‘Swan Lake Act II’, pas de deux from ‘Don Quixote’, ‘Go For Barocco’, ‘Gaite Parisienne’
February 20, 2007 — Wells Fargo Center for the Arts, Santa Rosa, CA
On a chilly night just a week after Valentine’s Day, love filled the air at the Theater Formerly Known as Luther Burbank Center in Santa Rosa. The recently-renamed Wells Fargo Center for the Arts has been the premiere theater for everything from the Santa Rosa Symphony to touring rock and country bands to the annual Nutcracker performances of local ballet companies for more than 25 years.
To the average non-ballet person, Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo is simply a good visual gag: men in pink tights and tutus, fully made-up with false eyelashes and bright red lipstick, prancing around to Tchaikovsky and Bach. This is comedy worthy of Saturday Night Live and easily accessible to just about anyone. What makes the Trocks the world-class company that they are (at 30 years old they are known and loved throughout the world) is total dedication to their art and a complete understanding of the history – and histrionics – of the ballet universe.
It is standard protocol for dance performances to begin with an announcement over the loudspeakers reminding audience members that the use of flash photography is prohibited because it can be dangerous for the dancers. The Trocks don’t go in for standard, however: the audience was told that the flash reminds the ballerinas of Bolshevik gunfire and were admonished to turn off cell phones “or we will turn them off for you.”
Another standard is the announcement of dancer replacements, which are by necessity last-minute, usually due to injury or illness. For the Trocks, these announcements served another purpose as well: allowing the audience to hear some of the dancer’s names aloud, which enhances the humor. When it is announced over the loudspeaker that Yakatarina Verbosovich (Chase Johnsey) is replacing Olga Supphozova (Robert Carter) as Odette, Sveltlana Lofatkina (Fernando Medina Gallego) and William Vanilla (Joseph Jefferies) will perform the pas de deux from Don Quixote and Katarina Bychkova (Joshua Grant) has graciously agreed to dance the Dying Swan, it adds a wonderfully humorous element that a written notice wouldn’t provide. The theater was full of folks who were well prepared to enjoy themselves, and the pre-performance announcements earned chuckles and light applause.
The opening notes of “Swan Lake” were accompanied by swirling fog. The evil wizard Von Rothbart (Yuri Smirnov/Robert Carter) entered and filled the stage with his cloak and menacing grimace, although the menace was somewhat diminished by what can only be described as “spirit fingers.” A lovely wooden swan sailed out onto the stage, only to be hauled unceremoniously off again by Von Rothbart. Cue the lakeside noises: croaking frogs, chirping crickets and other swampy sounds filled the theater as Benno (Pepe Dufka/Raffaele Morra) entered, appropriately dim-witted and easily caught off guard by everything from the audience to the fog. Prince Siegfried (Ashley Romanoff-Titwillow/Joshua Grant) was tall and elegant if a bit spacey, which is somehow appropriate for a man who sets out to hunt game and ends up falling in love with a swan.
And what a swan it was. Verbosovich is an entrancing, gorgeous ballerina with slim, well-formed legs and a flirtatious style that befits the queen of the swans. Her Odette sparkled with an impressive technique that combines flexibility and strength. Her fluttering, expressive port de bras emulated the classic ballerina and allowed for some delicious comedy between Prince and Swan Queen, including a hilarious segment of bad ballet mime.
It is the swans that make this ballet, be it American Ballet Theatre or the Trocks. Only slightly hampered by the ill-configured stairs flanking both sides of the stage (every entrance had to be timed to include getting down a flight of stairs onto the main floor), the corps of eight swans did their best to steal the show from the principal couple. For those who have seen the second act of “Swan Lake” performed by a traditional company, the parodies of steps, patterns and hierarchies-within-the-corps were perfect, down to the barely-concealed looks of death flying back and forth between dancers. And for the few audience members with personal experience dancing in a corps de ballet, those same parodies were painfully funny in their correctness – the deafening clop-clop of pointe shoes in emboité, the realized fear of getting kicked by a flying developpé à la seconde, the semi-ridiculous poses that are supposed to look like swans but are really just uncomfortable and goofy – all came together in well-choreographed mayhem.
The famous Dance of the Cygnets is an opportunity for four members of the corps to show off their chops, the piece requiring precision and made all the more difficult by the dancers’ constantly linked arms. Three of the four Trocks dancing Tuesday night seemed set on matching that call for precision, dancing the section as straight as can be done by three tall men in romantic tutus, while the fourth Trock (Nadia Doumiafeyva/Nolan Kubota) was out to have fun – each pas de chat huger than the last, her exuberance overpowering the steps and causing a domino effect as her energy rippled through to the other three cygnets. Doumiafeyva was the last cygnet in the line, and therefore led the diagonals as they headed stage left, practically yanking them along with the series of piqué passes. With a grin filling her small face, Doumiafeyva stole the show. As they exited, she waved coyly over her shoulder to the audience, who roared in response.
