Focus on Paul Ghiselin – Ballet Master for The Trocks

Paul Ghiselin muses on life with Ida Nevasayneva and on his role as ballet-master with the Trocks.


Mary Brennan

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Bring me my Swan costume...

For thousands of Trocks fans worldwide, there is one repertoire piece that they never tire of watching, and that’s The Dying Swan. Different ballerinas bring different nuances of interpretation to the role, but one gallant old bird – namely Ida Nevasayneva – has, for well over a decade, plumbed new heights of pathos and scaled fresh depths of comedy in this solo of memorably moulting moments. Time, surely, to find out more about Ida, and the man behind her remarkable career.

On starting out as a Trock...

“I joined the Trockadero in 1995. I was 33 years old. I’d already danced for 13 years in a contemporary ballet company and I wanted to do the classics. Actually, I also wanted to bring laughter to dance.” Paul Ghiselin delivers the plain facts in a business-like way – but there’s a slightly amused air, as if he still finds it the daffiest, grandest thing in the world for a tall, very tall and lanky-lean guy to be cheered to the rafters for donning a tutu and pointe-shoes and mischievously spoofing Pavlova’s ‘greatest hit.’

The mischief, you discover, really matters, as Paul goes on to explain that part of the Trockadero attraction was the chance to exercise his penchant for acting. “In my previous company, we did a lot of dramatic pieces – I was always picked as the villain. I’d be the libertine, the evil guy who lures the innocents astray… And I loved those roles, because I got to add some acting into the performance. But there was seldom any humour in these choreographies, so when I got the chance to join Trockadero – put on a personna, poke fun at ballet, as well as keep on  dancing – it was really very attractive to me.”

He didn’t know at the time that he was about to encounter the woman who has since influenced his life and led him a merry – actually a truly hilarious – dance all around the world. “When I first talked with Tory (Dobrin, the Trocks artistic director) about the job, he said ‘I think your stage name is going to be Ida Nevasayneva’ – and I thought ‘oh my Lord, what a name. There’s a lot to live up to, with a name like that.’ Then he said ‘I think I’m going to have you do Dying Swan.’ And I thought ‘wow! I’m not really dancing with the company yet and he’s giving me this rather coveted role…’ Right off the bat, there was a lot to live up to. And here we are. Thirteen years now, and I’ve been doing Dying Swan ever since.”

On Ida Nevasayneva

And thirteen years since he first looked into a dressing-room mirror and saw Ida Nevasayneva staring back in that Swan costume… So, what’s she like? Paul leans back in his chair, and ‘thinks Ida’ for a few moments. When he does speak, there’s a real affection in his voice. “I always think of Ida as some-one who eats, sleeps and breathes DANCE. It’s in every moment of her life. Even paying the bills has something to do with dance,” and he gives a quick toss of the head, and with a wave of the arm deposits those boring bills on the table… the quick frisson of the shoulders says ‘uhhn – nasty, unaesthetic, common things…’

He’s smiling now. “She’s a bit neurotic about standards – she does tendus (an exercise that stretches the foot) in her bed at night, so she falls asleep thinking of ballet technique. She can be a real old war-horse when it comes to class or performing – hates to miss even a moment… But – what can I say? – she can’t do what the younger girls do. Actually, she doesn’t care. She’s an artiste. She believes in herself. So she’s going to give it everything she’s got.”

Any similarities there, Paul? The twinkle in the eye is a giveaway. “Well, being a bit older when I came into the company could have been a bit intimidating. I couldn’t do 32 fouettes (those legendary whiplash spins, on one leg, done by Odile in Swan Lake). I hadn’t trained on pointe ever and it did not come easily to me. I’m long-limbed, have very flexible ankles – yes, probably more of a flamingo than a swan. But I do have a very good understanding of classicism – I also have a very clear picture of what I look like – so I knew I could deliver the buffoonery, but I also knew what it meant to get it looking right. And both elements had to be in there. So you put on the pointe-shoes and you rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. And you go on-stage, and you just go for it.”

