Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo in ‘Patterns in Space’

Lise Smith,
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I have always loved classical ballet. From the Kirov’s Bayadere to the Royal Ballet’s Don Quixote; Sylvie’s Marguerite to Carlos’s Crown Prince Rudolf, I’ve seen and adored hundreds of hours of this most venerated of dance forms. But I’ve always been aware that there’s also something faintly absurd at the heart of ballet. For starters, the classical tutu is one of the most preposterous garments ever to grace the female form; and don’t get me started on that dancing on the end of your toes business. I love ballet, but I love laughing at it even more. Fortunately, for fans of both ballet and comedy, that’s a twin joy shared by Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo.

Born in 1974 in an “off-off Broadway” loft on New York’s West 14th Street, the Trocks have taken the world by storm over the past three decades with their comedy drag ballet, a fusion that celebrates both the beauty and the essential absurdity of classical ballet. The idea behind a Trocks performance is simple – hairy-chested men in size 12 pointe shoes dance classical roles, exaggerating the diva glares, prima pouts and comic melodrama of the Russian ballet tradition. A thickly-accented compere announces the artists: “Nina Enimenimynimova” and “The Artist Formerly Known as Prince Myshkin”, signalling an evening of affectionate (and sometimes groanworthy) parody.

The humour wouldn’t work without a technically proficient company, however – the Trocks train daily, have their own ballet mistress, and appear as comfortable en pointe as one could expect anyone to be. The arms may be more muscular and the chests bushier than might be expected of female primas, but the Trocks have plenty of ballon and extensions most would die for.

Programme One in the current UK tour opens with ChopEniana, a slapstick take on Fokine’s Romantic-era abstract ballet to the music of Frederic Chopin. Sylphs in white tulle fight for centre stage, knock each other out with misplaced attitudes, and the soloist’s heavy landings shake the surrounding tableaux of the corps de ballet. High-flying jetes combine with Lindy-hop lifts, dancers get lost on stage and tangled up in each other’s arms, but none of the slapstick takes away from the joy at the heart of ChopEniana.

Joy also infuses La Vivandiere Pas de Six, danced by the enormously tall Katerina Bychkova (Joshua Grant) and the tiny but extraordinarily springy Ketevan Losifidi (new dancer Long Zou).  There are visual jokes about Losifidi’s inability to carry his partner, and playful competition among the other four “friends”, but the feeling that all six dancers are having a whale of a time on the stage whether they’re pirouetting or pratfalling is as inescapable as it is infectious.

Ida Nevasayneva (the great Paul Ghiselin, who is also Ballet Master for the company) gives a memorable interpretation of Anna Pavlova’s signature solo, The Dying Swan. As with Pavlova, Ghiselin’s performance leaves hardly a dry eye in the house, but for altogether different reasons – his sick bird, strewing feathers all over the stage and dancing a version of the Funky Chicken en pointe that has to be seen to be believed, has the whole audience rolling in the aisles. My mother, who came to the show with me, couldn’t see straight for several minutes after the solo ended.

Programme One closes with Raymonda’s Wedding, described as a ballet that has “baffled audiences since its premiere at the Maryinsky Theater in 1898” is a jolly romp through the wedding celebration scenes, ignoring the rest of the perplexing plot.

The real highlight of the evening, however, is Patterns In Space, a genuine and very generous tribute to the late Merce Cunningham that captures the exactitude of the Cunningham movement style and neatly punctures the often mystifying postmodern presentation.

Three dancers (two female and one male, all dressed in Cunningham standard-issue unitards and beatnik wigs) advance across the stage with flying retires and long extended lunges to the fourth. Every flat-backed arabesque, ever triplet, every purposeful walk in a circle is minutely and lovingly observed.

Diverting attention from the precise combinations of these three dancers are the laboured preparations of two musicians seated downstage left, who play a variety of “instruments” including bubblewrap, paper bag and kazoo. The more the two musicians gargle and moo, the funnier the technically precise mid-stage action gets. Some may think that Nearly Ninety was the great choreographer’s last work, but Patterns In Space may yet reveal itself to be his lost masterpiece.

The new work perfectly captures the theme of reverent irreverence that underpins The Trocks experience. Their genius lies in the recognition that the classical canon needs only a few slight tweaks to be tipped from the sublime to the comic absurd; by turning the camp dial up just a notch, the Trocks celebrate everything that is ridiculous – and fabulous – about ballet.