MITCH: To begin with, how did you get started in ballet?
VICTOR: That’s a long story! I started a long time ago. I started actually after college. I had this woman that I knew that used to go out dancing in clubs came up to me and said ‘You know I teach this dance class, this jazz dance class’ and said ‘ I think you’d really be good’ and you know of course all I’m hearing is ‘She thinks I’m good!’ I wasn’t hearing the fact that what she is looking for is people to come take her class [laughs]. So of course…me and a friend went and started taking these classes and it was at a professional ballet location—a school. And there weren’t that many—there never is that many—men in any of these places, so they were like, ‘Guys just walked in!’ So the director came up and said ‘We’d love to give you a scholarship!’ And I mean, I could barely, I had two left feet, I could barely walk. But it didn’t matter, I was a guy. And so they gave me a scholarship and just fell in love with dance. And before I knew it, I was there all the time. And that’s kind of how it happened. You know then from there, that place become a professional dance company here, it became Ballet Florida. And then as they were growing I realized, even as they are growing, they are not growing at the pace that I’m going to be growing at. You know, they’ll probably be where I want to be 10 years from now, which will make me too old to really do what I want to do. So I went ahead and I moved to New York. I got lucky, I found a job, and I started traveling around the world dancing. So that’s how it happened!
M: What were some of your first few adventures in the professional world?
V: Well, my professional experience mostly deals with comedy dance. You know, I went to New York, and I’m kind of one of those people who if I’m happy somewhere I just stay there, and I was pretty happy where I was, and the company did a lot of touring, that first company that I joined was called Ballet Trockadero de Monte Carlo. It’s a pretty well-known comedy dance troupe. And after a couple years I was doing all the lead roles. So it was a wonderful experience. I got to go all over the world. I got to go to South America and Russia and Japan, and all over the US and Canada. So it was a pretty amazing experience. And a couple of times I tried other little odds and ends jobs, but that was kind of the main thing. I was very happy doing what I was doing.
And then from there I started my own company, and the same type of genre still, still comedy dance. And I got very lucky, I had some people sponsor and we performed a lot. We ended up on the cover of Dance Magazine and worked. I’ve been directing now for over 20 years, a long time!
M: What do you love about directing?
V: Oh gosh! You know, I direct because somebody’s got to. I don’t know if I really enjoy it so much [laughs]. There’s good things about it. The wonderful thing about it is that you are able to set your own path, and then bring other people along with you. When you are a dancer you can’t do that. And if you have an interesting idea, you can pursue it. And if you aren’t the person in charge you can pitch the idea, but there’s no guarantee that your idea will happen. There’s a lot of costs too in terms of having to put up with a lot of problems and that it’s a lot of work, and there’s things that aren’t fun to do. But the payoff is that you are able to be the master of your own destiny.
M: Are there any particular ballet shows,as you look back through the years, that rise to the top as favorites for you?
V: There’s favorite dance moments. There are a lot of achievements over the years here and there. I never think of it as one specific show. Sometimes being in a specific location stands out, that we went somewhere, but I probably can’t tell you what that show was. And then there’s other places where I can remember something amazing happening on stage for me personally. And I many not be able to remember the year. So it’s just jointed. There’s different aspects of each thing that comes back to me where I go ‘wow, that was pretty incredible!’
And being on the cover of Dance Magazine was a pretty incredible moment for me. I got to dance with one of the top dancers in the world, I did a duet with him, and that was an incredible moment. My company was the first comedy company to perform in China in 2001. So we were performing in this communist country. And this time we just went back, we are probably one of the first companies to travel China extensively. We did 15 cities. That’s a lot of cities where a lot of very few Western companies get to experience that, so that’s a pretty amazing thing. We did a 6-month tour of Australia and New Zealand. That almost killed me [laughs]. I mean, traveling on a bus with the same 20 people for 6 months was pretty difficult. But it was also amazing, I mean we became like a family. So there’s a lot. It’s hard to point at one thing and go ‘this is one.’ There just been a lot of highlights. So I’m very lucky.
M: Are there any of those highlights or ballet moments you could tell us the story of? Anything that was really special for you?
V: I’ll tell you this one funny story. When I first started directing, and this is my second company. The first company I directed was called Grandiva. This one’s called Eloelle now, the one that I’m doing now. And Grandiva I think in our 3rd season we were in Japan. And we do parodies of different ballets. And every year I would bring new things. And there’s this duet that I really liked that was choreographed by this man named Roland Petit who was very famous, very famous man in the dance world. So I had it in my mind that I would I was going to do this. We announce everything that we’re going to be doing. But because so many, during the rehearsal period, there was many things we had to put together. And I kept putting it off and putting it off until very near the end. So we got down to pretty much the end and I still hadn’t put it together. So I kind of threw it together very quickly and even though I hadn’t completely done it exactly the same way, I did it quite similar to the original. Which is not what you’re supposed to do. And in my mind I thought ‘Well I’ll change it later on some more. What are the chances of Mr. Roland Petit finding out and writing me a letter and telling me that he’s going to sue me?’ And I thought ‘The chances of that are really small, you know so we’ll be okay and who knows, this ballet may not even go that well.’
