One of the highlights of New York City's Fall for Dance Festival this year was an appearance by the Ballets Trockadéro de Monte Carlo, a company of men who dance on pointe with as much panache and style as any prima ballerina. Their performance of Paquita was funny, of course—they specialize in comic renditions of classical ballets— but also bracingly well executed. The star of the evening, Carlos Hopuy, aka Alla Snizova, was simply astonishing. His pointework sparkled, his hops on pointe were clean and strong, and he looked like he could have balanced in attitude forever. There was something deeply exciting about the way he combined delicacy and control with the explosive power and steel of a man's physique.
Hopuy, who was born in Havana, Cuba, and trained at the country's famed National Ballet School, has been with the company since 2012. Like all the Trocks, he has both a female and a male alter-ego: when he's not portraying Alla Snizova, he's Innokenti Smoktumuchsky, a dopey cavalier. He is also one of the dancers featured in the upcoming documentary Rebels on Pointe, which will have its theatrical release November 15 (click here for theaters and dates near you). I recently caught up with Hopuy, who, when he's not on tour, lives in Orlando with his husband Paolo Cervellera, a former Trock. We spoke by phone, in Spanish.
Did you always want to dance?
I always liked ballet. My mother, Norma Hopuy, was a principal with the Ballet de Camagüey. I used to hang around the rehearsals. She started giving me lessons at home. Then, when I was nine, I auditioned for the National Ballet School. I had the choice between that and gymnastics and I chose ballet.
When did you start going on pointe?
When I was 11. I would ask my classmates for their old pointe shoes and would try them on at home. When my mother realized that I liked to go on pointe, she started training me and bought me my own pair.
Giselle is a dream role for most any dancer, and now, Alberto Pretto can count himself as one of the few men to perform it. This month, he made his debut in Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo's Giselle (Act II). Pointe spoke with Pretto (aka Nina Immobilashvili) about the all-male company's comic twist on the classic.
Legendary Russian dancer and stager Elena Kunikova coached you in the role. What was that like?
More than just the steps, we worked on the character and telling the story through dance. She focused a lot on the way I carry my upper body. I have quite a long neck, so she told me to pull it forward in this very demure and sad position. We also worked on the moments we could make Giselle funny. If I take myself very, very seriously, I can make a joke out of it.
When Giselle comes out the grave. Our staging has a coffin that opens, and she comes out apologetically, like, Should I come out? Should I not come out?
What else gives this Giselle the Trockadero stamp?
It's all built on the relationships between the characters. Our Myrta is very strong and butch, and the Wilis aren't regular Wilis. They're almost like mummies. Their hair is all messed up, their faces are scary, they're pale.
How did you prepare?
Svetlana Zakarhova and Carla Fracci are my favorite Giselles, and I did a lot of video research. Carla is dramatic in everything, so by watching all those little moments, you can get the nuance and push it a bit further so that it becomes funny.
What's most difficult about the role of Giselle?
Carrying the upper body in a different way since it's not a ballet from the 20th century. Really understanding the épaulement, how she’s bending forward. Nowadays, we dance big, but this isn't about how high the leg is. And achieving the lightness was really hard, especially for a guy—we approach jumps with a lot of energy. For me, I had to work on getting the arms to be really, really light.
Earlier in your career, you danced with other companies like the English National Ballet. What was the road to the Trocks like?
I was in so-called "regular" companies for some time, but at a certain point, I didn’t feel very challenged or motivated. Most of the time I was partnering the girl, and I just wanted to dance more. And also, I always had this love for pointe shoes—which were forbidden for men but such a fascination for me. Finally, I was like, You know what? It’s the moment for me to embrace that and see if maybe this is something I would like to do. When I auditioned for the Trocks, I discovered this whole world and that it was okay for a man to dance on pointe and make a career out of it. That’s just beautiful.
Did you start pointework before you joined the company?
Yes. I would put them on in the corner when no one could see me after class. But I actually started training on pointe a couple months before auditioning for the Trocks. I joined a beginner ballet class for girls on pointe and started from scratch all over again. It was a humbling moment, for sure, but I felt like it was necessary for me to go through that to achieve the strength needed to go up on pointe properly. I needed that to get stronger technically.
Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo performs two mixed bills at The Joyce, in New York City, through Dec. 31.
Not every male dancer gets to take on roles like Swan Lake’s Odette, and Giannina in a restaging of Jules Perrot’s The Naïad and the Fisherman. But Philip Martin-Nielson isn’t your typical performer.
Martin-Nielson is a leading dancer with Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, the all-male troupe famous for its parodies of traditional ballets. Quite an accomplishment for someone who was once told he would never be capable of taking care of himself or living on his own.
Although you’d never know it by talking to him or watching him dance, Martin-Nielson has one of the most severe forms of autism. Diagnosed at age 3, he was unable to maintain eye contact or communicate and couldn’t bear to be touched.
But as he memorized and performed the dances he saw on “Barney and Friends,” he discovered that he could express himself through dance. After years of him begging, his mother signed him up for his first ballet class at age 6.
His focus and attention during classes were qualities his mother had never seen before. She knew this was something he had to keep doing. With the help of his teachers, Martin-Nielson learned to carry the discipline he had acquired from ballet over into his academics and day-to-day life. His speech, reading and social skills improved dramatically, and he learned various social cues through movement and observing others in the studio.
“I was always teased and bullied for being different,” Martin-Nielson says. “But, when I was in a ballet class, the bullying, the teasing, the hurt feelings, none of that mattered.”
Teachers at his hometown dance studio in Cornwall, New York, thought his slight build, expressive presence and comedic flair were a perfect fit for the Trocks, so they introduced him to pointe at age 12.
It was Halloween, Martin-Nielson recalls. Armed with a pair of pointe shoes and a tutu, he walked into his first pointe class. “If you fall, you’re taking the shoes off,” his teacher warned.
But Martin-Nielson didn’t fall. Rather, he took to pointework right away. Years later, when he transferred to the School of American Ballet (where pointe is not offered for men), he would practice in his dorm room.
When he was 17, he auditioned for Trockadero. “I wanted to hire him immediately,” says Paul Ghiselin, the troupe’s ballet master. “He just has this natural ability and talent. He really pushes the vocabulary of ballet to its ultimate.”
The Trocks don’t hire dancers who haven’t finished high school, but they encouraged Martin-Nielson to come back once he graduated. He did, and officially signed on with them in September 2012. Now 21, he’s the youngest member of the company.
“The Trocks have given me some wonderful opportunities I never thought I would be able to experience,” Martin-Nielson says. Besides the chance to dance classical roles, he’s had the opportunity to travel, since the company performs all over the world.
Martin-Nielson hopes sharing his story will promote awareness of dance as a therapy for autism, so others like him can achieve their goals and realize their dreams. “If you have a passion, keep going for it and keep doing it to the best of your ability,” he says. “No matter how many times somebody tries to shut you down.”
Pre-performance ritual: “Making sure my pointe shoes are clean and nice, and putting Band-Aids around the ribbons so they don’t come undone.”
Hidden talent: “I’m a costume designer. I can make anything out of any piece of fabric. And I love to do drag performances in the city!”
Guilty pleasure: “Watching Carol Channing.”
Dream role: “Kitri in Don Quixote. And it’s a role that I’m already working on in rehearsals.”