It often seems like the worlds of orchestral music and drag performance couldn’t be further apart.
One taps into centuries of tradition and carefully crafted precision, the other lives for unbridled creativity and spontaneity. But they also share the power to inspire, and recently, they’ve had the chance to overlap.
The documentary Disruptor Conductor shows Symphony Nova Scotia’s journey to create the first orchestral drag show in Canada. The two main figures behind this crossover — conductor Daniel Bartholomew-Poyser and drag star Thorgy Thor — hosted two sold-out shows in Halifax.
The unprecedented event brought together multiple generations during the city’s 2018 Pride celebrations — young and old, and across the rainbow.
‘Let’s make this a show’
For Thor, who is classically trained on the violin, viola and cello, combining drag with a professional orchestral performance was a pivotal moment. Earlier in her life, as she recounts in Disruptor Conductor, “I had to choose drag or music.”
“Every one of the orchestra players I went to conservatory with, or professionally played with, they were always very content with: You practice four hours a day, you take auditions and then when you get a spot and a seat in an orchestra — that’s what your job is now,” Thor explained in an interview with the documentary’s producers.
“I was never content with that. Ever.”
Thor considers herself a performance artist. While orchestras required unity and conformity — “like we’re soldiers,” she said — she would find herself daydreaming amid the masterpieces.
“In the middle of playing some Tchaikovsky piece, I would close my eyes and think, ‘You know what would be great during this? This kind of prop design and the lighting should be like this, and I see one figure coming out like this with a spotlight, and the concept should be this,’” Thor said.
“My mind always went further, rather than [just] playing the notes on a page. I’m like, ‘Let’s make this a show!’”
An instant hit
Over the years, Thor fell in love with drag, worked in the scene and eventually found fame on two seasons of RuPaul’s Drag Race. “I just love characters because it’s about theatre to me,” she said. “It’s about entertainment.”
“And I don’t think drag is for everyone — drag art, or dressing up and doing ideas. It’s not for everybody. I always felt like it was for me because I could never shut it off.”
Thor’s violin made occasional appearances in her performances, and her classical background became part of her persona. That information made its way to Symphony Nova Scotia, and conductor Bartholomew-Poyser — who is also the symphony’s artist in residence and community ambassador — reached out to Thor about a potential collaboration.
Bartholomew-Poyser describes his enthusiasm for the idea.
The concept was an instant hit in the community.
“I [lived] with two selves, and one of them was a very strict, classical-trained, focused nerd,” Thor said. “And the other one was an outlandish clown, dressed-in-a-red-wig nerd. So [I thought,] let’s bring our two nerd selves together. And I can’t believe we literally sold out 1,000 seats in five hours! In one city!”
Opening the doors
The “Thorgy and the Thorchestra” show has taken off since the Halifax concerts. Performances popped up in other Canadian cities and most recently landed in New York’s Gramercy Theatre at the end of August.
In her interview, before the show’s travelling success, Thor mused on the significance of the event for the LGBTQ community and her role in pushing boundaries — while bringing people together.
“I’m not going to sit here and tell you that I’m a revolutionary and a genius,” she said. “I’m just having fun and doing two things that I have worked many, many years to perfect.”
“When I do stop to think about what I’m doing, I am opening up the doors to a younger generation of artists,” she said. Her advice to them? “Keep going, learn another craft and then put them all together, and make a new show. I did it, and it’s great!”
Fighting for acceptance
Drag is outrageous, playful and high-energy fun. But it’s also a job. Thor bounces between gigs, events, shows and endorsements in a competitive world. The art of drag is evolving, and a new generation is making waves on social media.
Bringing the classical community — usually viewed as having an older, more traditional audience — together with the LGBTQ world was a meaningful highlight in her career.
“I actually have to remind myself to take a second and remind myself what I’ve accomplished,” Thor said. “Because I never stop working.”
She realizes that each time a boundary is nudged back, there’s more room for people to express who they are. The LGBTQ community has been fighting for freedom and acceptance for generations.
“I want to play with every orchestra across the world and just do this because I think it’s really magnificent,” Thor said. “I think it’s important.”
Watch Disruptor Conductor.