to see if there was any chemistry there, blah, blah, blah. The girl playing Juliet at the time was a Rockette.
Yes, so she was very tall, I’m fairly tall, but in pointe shoes, she was as tall as me. But we hit it off immediately, we’ve been a couple since we met, a stage couple. We love each other even though, of course, she didn’t speak any Spanish. They were like, “Okay, after class, you’re going to teach Karen one of the dance moves and let’s see how it works, how you look together.” Me trying to explain it was: “and now we do this, and now we have to kiss,” and getting it all on video for the director was crazy, but it worked. The director actually cried when she saw it. It’s unbelievable how dance can break barriers.
After that, they offered me a contract, I got my visa and came to Scranton in 2003. When it was time for the visa to expire, a friend suggested that I ask the woman with the Scranton Ballet to extend it. They didn’t really have a company, they just did 2 shows a year, the Nutcracker and a spring show. I was embarrassed to impose and ask her, but she immediately said, “Where do I sign?” and gave me a contract to teach and do other things that I could do outside of Scranton. I got a scholarship to take lessons at The Rock School for a year. From there I auditioned for the Roxey Ballet and they gave me a 3 year contract and sponsored me for my green card.
At the end of that run, I was 29, which is like 80 for a dancer. I was feeling tired and old and getting bored, blah, blah, blah and looking to do something else and a friend said to me, “There’s this company in New York that’s really unique. The guys dance en pointe and they’re funny…” and I was like, are you crazy, I’m a serious ballet dancer! [Laughs] Then I went to the Free Library and rented a video about them and I realized that they were a really prestigious company that traveled all over the world.
I had never worn pointe shoes before, and arrived without any experience with it. It was hard at first, but my body adjusted very well and now I love it. I love the challenge and the beauty of point work. At Trock, they have a special way of working, a unique dynamic. Everyone learns everything, there’s no principal dancer, there’s no ranking, so everyone has an opportunity to dance featured roles if they work hard. When I auditioned for them, the director said that they liked me but wouldn’t have any positions open until later in the year. But after I got finished, I was still in the studio dancing with one of their dancers, and the director got a call. He came back into the room and said, “Can you join right now?” I was like, “Say what!?!” Something had happened to one of their dancers and just like that they had an opening and that’s how I started my 13 year journey with Trocadero.
That’s exciting! But let’s go back to the beginning a little. What was it like growing up in Colombia?
I think I was very lucky, Colombia is a very colorful and happy and joyful country, and for a kid it was amazing. I have only happy memories from my childhood. I have a very lovable father who noticed that I was different. I grew up with a sister and younger brother and I was always… not feminine, but delicate. I didn’t like getting rough and dirty, and I grew up in an area that was defined a lot by the culture of machismo. The men are rough and tough and have a way of speaking that sounds like we are giving orders.
And it was interesting because my father was like that, and I grew up with my dad and my step mom because my parents got divorced when I was 7. Every Christmas when we’d get presents, I was always more excited about the dolls that my sister got. I remember one time my father came home, and I was playing with my sister, combing the hair on her Barbie dolls while my brother was playing with his cars. Instead of reacting, he sat down with us and started playing with the dolls with us.
So when people ask me what was your father’s reaction when he saw you on stage dressed up as a girl, I have that beautiful memory. And he’s never said anything negative about it. He’s seen the show and it wasn’t a problem.
Did you get any pushback from other people?
Not really, but that was because when I was younger, I didn’t dance ballet, I did folk dancing, which was acceptable for boys to dance. I was lucky; I was never bullied growing up. [Laughing] I was probably the one doing the bullying! I was a very good student but sometimes when you’re trying to hide something, you do it by trying to make other people feel bad so that they don’t get close enough to see what you’re hiding. When I moved to the capital in Bogota everything was different.
When I was 17, I started living with my mom. I’d always kept in touch with her but that’s different than living with someone. I had this little boyfriend that I broke up with when I moved to the city, and he started calling me non-stop. She saw me hanging up on him, or he’d call and I’d tell her to say I wasn’t home. After three weeks of that, she asked me if I was gay. She asked me very casually, so I guessed she was okay with it and I said yes. She started crying and blaming herself and the divorce and going on and on. I stopped her and said, “Mom, you’ve known that I was gay since I was 7.” She said “No! I thought you were different, but not gay!”
