The Trocks—or, if you prefer, Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo—do many things at once. They demonstrate that men can dance on pointe and be convincing (sort of) in the great ballerina roles. They make fun of the mannerisms and vanities of the dear, dead world of the Ballet Russe. They parody ballet styles and conventions. They give us borderline-serious productions of obscure classics. They clown.
At times, the results are glorious—funny, exhilarating, instructive. At other times, the mix is uncomfortable, even irritating. The current season at the Joyce is all these things.
The most renowned of the Trock parodies have been wicked and hilarious homages. This season’s two new parodies are something else: They’re not ingenious comments on style and intention, they’re coarse retellings of onetime hits.
The Cage, a sensation when Jerome Robbins made it for the dramatic ballerina Nora Kaye back in 1951, is still in City Ballet’s repertory, but it’s lost its shock value, although it can still be unsettling to watch that novice insect ruthlessly dispatch the two male intruders who make the mistake of fancying her. The heart of The Cage has always been the Stravinsky score, but, alas, the Trocks have had to substitute music by Geoff Gersh that doesn’t even rise to pastiche—it’s just dreadful. Robbins’ The Cage is an efficient dance-drama; you like it or you don’t, but there’s nothing about it to explore. Robert La Fosse’s La Cage is more a garish restaging than a reinvention, yet it looks more like DeMille (Cecil B., not his niece Agnes) than like Robbins. And there’s nothing funny about it. (Well, the wigs …. )
Gâité Parisienne is a different kind of period piece—only 13 years older than The Cage, but from a different universe. With its adorable music by Offenbach and a feast of roles for brilliant character dancers, it was a great hit for Léonide Massine and remained a staple of the Ballet Russe for decades, particularly in America with Danilova as the Glove Seller and Massine himself as the Peruvian. But as the Belle Époque has receded further and further from us, Gâité has become dated and quaint—today our vision of the period is more likely to come from Nicole Kidman’s delirious Moulin Rouge.
The Trocks give us choreography by Susan Trevino—no choreographic credit goes to Massine, although the characters and situations remain to a large extent his. Her version is colorful and energetic, but the characterizations are over-mugged and under-felt. All it does is diminish the not very substantial original without saying anything about it. If the Trocks want to hit a live target, why not take a look at Ailey uplift? A Trockish version of Revelations would be worth laughing at.
No, the triumphs of the season are the recensions of the classics. Swan Lake has been spiffed up, and when Odette is danced by Robert Carter (under his nom de guerre, Olga Supphozova), it’s remarkable. Despite his robust frame and the endless gags and exaggerations that deliberately break the Swan Lake spell, Carter dances the great adagio impeccably and movingly. His arms are convincingly fluid, the plasticity of his back and shoulders is beautiful, and he commands a powerful technique both on and off pointe. As Gâité’s Glove Seller, Carter goes for too many cheap laughs, but as one of the soloists in Raymonda’s Wedding he thrills with his trademark fouettés—not many of A.B.T.’s ballerinas can match them. Carter is a major dancer—the one Trock about whom you feel the tragedy of a potentially important ballerina trapped in a man’s body. Yet what pleasure Olga Supphozova gives us!
The most appealing work in the current repertory is the Raymonda, a spoof of the Petipa divertissement that carries Hungarianisms to the edge but refuses to go over. This is more or less the real thing—Raymonda’s famous solo and four other variations all meticulously danced in high spirits and with easy command. The costumes (by Mike Gonzales, a hidden Trock treasure, and Ken Busbin) are alone enough to make you happy. Oh, those gleeful boys in their bright yellow jerkins with the perky little red feathers sticking up from their caps! Another wonderful touch—wonderful because it so neatly skewers danseur noble vanity—is the stately progress of the hero, stalking grandly through the scene while doing absolutely nothing but pose.
The Pas de Six from Petipa’s Esmeralda is another comic revelation: the ridiculously tall Bernd Burgmaier (a.k.a. Gerd Törd) wilting in distress like a spear of limp asparagus while his pal Grengoire and four blasé Gypsy girls try to cheer him up. Burgmaier is a major contender, his fabulous extension and exquisite arabesques particularly telling in the Les Sylphides mazurka.
The pas de deux from Flames of Paris—staged, like Esmeralda, by the invaluable Elena Kunikova—is a superb showcase for the relative newcomer Chase Johnsey (Yakatarina Verbosovich), whose brio, conviction and humor bring to this shard of Soviet kitsch both the excitement it demands and the derision it deserves. Johnsey is equally impressive—womanly and ludicrous—as the 19th-century ballerina Lucile Grahn in Le Grand Pas de Quatre, vying with the adorabilità of Minnie van Driver (as Fanny Cerrito), the aplomb of Sveltlana Lofatkina (as Carlotta Grisi), and the steely determination to dominate her juniors of Lariska Dumbchenko (as Marie Taglioni). In case you’ve forgotten, the four great divas were roped into performing this novelty for Queen Victoria in 1845, when their rivalries were more serious than comical.
The whole Trock company is now at a remarkably high level of performance. The dancers are technically strong and secure, and of course they’re superb jokers. But they aren’t jokes. In fact, I wish the company would cut down on the gags. How many times in one evening do you want to see dancers fall on their asses or deliberately bash into each other?
As for the joy of poking fun at Ballet Russe mannerisms, it fades along with our collective memory of the Ballet Russe. And yet the old-school spirit lingers on (think of A.B.T.’s Irina Dvorovenko and Veronika Part). Some things never change.