Over the past three years, drag queens have become a red-hot target for right-wing activists and politicians. Since 2021, politicians have written bills to ban drag shows and protesters have either disrupted, protested against or worked to cancel hundreds of drag queen story hour events nationwide, according to the LGBTQ media monitoring group GLAAD.
Yet while the rise in public outrage over this population of artists is a recent phenomenon, the art of drag is nothing new. From the days of ancient Greece to the mid-1600s, men played all the female roles onstage. Then in the 1880s the first official drag queen arrived. William Dorsey Swann, a freed slave from Maryland, billed himself as “the queen of drag” and hosted drag balls for other former slaves in Washington, D.C.
Another pioneer in the art of drag artistry is Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, which is marking its 50th anniversary this year with a national tour that arrives next weekend at the Balboa Theatre in San Diego. Their tour program will feature scenes from “Swan Lake” and “Paquita” and a piano ballet.
The company was founded in 1974 in New York City by 10 male dancers who donned tutus and performed for an audience at the social center in Manhattan. The company’s aim was to parody traditional classical ballet works and famous prima ballerina roles with professional male ballet dancers costumed in drag, playing all the male and female roles and dancing on pointe.
The Trocks, as they’re affectionately known, started out as a New York stage show, then expanded to touring the U.S. and Canada. Today, the troupe has performed in 43 countries and more than 660 cities worldwide.
While there’s oodles of camp, playfulness and pratfalls in Trocks shows, the company members take their work very seriously. Their training is rigorous, including learning to dance on the tip of their toes (on pointe), which is a painful skill usually reserved for women dancers.
The Trocks company has 15 international dancers. Each dancer has two drag alter-egos, one male and one female, and all with hilarious biographies.
For example, Spanish dancer Kevin Garcia joined the company in 2017. His two stage personas are Elvira Khababgallina and Sergey Legupski. Tokyo native Shohei Isahama joined the Trocks in March 2022. His onstage drag IDs are Anya Marx and Chip Pididouda. And newcomer Matias Dominguez Escrig, a native of Chile who joined the company last October, dances onstage as Gerd Törd and Pavel Törd.
Jake Speakman, a Philadelphia native who joined the company in November 2021, didn’t start out with he goal of being a ballet dancer in the Trocks.
In middle school, he auditioned for a musical on a whim. He enjoyed it so much, he decided to start dance classes.
“I just did the ballet, jazz, and tap, hating ballet at first. And eventually, I really loved it,” said 24-year-old Speakman.
In his teenage years, Speakman studied at the Academy of International Ballet in Media, adding some classes at Philadelphia’s Rock School for Dance Education. He went to high school at the Pennsylvania Leadership Charter School’s Center for Performing and Fine Arts in West Chester and moved to New York for his senior year to study ballet.
But while he was talented enough to join a traditional ballet company, at 5 feet, 4 inches, he would have had trouble partnering a ballerina who may be 6 feet tall on pointe. So instead, he went to college for dance.
During his senior year at Marymount Manhattan College, he asked to take an advanced pointe class. He would be a beginner in a class with women who had been studying for about a decade. If he were serious, the department head said, he would have to explain his reasons in a short essay.
In that essay, he talked about his desire to join the Trocks, as members of the ballet company are known.
That said, he still thought he had a shot at a traditional ballet company, and he arranged for auditions. But that was in the spring of 2020, when companies were shutting down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and no one was hiring. When he had his next chance, he aimed right for the Trocks and got in.
New Trock company members are assigned their alter-ego names. Speakman’s are Colette Adae and Timur Legupski.
“I’m apparently, I think, a French girl,” Speakman said of his female persona, “who grew up in the basement of the Paris Opera House and learned ballet through the rats to become a star. Very Cinderella.”
Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo
When: 7:30 p.m. Feb. 2
Where: Balboa Theatre, 868 Fourth Ave., San Diego
Tickets: $63 and up
Ellen Dunkel of The Philadelphia Inquirer contributed to this report.