On being Ballet Master

Listening to how he analyses and codifies what it means – what it takes – to be a Trock, you can see why he’s now also the company’s ballet-master. Everywhere the Trocks tour, there are countless eager wannabes who long to be part of the fun – and who think, perhaps, that all they need to do on-stage is goof around a bit. Put in a prat-fall here, a moment of over-egged mugging there – and then claim centre-stage for some whizzy pointe-work and prepare to collect bouquets and ovations. With an air that says ‘because I’m worth it…’

This is where some-one like Paul, who understands the mechanics of comedy – and how the Trocks actually use the broad strokes with a degree of subtletly that keeps the burlesque evergreen and entertaining – gets the newbie Trock back on track. “I always say ‘if you tell a joke and you have to say the punchline twice – you’ve lost the moment, it’s not funny.’ Because a lot of guys come into the company and they want to put in the funny face, or the trip up, right away. And that’s really when you have to stop them and say ‘you’re doing the punchline twice, now. Let it alone.’ Oh sure, they don’t all believe you when you tell them to hold off. They’re convinced more is more – but actually, there’s a lot less you have to do, than pour on the exaggeration. You find that out from the audience’s reaction. The humour is choreographed in. It’s been worked on, it’s there. It has a structure, a rhythm, that’s been tried and tested. So usually, when the guys join, I don’t let them do anything – I let them see other people doing it, so as they can get a feel for it. And then it clicks. And they don’t want to spoil it by adding in unnecessary stuff.”

That said, stuff – unpredictable, random, oops-and-yikes stuff – happens, regardless of how well prepped everyone is. “Can unexpected things occur? I’d say it’s almost guaranteed! That’s why you always have to stay ‘present’ – you can’t, ever, tune out. Not for a moment. Because if something happens, you have to be able to work with it – and I use that phrase, over and over, with the guys. I tell them: if you make a mistake – work with it. Accidents can be treasures in hiding – work with it and it can turn into something really funny, over the top maybe, but special because of how you’ve engaged with it.”

On injuries...

If accidents can become a laughing matter, injuries never can. And in a relatively small company, like the Trocks, it can be hard to strike the right balance between ‘the show must go on – regardless’ and ensuring that dancers take the time to rest and recover from pains and strains. “You have to know just how much to push,” says Paul – and the twinkle is back in force as he says “Humans are, by nature, lazy beasts who like to sit around and talk, so sometimes you have to give them a little… encouragement. But that’s not, it never is, an invitation to take serious risks. I’d say,  mostly, the push is all in the head. Dance, actually, is all in the head. You’ve got to think about it before you do it. Prepare the mind – then you hand it over to the body.”

The fact that Trocks’ bodies are all male – with very few of them trained, from early years, to dance in pointe shoes – somehow means that they all bring something not just different, but genuinely special to the role of ballerina. Paul is quietly, intensely eloquent, when he talks about this. “We are a very distinctive entity – not, by anyone’s standards, ‘just another dance company.’ Our repertoire is very much rooted in the vocabulary of the past – those great Imperial Russian ballets that you don’t see so often nowadays. But for us, it’s not just the vocabulary, but the spirit. So many people get into the athleticism of the technique, they leave behind the spirit, the poetry that was intended with these pieces. They were, yes, mostly about unrequited love – all those tensions that human beings have – but these ballets looked at those same, familiar subjects in a different way. And if you don’t put those emotions into the performance, then all you’re soing is steps. What we try to bring back, is that connection with the spirit, the grandeur of emotions – a little bit of that awe from yesteryear.”

On time off...

Even the most devoted Trock, however, relishes the prospect of some down-time when the pointe-shoes can be swapped for easy-on-the-toes loafers. “On tour, we go all out – and it’s fun. New places, new experiences – and old friends, because it’s great when audiences look forward to you coming back because they enjoy the work. But it’s great when it stops for a while and we can go back to our loved ones, our own bed, our mail. Me? I unwind by doing nothing. I just go into a ‘quiet mode’ – I’ll sit there, maybe catch up on mail. Sometimes I’ll knit. Visit the family – eat, talk, but essentially I’ll be doing nothing. As for Ida?” He laughs. “Ida also does nothing – but in her own way, as ever.”