Ballerinas with hairs and graces

Elena Seymenliyska, Telegraph Arts
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Elena Seymenliyska reviews Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo at the Peacock Theatre

The story goes that, in a Manhattan loft in 1974, a group of guys had some fun with a dressing-up box, squeezing into tutus, balancing – and acting out spoofs of favourite ballets. This private joke was so successful that they formed a professional company.

Great comics, great dancers: Paul Ghiselin in the unique rendition of Fokine’s Dying Swan

More than 30 years later, Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo has an international following (the Japanese, especially, are hot for the Trocks) and their satirical interpretations of classical ballet and modern dance are admired as more than just a high-class drag act.

Now in London for their first tour in five years, the Trocks had the audience – a mix of rouged-up elderly balletomanes and fringe-show aficionados – torn between fits of giggles and awe-struck applause.

By the end of the programme, a two-hour extravaganza made up from the classics (a separate programme includes contemporary dance), the 15-strong, classically trained all-male company was graciously receiving a standing ovation.

The evening began with an announcement. In accordance with the great tradition of Russian ballet, there would be a last-minute change: Natasha Notgudenov would not be appearing. Also, patrons were asked not to use flash photography as sudden bursts of light would remind the ballerinas of gunfire back home.

As the curtain rose on a naive backdrop of a misty castle and Swan Lake’s evil wizard Von Rothbart stomped across the stage with a cut-out bird on a string, it became clear that no ballet cliché would be safe from the Trocks’ mocking. While their version of the 19th-century standard sticks to its original choreography (give or take the odd deliberately dropped arabesque), the dancers sneak in some modern moves, too. Sassy shimmies and hip-thrusts archly hint at rivalries in the “corps”, with each hairy-chested, chunky-thighed “ballerina” vying for the audience’s attention.

It is here that the Trocks are at their most comical. Their performance is to ballet what the Reduced Shakespeare Company is to the Bard, with the added pleasure of a Noises Off-style peek behind the scenes. Once that point is made, however, the Trocks are free to pick up the pace on the dancing.

As the evening progressed, through spins on Balanchine’s Tarantella, Fokine’s Dying Swan (think choking chicken) and Petipa’s Paquita, light farce gave way to serious dance, with performers such as Robert Carter (as Olga Supphozova), Paul Ghiselin (as Ida Nevasayneva) and Raffaele Morra (as Lariska Dumbchenko) proving they can pirouette, plié and passé with the best of them.

The Trocks deliver a kick from a steel toe-cap in a silky pointe shoe, and their jokes – not at ballet per se, but at ballet done badly – work because they are both great comedians and great dancers.