By Michelle Trauring
When Philip Martin-Nielson joined the Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, he wasn’t just adjusting to a new home, a new technique and a new routine.
He was committing to become a drag queen.
The learning curve would last a full year, and it would be the hardest of his five with the all-male comic ballet company, he said during a telephone interview from the New York studio, in anticipation of their performance on Saturday at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center.
But, just as every dancer who had come in the 40 years before him, the new dancer finally found his face, and his rhythm, and now considers the Trocks — as they’re affectionately called — his unconventional, hilarious family.
“At first, I didn’t think I was going to enjoy drag as much as I do. I was able to find a new way of expressing myself as an artist that way, and it was interesting. It wasn’t easy at all or anything, but it was a really cool experience,” Martin-Nielson said of the transformation. “I love this company because we dance repertoire that is so classic and considered old, but when I dance it, I’m able to dance it new and fresh and make new life of this old classic, while preserving its charming qualities. That gives me a lot of satisfaction.”
He paused. “And, also, ballet basically saved my life. So I owe a lot to it.”
Telling his mother he wanted to dance was one of the first sentences he ever said. He was already 4 years old and borderline non-verbal, unable to make eye contact or focus on simple tasks. Doctors warned Martin-Nielson’s parents that he would never live an independent life.
“It was not an easy road, growing up as a child,” the now 23-year-old said. “I was, socially, very awkward and I didn’t have many friends, or at all, for the most part. I did go to special schools, so I was constantly in therapy and counseling.”
When he was 6, his mother finally signed him up for ballet class — “after just constantly begging her to let me dance,” Martin-Nielson recalled. When he was 10, he realized he wanted to pursue ballet professionally.
It was the same year he learned he had autism. “My mother knew for a long time before I ever knew,” he said.
That knowledge ignited a fire within the young boy. He would take the discipline he had learned from ballet — the sequencing, the repetition, and the calm he felt from exercise — and apply it to his academics, he said.
It worked. He would be accepted to the School of American Ballet at age 15, while attending special education classes through a local high school.
“I never told anyone when I was at SAB that I had autism,” he said. “I wanted to be treated as fairly as possible, even if that meant that I wouldn’t get any real acknowledgement in class or anything.”
The acknowledgement he craved came in full when the Trocks accepted him straight out of high school. He was 17 when he auditioned, and five years into his pointe education, though he did most of it on his own.
The School of American Ballet does not allow men to dance en pointe, he said.
“So I did it every day in my dorm room for three years,” he said. “It was something I knew I just had to do. I knew that the strengths it would give me as a dancer would be so beneficial. I didn’t care if I was gonna be teased or bullied by the other guys. Even though they knew I was doing this in my room, I didn’t care. It was just something that I do that I needed to keep doing.”
Talking to Martin-Nielson now, only an occasional fumble gives away his place on the spectrum — “No one’s perfect,” he said, a smile nearly palpable through the phone — and he says he has dance to thank for that. Outside of learning how to apply a full face of makeup in 30 minutes, his five-year journey with the Trocks has taken him to 17 countries and countless stages, and has continued to guide him through a recovery for an incurable disorder.
“It was a long struggle,” he said. “It was a lot of patience, it was a lot of dedication, and it was a lot of people hoping I could get through this — and hopefully my love of ballet would conquer. And it did. It totally just anointed me to go the path that I needed to go.”
Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo will perform on Saturday, August 26, at 8 p.m. at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center. Tickets range from $65 to $85. For more information, call (631) 288-1500, or visit whbpac.org.