It was crazy, but she got over it quickly and became my biggest fan. She’d always wanted to be a dancer, but she was sent to a girl’s school with Catholic nuns. It’s funny, since there were no boys, when they did a show, she’d have to play the boy. So when I joined the Trocks and wore a tutu, she was very supportive.
What’s one of your favorite dance numbers?
I love the whole repertoire with the Trocks. I love classical ballet, but when I found it I wasn’t sure I could do it because I started so late. Playing the prince in Swan Lake was always a role I dreamed of performing when I started. I never imagined that I’d be able not only to do the boys’ roles, but also the girls’. I also like the grand Russian ballet numbers like Paquito. I love it because we get to wear the tutus, even though it’s terrifying!
What’s scary about a tutu?
Because you can’t see your legs! So it’s a weird feeling, especially the first time you do it. There’s also a corset, so the breathing is not the same. That was scarier than the actual point shoes the first time I went on stage as a ballerina. You really have to work on your technique.
What’s the craziest thing that’s happened on stage?
Often, there are very serious dances and you really have to keep in character. One time I was doing a modern dance, and one of the dancers fell and his wig was crooked on his head and I just lost it. The stage manager was so mad, she told us she almost closed the curtain, but we just couldn’t stop laughing.
What’s a favorite city you’ve been to?
Tokyo. Japan in general actually. It’s the one place I never tire of going back to. I’ll say, yes, yes, always if asked. It’s so clean and organized, everything works well and they have a perfect mix of being modern but preserving the history and tradition. And the people are incredibly friendly, they treat us like rock stars. In kabuki theater, the men dress as women, so it’s something that they’re used to. As a result, sometimes, I don’t think they know that we’re gay. I get a lot of fan letters and marriage proposals. But if there’s one place you should see before you die, forget Europe, forget Australia, forget the states. Go to Tokyo.
What celebrity partner would you like to dance with?
Silvie Giillem, when I was young, she was a big dance star in Paris.
You must have met a lot of celebs? Who impressed you?
I’m not really into the celebrity thing, but I met Denzel Washington outside of the studio and I froze when I saw him. He was so nice and told me that we were the stars. In LA, Cameron Diaz came to the show and she came backstage screaming she was so excited. She’s surprisingly tall. Oh, and Pedro Almodóvar came backstage in Madrid.
Favorite piece of clothing?
Shoes, I’m into shoes. All different styles, they’re the only thing I really like to pick out on my own.
Are you single or partnered?
I’m married. He’s a Brazilian guy and we got married here in Philadelphia. It’ll be 9 years in July. I met him 5 days after he came to Philadelphia. He didn’t speak any English and very little Spanish. He was struggling trying to talk to the front desk at the gym and so I said that I spoke a little Portuguese. After I helped him, we exchanged numbers and now we’re married, we have two cats, and I speak Portuguese fluently.
What do you like to do when you’re not dancing?
I love to read a lot. My mom was a big influence with that, I need to have at least 3 books by my bed and I read them all. And now with books on my cell, I have about 6 there. I also love to choreograph and have been working on a project in my home country teaching my style of choreography. I got to create my first piece last year with the Trocks. I also like going to the movies, when it’s allowed! I like the more independent kind of movies, and my husband is into the blockbuster films, [laughing] so I go by myself a lot.
So I understand that you’re wrapping things up onstage.
Yes, I’m transitioning from performer to the production side of things. I pretty much did my big farewell in Bogota, and it was so sweet. My 4 year old nephew came to the show. He was really well behaved until intermission when he started screaming that he wanted to see me, that he wanted to give me a hug. They explained that there was going to be a 2nd half and that I was going to dance again.
The first half was all contemporary pieces, so I wasn’t dressed as a girl, but in the second half I closed with the dying swan in Swan Lake. At the end, I came out in costume to take pictures, and he was again saying that he wanted to come say hi to me. His mother was afraid it might throw him off seeing me like that but he saw me and RAN to me and threw his arms around me. He recognized me even in all the makeup. It was so beautiful.
Everyone is always afraid that kids won’t understand something, but it’s the adults who don’t always understand. He picked up one of the feathers and gave it to me. I just love kids.
What advice do you have for young dancers?
Treat the talent that you’ve been given with respect. You don’t have to be a part of that tik tok 10 seconds of instant fame world. You want immediate applause, but take the time to really cultivate your work as an artist, not just dance moves. People don’t leave the theater going “Oh, he did this, and this, specific steps.” They leave the theater saying, “That moved me, or made me laugh and feel better.” That’s what you want to strive for.