It would be improper to discuss the Trocks as only a parody company because their technique and dancing are too good to ignore. These dancers can do all the traditionally grueling steps, from fouettes to adagio to the tiny battus and developés in pas de deux sequences. But the humor is just as well designed: Prince Siegfried coughing up white feathers after the pas de deux, the “girl gang” of swans kicking Von Rothbart and high-fiving each other for a job well done, Odette’s classic reaction to Benno’s terrible partnering (side-splitting humor for anyone who has ever danced with a man who just can’t seem to get it together) and Benno snapping photos on his disposable camera after Siegfried collapses in despair as his Odette is hauled away by Von Rothbart. The jokes are all the more clever because of the quality of the dancing itself.
After the first intermission, the pas de deux from “Don Quixote” was performed by Sveltlana Lofatkina (Gallego) and William Vanilla (Jefferies). The gags were slightly understated, possibly due to the fact that both dancers did all of the most difficult technical elements, which removed the slapstick element and forced the humor to exist at a higher level. There was a slight height differential, which Lofatkina and Vanilla used for laughs at times but managed to work through when necessary for finger turns and other partnering elements. Lofatkina’s somersault-in-tutu was a nice addition, as were her double tours en ménage. It was clear who the ballerina on the stage was; Lofatkina didn’t miss an opportunity to work the audience with winks and radiant smiles. Vanilla was understandably irritated at being upstaged by Lofatkina, but he shrugged it off for a well-executed solo and very strong à la seconde turns. After a fan-focused solo, Lofatkina whirled through her fouettes, doubling every other one.
“Go for Barocco” is described in the program notes as the “stylistic heir to Balanchine’s Middle-Blue-Verging-On-Black and White Period,” and that well explains both the choreographic bent and the cause for most of the in-jokes for the piece. With two leads (Gerd Tord/Bernd Burgmaier and Bertha Vinayshinsky/Damien Diaz) and four corps members, the first in-joke is the delicious irony of men dancing as women in a ballet poking fun at Mr. B’s fascination with the female form. Tord and Vinayshinsky immediately began a tug-of-war for center stage that continued throughout the piece, popping up in dance-off segments and a hilarious hand-over-hand sequence with a lovely top-spot illuminating the antics. The six dancers were costumed in identical black leotards with very short black skirts and pink tights, each sporting a red AIDS Awareness ribbon pinned to the bust. It goes without saying that, like the ballet world as a whole, this all-male company has intimate experience with the AIDS epidemic. The company supports the Dancers Responding to AIDS program, and those red ribbons symbolize so many lost artists and friends.
In true Balanchine style, there were hip thrusts and wrist bends, taps in b-plus position, little picky steps on pointe, and there was a brilliant section where the four corps dancers got themselves tangled up in an ‘everyone holds hands and walks around in knotted patterns that are supposed to magically un-knot back into a simple line’ routine, and of course the un-knotting just didn’t work without someone letting go of hands. Doumiafeyva again danced with such glee that she nearly stole the attention from the two leads, her expansive movements belying her tiny body. When the six dancers finally settled into the final pose after three grueling movements, the audience gladly acknowledged their efforts.
“The Dying Swan” lends itself almost too easily to parody; the rather simplistic original choreography requires a ballerina with aplomb and dignity of movement to infuse the movement with character and grace. Katarina Bychkova’s (Joshua Grant) performance started out in full parody mode, with the follow spot darting around the stage, searching for the Swan. As soon as spotlight and Swan found each other, the shedding began – white feathers piled up in large drifts across the entire stage while Bychkova bourréed and fluttered about in a slow death spiral. Occasionally the bourrées would slow as Bychkova sank into one of the traditional swan-kneeling positions for further fluttering and, on one occasion, a round of floor-bourrées. About halfway through, as she realized that the shedding was a symptom of her slow death, Bychkova began picking up loose feathers and attempted to stuff them back into her tutu. As death took over, she folded into one of the most uncomfortable sitting poses in ballet: one leg extended to the front, the other bent in half underneath, all the weight balanced precariously on one heel while the upper torso curves delicately over the extended leg. Bychkova did exactly what all young swans have to fight not to do: she rolled off that one heel and onto her side, tutu bent into a vertical line- not once but twiceAfter her last breath, Bychkova roused the audience into a bout of competitive applause before exiting the stage with one last shedding of feathers.
The final piece of the evening was the comedy “Gaite Parisienne,” which was entertaining and amusing, if not up to the same level of parody as the evening’s other offerings. From the teasing can-can girls to the diminutive Peruvien (R.M. (“Prince”) Myshkin/Fernando Medina Gallego) much of the humor stemmed from inappropriate coupling and maudlin drinking contests between rejected lovers. As a show-closer it was effective: the music is well-known and upbeat, the costumes bright and the dancing energetic. As it turns out, Doumiafeyva (Kubota) is local, born and raised in Santa Rosa. She once again shone as a can-can girl, and it became apparent that her entire fan club was present: there were “We Love Nadia” signs and glow-sticks throughout the house.
The standing ovation that accompanied the final curtain calls was truly overwhelming. It seemed even the dancers were pleasantly surprised at the level of appreciation extended to them. Chalk one up for suburbia: this city recognizes extraordinary dance when it sees it. Now the Trocks can add this Nothern California locale to its roster: Paris, London, Hong Kong – and Santa Rosa – all love Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo.