by Meghan Pugh (The New Republic)
Partway through Rebels on Pointe—Bobbi Jo Hart’s marvelous documentary about the all-male, comic, drag dance company Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo—dancer Raffaele Morra teaches a master class to a roomful of elderly women. Some have shown up in tutus and slippers, others wear sweats, many have never taken a ballet lesson. “That’s not important at all,” Morra reassures them. “What’s important is that it’s you, expressing yourself.” And thus, Morra welcomes them in to the famous Dying Swan solo, choreographed by Mikael Fokine for Anna Pavlova in 1905. He demonstrates the extended bourrées, the tilted head, and the impossibly liquid arms. The women do their best approximations. Technically, they aren’t very good, but it’s a beautiful scene: a flock of unlikely but unabashed swans, flying into history.
The Trocks, as the company is affectionately nicknamed, have been opening up ballet, in one way or another, since 1974. They pay loving tribute to the art form’s ornate glories, but they also satirize it, with jokes that appeal both to balletomanes and relative newcomers. Take their version of the Dying Swan. When the curtain opens, a spotlight darts around, searching for a subject. As Selby Lynn Schwartz has written, you can see this as a “a tribute to Anna Pavlova, whose death was ceremonially marked by a spotlight shining on an empty stage while the Saint-Saëns score played” and, simultaneously, as a gag about inept stagehands. And then, out comes the swan: a man, playing an aging diva, in a fake bun, pointe shoes, and tutu whose feathers keep falling off. She glides smoothly across the stage one moment and, in another, wrenches a stiff arm into place with frustration. Performing as any one of these creatures, the Trocks suggest, takes work.
Ever since Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo began, reviewers have delighted in their slapstick and inside-ballet humor, celebrated their dancing, and tried to explain their politics: What did it mean that they danced in drag? That men performed roles traditionally performed by women? Soon after their first performance, at the same downtown loft that hosted the West Side Discussion Group, New Yorker critic Arlene Croce asserted that the Trocks weren’t addressing gender roles, but ballet roles, an altogether different topic: “a ballerina isn’t a woman but an abstraction of one.”
This distinction is politically and analytically useful: It aligns the Trocks squarely with high art, and makes clear that they aren’t—as some critics have said drag does—making fun of women. But it’s also wishfully tidy. When, in the Trocks’ Swan Lake Act II, the corps de ballet fall out of line to throw punches at Prince Siegfried’s buddy Benno, the joke isn’t just about ballerinas. It’s also about men and women, flouting and conforming to expectations onstage and off of it, about what happens when “real” impulses break through the sheen of performance, when the disempowered take revenge.Read more