Drag divas play ballet greats straight ★★★★

Sanjoy Roy, The Guardian, London
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photo credit: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian

Choreographer George Balanchine famously said that “ballet is woman”. The all-male Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo take that at face value, performing the classical female roles – swan, princess, Gypsy – in classical feminine style: in pointe shoes and tutus. Of course they also ham it up, adopting cod-Russian stage names such as Nadia Doumiafeyva and Vladimir Legupski (in the popular mind, ballet is Russian as well as feminine), and the result is a disarming blend of parody and tribute, music hall and high art, a drag act that is just as often played straight.

On the opening programme, their Swan Lake swims closest to satire: Philip Martin-Nielson’s plucky, big-eyed swan queen channels the distant spirit of Lucille Ball, Paolo Cervellera is a prince of lofty sentiment and swept hair, Duane Gosa a flaming voodoo Von Rothbart. The mime – meaningful gestures making intermittent sense – is spot on, and the corps de ballet’s pratfalls and sight gags are timely.

Underneath, though, you recognise the lineaments of ballet itself – the symbols, the style, the struggles of performance and personalities – and that makes for a kind of truth.

The rest of the programme is less comic, but often more impressive.Laszlo Major and Carlos Hopuy play the Corsaire pas de deux as a circus double-act – the Amazing Strongman and the Flying Lady, perhaps – and bring the house down. A little-seen excerpt from Esmeralda is more bemusing, but has fun with its own seriousness. Joshua Thake, “executing the Dying Swan”, mostly lets the roving spotlight and his moulting costume milk the laughs; otherwise, his eloquent arms and feathery footwork speak for themselves.

Paquita is a suitable finale, showcasing the various faces of classical feminine style: vivacity, dreaminess, delicacy, and so on. All the dancers bring something of themselves to their roles, but Chase Johnsey becomes something else. Watch the finish of his lines, the contours of his phrasing and the assurance of his technique and you think: oh boy, that is a ballerina.

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