All-male ballet: From bad cliche to a tour de force

Jordan Levin, Miami Herald
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Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo might have started as a camp insider joke, amateur ballet lovers prancing around in tutu-ed drag on nowhere-near Broadway stages. They reveled in mocking ballet clichés (still do): the Dying Swan who just won’t die till she gets one more round of applause, over-the-top Russian names like Ida Nevasayneva and Sveltlana Lofatkina.But since their 1974 debut, the Trocks, as these boys on pointe are called, have grown from a hairy-chested joke to one of the most successful phenomena in dance. They’ve made the bad cliché about fey male dancers into an art form, touring constantly and successfully, from Australia to Japan (where they have an ardent fan club) to Europe and North and South America. Their audiences, which range from folks who’d otherwise never go near ballet to hardcore dance lovers, would be the envy of almost any ballet troupe.And these days, so is their technique. Over the past decade the Trocks’ dancing has gotten so good that critics don’t just call them funny anymore, but sophisticated comic dance artists who show us new facets of ballet while exposing its absurdities.

When Olga Supphozova (real name Robert Carter) whips off a combo of fouettés and triple pirouettes that a world-class ballerina would be hard-pressed to match, do you laugh because his legs look so chunky under his tutu, or marvel at how his power and skill gives a new dimension to the traditionally ‘female’ steps? ”A perfect balance of tribute and send-up,” wrote The New York Times in 2000.

”Why can’t you love something that’s ridiculous?” says Trocks artistic director Tory Dobrin from a Tampa stop on the tour that brings them to the Jackie Gleason Theater tonight. “Tiny poodles with bows on their heads are ridiculous, but don’t you love them anyway?”

Keeping it ridiculous has been key to the Trocks’ success. In the 1980s, says Dobrin, who joined as a dancer at the decade’s start, the troupe went too straight, toning down the ridicule in an effort to be taken seriously. But when political turmoil hit the National Endowment for the Arts in the late ’80s, the Trocks found themselves marginalized along with other non-mainstream artists. ”That unleashed us,” Dobrin says. “We thought we’ll just do this to have fun and if people don’t like it that’s their problem. It was the beginning of liberation for the Trocks, and it made the show what it is today. You see people who are good dancers and are funny, which takes courage, skill and confidence.”

Take six-foot-five Jai Williams, stage name Nadia Rombova. (All 15 dancers have both female and male personas, with absurd names and made-up bios..) As a dance student Williams envied the girls dancing on pointe, and had a class clown side that didn’t fit traditional ballet. In nine years with the Trocks, he has learned to whip off multiple pirouettes, and exults in the Balanchine roles like any of the leggy, full-of-attitude American girls they were made for. His Odette in Swan Lake is ”a really big bird with really long flapping wings, and a glamorous flirt”, he says.

”We’re not trying to really be girls. We are men on pointe who just happen to be in drag,” Williams says. “We don’t act like Nelly queens. We go for it strong and hard. Even if it’s supposed to be a soft lyrical movement we have some masculinity behind it. And they can call it whatever they want, but we are famous all over the world.”

When the Trocks learn a ballet these days, they learn it straight, with all the original steps and style. They have an experienced ballet mistress who hones their technical skills, and their size 15 pointe shoes are made to order. They tackle not just warhorses like Giselle, but historical rarities like La Vivandiere, an 1844 ballet by Arthur Saint Leon on tonight’s program, staged by Kirov Ballet veteran Elena Kunikova. They’ll also do Les Sylphides, Michel Fokine’s ground-breaking 1909 tribute to the romantic ballet, and ex-New York City Ballet dancer Robert La Fosse’s send-up of George Balanchine’s Americana romp Stars and Stripes.

”The repetory is kind of old-fashioned, because the historical work is really intricate and sophisticated,” says Dobrin. “ People come to be entertained. But we’re also interested in presenting ballet with integrity.”

The comedy comes as they play and exaggerate in rehearsal, or even on-stage accidents. When Williams forgot his contact lenses on tour and had to wear glasses onstage in Paquita, audiences laughed so hard the specs were kept in..

”If we start laughing in rehearsal we keep it,” says Dobrin. “… If the audience doesn’t laugh we take it right out. But we’ve gotten to be pretty good judges.”