BECKET — The all-male Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo are not exactly what Jacob’s Pillow founder Ted Shawn had in mind when he launched his company of men dancers here in 1933.
Shawn wanted to imprint dance — a female-dominated art based on stereotypes of grace — with virility — grace with power. His works were about Indian warrior stuff, workers besting technology and the like.
By contrast, “Les Trocks,” on view through Sunday, parody that female — and star-centered — world of 19th cerntury ballet. In size 10-13 toe shoes, chest hair sprouting above their bodices, they impersonate ballerinas to comic effect, interspersing “shtick” with a keen eye for authenticity.
For starters, the “Ballerinas” carry “ova” names, alluding to the snooty Imperial Russian roots that gave rise to the Bolshoi. But, say ’em out loud: Nadeshda Bogdownova, Nina Enimenimynimova, Olga Suppozova, Maria Paranova. The game is on.
Every Trocks performance begins before curtain with a heavily-accented Baltic welcome, introducing the company, and giving reassurance that “the ballerinas are in really good moods this evening.” Phew: Not to worry about prima donnas, PMS, or mean girls onstage. In fact, they are all that and more.
Les Trocks represents the “opera” tradition begun with the earliest ballets under “Sun King” Louis XIV, in which, for comic purposes, men performed female roles “en traveste” (in drag). A more serious geneology traces this tradition to the ancient Greek tragedies of Aeschylus and Sophocles. Parody, like all good comedy, is serious.
And these men are serious dancers. Their repertoire is carefully researched. The men work mostly en pointe, and duly execute the academic French/Russian standards for bravura: 16 this, and 32 that, in the way of pirouette and fouette turns; impressive extensions and elevation, delicacy of footwork, and surprising grace.
If their faces express tension in the execution of the big stuff, good. It is hard, and dance matters — to them. If they kitsch it up with facial mugging, pratfalls, and the male fist-pump thing — Yes! — it in no way diminishes their rightful pleasure in audience approbation, even when carried to the absurd, as in Raffaele Morra Dumbchenko’s bow for the signature “Dying Swan” solo.
That solo is actually one of the few outright examples of ridicule on this program. Dumbchenko’s entrance, her tutu molting feathers, could almost stand alone. But true parody is the art of mimicking the “essence” of a thing in broad strokes. It’s the art of political cartoonists, who sketch with a few strokes of the pen whole personalities, careers, lives and careers.
Les Trocks’ “Patterns in Space,” an “homage” to the avant-garde Merce Cunningham, fully exemplifies this. Cunningham’s choreographic experiments — decentralizing space, time, technology, and the role of music in dance — were revered and loathed in his lifetime. In this version, three dancers in neon-colored lycra tights, one skirted, masterfully imitate Cunningham’s quirky movement — flexed, articulate, and random as shorebirds in operation. Two others — sober in suits — execute the “music.” They pop bubble-wrap and paper bags, wave an Oriental fan at the microphone, emit one bleat from a kazoo, all very businesslike.
I laughed almost nonstop through this piece. Cunningham is an apt choice for the Trocks. His works were often deemed pranks (if you had the guts to question them.)
The use of “homage,” in the program notes, however, is key. None of the Trocks repertory could work without the abiding affection they bring to their work. Papa Ted Shawn couldn’t ask for more.