It’s a duet called Carmen, which I’m sure you’ve heard that music, it’s very famous. And on top of everything else, we were doing a TV show. We were being filmed with a Japanese comedian. So, a lot of things were happening for this opening performance in Tokyo. So we’re dealing with this comedian, and he wants to do these things in our show, and it’s like a high-rated television show. It was the highest rated television show at the time. So it was a very important thing for us in terms of publicity to be doing this. And so we’re working with him and we’re getting ready for the show and the comedian is getting ready for the show, and everyone. And I have a person that works for me that’s called the ‘ballet master’ and he kind of watches over the show and keeps everything together and tells people what’s wrong. And anyway, he comes running up to me he says ‘We have a small problem.’ And I said ‘What?’ And he said ‘Roland Petit is going to be in the audience tonight.’ I’m like ‘Excuse me? He’s French and from Europe and we’re in Tokyo.’ And he goes ‘Yeah, well he’s setting a piece on the Tokyo ballet and he happens to be here, and his ballet master is a good friend of mine and I invited them just thinking they weren’t coming. But they accepted and they are coming into the audience tonight.’ It was like that moment of ‘Oh my God, what am I going to do!? Is he going to like it? Is he going to be mad? What’s going to happen?’ So I immediately said ‘Please find them, wherever they are sitting, and move them to house seats, give them program books. Treat them as well as you can.’ And so we forgot about them, we did the show.
And at the end of the show they said Mr. Petit wants to come back and he wants to speak to you. And I was like ‘Oh my gosh, what is going to happen?’ So he walks up afterwards and he shakes my hand and he goes ‘Your show was really wonderful’ and he goes, ‘That choreography to Carmen, I think it was really wonderful!’ And I was like ‘Oh my God, is he being sarcastic?’ [laughs] I said, ‘Mr. Petit, you know I’ve always loved that piece, I hope you aren’t offended, and I’ve always wanted to perform that and bring it to this audience. And he said ‘No, if you’re ever in the city where I work, please come and I will rehearse you.’ So it turned out good. And he said that he was very happy. So it turned out to be a good thing. But you know, that’s a story that of course, it’s one of the many stories that stands out in my career.
M: What do you see about the current state of ballet as an artform, and how digital scenery or projections might be a part of that world? (In reference to us, Theatre Ave, partnering with his ballet company to produce projections for Swan Lake)
V: Well it was very interesting, because you know using digital media for backdrop is still, especially in ballet, is still not, it hasn’t really caught on 100 percent yet, especially in the bigger companies. It’s still mostly fabric paintings. And a lot of that of course has to do with when you have a backdrop that’s digital it becomes harder to light. Especially it’s harder to light the stage. There’s a lot of things about it that become more difficult. And there’s a lot of places that don’t have the actual facilities to do projections. And so this was my first time trying a projection. And interestingly enough, the Chinese producer kept saying ‘Well we have LED lights in a couple of the theatres, so that’s going to be different.’ Well, what they meant was, they didn’t mean ‘LED lights’ because I was thinking with LED lights, it’s a different kind of light. What they meant was that they had an LED screen. So the LED screen made it the digital background incredible.
So I hadn’t even thought that that was what we were going to have. But China is pretty ahead. The older theaters didn’t have that, but a lot of the newer theaters they did have the giant LED screen. We used projection a could of times. But the LED screens were better. So this is my first experience with that. But of course the big problem with all of this is, this is one of the reasons why we talked about doing the same image painted in different ways, is that once you have an LED screen or projection, once you change the lighting on the stage the backdrop doesn’t change. Which is not what happens in traditional theatre. If you change the lighting on the stage, you can change the lighting on the backdrop and it will change the feeling of that image. So that was one of the reasons I discussed with you [Mitch], how we could do that. And I think what we came up with was using several different images. Because my idea wasn’t to go so far as to get people to look at the backdrop. The backdrop has still got to look still like it’s a traditional drop. It has to add to the show not become the show. And if you do too much with it, it will be distracting. People will go ‘Oh wow, look at what they are doing behind there, it’s a movie!’ But then you stop watching the people dance around. You know, so a lot of that had to be subtle. But you know, this was our first chance to try this.
So you know, I crossed my fingers. I didn’t know how it was going to work. But it worked really really well. So I was very excited. Very happy with it. I wish actually you [Mitch] could have experienced it.
M: In the world of theatre, one of the things we are doing is adding subtle movements into the backdrops, because that’s one advantage of using digital as opposed to something more traditional. That you can have things that add a little more atmosphere or even punctuate a moment. How do you think about that as it relates to ballet? Is that still too much or do you think there’s some potential there?
V: No, because some of that, some of the subtle things like that, like clouds moving, is already done traditionally, can be done with gobos and there’s ways to have that. I think it can be done, but it’s got to be introduced slowly. I think the audience…if it becomes too much it will become the show, as opposed to accentuating the stuff on the stage. Interestingly enough, the images that you [Mitch] sent me, and when we would transition, because I think they used…Powerpoint. They used Powerpoint and they said that it transitioned from one image to another and so it actually looked like there was a light change happening, as opposed to a change in the image because the colors – everything was set exactly the same. So it looked like the moon all of sudden started getting brighter. Which was wonderful.
And that type of change I think could be quite exciting and interesting. I think a lot could be done. But the main thing is obviously the transitions to be good and seamless and you have to obviously have the right stuff to work with. We actually had more trouble with the projections than we did the with LED. So hopefully LED will be—I still think it’s very expensive to put LEDs into theaters, and renting them is expensive—but I think it’s the future, definitely. On top of all, when you go from one country to another country, and you take a 200-lb backdrop with you. First of all, we used to be able to do that. Now after a certain weight limit, the airlines won’t take it. So you are kind of like, ok, so you have to ship it. And then you ship things back and forth, and it costs a lot of money and then a lot of extra work. And then there’s always that fear that it’s not going to arrive, or it’s going to be damaged because it’s not traveling with you.
So that’s another reason why I wanted to try this. I wanted to see if this would make the program easier. I still would hope—there’s no way yet to have the teasers and the legs and all that stuff going on, but at least for now that picture in the back was really wonderful. And, I don’t know if I said, the very first theater we performed in it turned out they do a local story daily, a local show daily. And so the theatre is built like a musical, it’s a musical theatre set. With rocks and stairs and all this stuff that all looks like a cave. And the images, the Swan Lake images fit so perfectly in that space. I can’t tell you. The colors and then the rocks and everything. It looked like one big set. It was pretty amazing.
M: What do you have coming up in ballet? What are you working on next?
V: The company doesn’t work as much as it used to. We used to work about 6 months out of the year. Now we really work 1-2 months out of the year. So we are looking to possibly to go back to China, to Asia, to Japan and Australia. Those are, that’s where we are looking to work. I don’t do a lot of work in the US. [laughs] We just don’t do that much work here. We have a competitor and they pretty much have the market. [laughs]. So it’s fine, it’s fine for them and I’m happy for them. I’ve already seen as many Motel 8s as I need to see and bus trips around the US, there’s a lot of wonderful cities but I think I’ve seen most of them. I traveled 9 years with the other company, the company that I have now become their chief rival, and they do a lot of tours like that so when I was with them I got to do a lot of that. So I’d rather go to places that are exotic with the little bit of work that we do, it’s more fun.
M: There’s obviously the ballet and artistic component, but I’m sure through the years of running dance companies and directing,you’ve probably learned a few things about running or growing a creative business. What are a couple things you’ve learned?
V: I think that you have to build a network of people that you trust to work with. A network of people that are all interested in the end product. Because if you end up with people that are more interested in the money that they are going to make or what you are going to do for them, then their focus is different. And I think that when you’re person in charge you have to have an focus on where you are going and not necessarily what you are getting out of it at the moment. You have to be willing to put in a lot of effort to make things work.
You also have to be able to speak to a lot of people and lay out what you are doing and be able to kind of ask people for help and tell people ‘This is where I’m at, this is what I need, how can you help me, can you help me?’ So I did a lot that, especially at the beginning. And I think the other thing is you have to try to always be good for your word because I think especially in the arts people that keep their word tend to go further because that’s something that people remember. You know, I’ve kind of bent over backwards with the dancers and all the people who have contributed, whether it’s with costumes or sets or music, or whatever they’ve done for me, to make sure that I’m fair and honest with them and that they are fair with me and that we work together well. Because as soon as you hit people that you know it’s not going to work and you need to just kind of move on because it’s just going to take your energy away from you. So that’s the main thing with being able to run anything in the arts. I don’t know, I would imagine it probably applies to other things too but for me that’s the one key.
You know actually at the very beginning I actually even told people, I said ‘You know, I don’t really know about what what I’m asking you to do for me. I don’t know what’s fair as this point.’ I said, ‘But you know, eventually I will know, if what you did for me was fair or not fair. So I’m expecting you to be fair with me and give me the best that you can give me for what I can give you. And if you can do that then I will be loyal and help you out whenever I can, I will suggest. But if you’re not, I will remember! [laughs] I will remember five years from now that you screwed me.’ [laughs] And I had so many people that went out of their way to help me, to give me deals, to go above and beyond to help me get on my feet. And to get my company up on its feet. And it’s provided a lot of work for a lot of people for a lot of years. So that’s, I mean I guess that’s the main thing on that side. When it comes to dealing with producers and the other side of business, where you’re the product, that’s a whole lot different.
Victor Trevino is a professional dancer and the artistic director of Ballet Eloelle, an all male comedy dance company that is LOL entertainment! You can visit them on Facebook here.