Ladies and Gentlemen

Joan Acocella, The New Yorker
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The Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, a travesty troupe, with men darting about on point as sylphs and odalisques, made its début in 1974 in a loft on Fourteenth Street managed by the West Side Discussion Group, a homophile organization. The stage was a twelve-by-twelve piece of plywood; the audience sat on folding chairs. “The place was on the second floor, and the stairs were steep,” says Eugene McDougle, an archeologist who lost his heart to that show and has been the general director of the company ever since. “The Fire Department could have closed us down.” So could the ballet authorities. With a cast of ten, the show had only two men who could actually do classical dancing. That first season lasted two weekends. Today, the Trocks, as they are known, work forty weeks a year. They are a sensation, and a staple. Has success spoiled them? I don’t know—I wasn’t there in 1974—but when, last month at the Joyce, I watched the opening night of their thirtieth-anniversary season, I thought, These people are delivering more bang for the buck than most other classical companies in America.

The Trocks’ business is comedy, and the basic joke, of course, is that men are dancing women’s roles. Just to see those size-10 point shoes, those yawning armpits, that chest hair peeping up over the bodices—I do not mention what greets you when the ballerina turns and her skirts fly up—is to laugh. Then, there are what you could call the vaudeville gags, excellent ones. (The cavalier and his lady, their dance completed, exit demurely; a moment later, you hear a crash and a scream from the wings.) At a higher level are the jokes specifically about ballet. Have you ever wondered, while watching Michel Fokine’s “Les Sylphides,” what those dainty, fingery, seeming-to-listen or seeming-to-whisper hand gestures are about? Well, so have the Trocks, and when, in their version of “Sylphides,” Margeaux Mundeyn (Yonny Manaure) goes into this business, the corps dancers look at her as if she were mad. Has the so-called Poet, the only man onstage amid the wood sprites, ever seemed to you unusual? Why does he look so abstracted? Has he risen from the dead? Pavel Törd (Bernd Burgmaier), who played the Poet on opening night, had the same questions, and no answer. He padded about, in an ill-fitting blond wig, with his eyes fixed on—what? The auditorium’s exit sign? At one point, with great eloquence, he simply stood there and rotated his wrists so that his palms faced us. “Why am I here?” he seemed to say. “Why are all these fairies running around, hurling themselves at me?”

Others of the Trocks’ pieces, more scholarly, are studies of a choreographer’s style. That was the specialty of Peter Anastos, who was one of the company’s founders and original dancers. Before his Trocks period, Anastos had put in many years as a balletomane. Later, he became the artistic director of the Garden State Ballet, then of Cincinnati Ballet, and he created a number of lovely “straight” ballets for those and other companies. He was a serious student of the art, and his 1974 “Go for Barocco,” a takeoff on Balanchine’s “Concerto Barocco,” is as punctilious an analysis as has ever been made of the great choreographer’s modernization of the danse d’école: his melding of jazz steps with ballet steps, his blending of play with formality, his creation of what was, in the end—though I didn’t see it until Anastos showed me—a rather strange all-female fellowship on the stage. Balanchine included one man, basically just to lift the lead woman. Anastos quietly corrected this. “Go for Barocco” is all ladies.

Still other items in the Trocks’ repertory are essays not just on ballet but on ballet culture, the customs and legends that have collected around the art. When Anna Pavlova, that most sainted of ballerinas, died, in 1931, her company, at its next performance, shone a spotlight on an empty stage while the music for “The Dying Swan,” her signature piece, played. Accordingly, the Trocks’“Dying Swan” begins with a spotlight beaming hotly on one wing and then, oops, on another, then another, until at last Ida Nevasayneva (Paul Ghiselin) bourrées out to undergo the celebrated extinction. Once she dies, furthermore, you can’t get her off the stage. She milks the applause endlessly; she clearly wants to do an encore. This, again, is a joke on ballet culture. “The Dying Swan” is probably the most encored work in the entire classical repertory. The Bolshoi’s Maya Plisetskaya—famous diva, famous hot dog—was known to perform it four times in a row. The Trocks love her for that. “We’re kind of selling ourselves as an old, dusty touring Russian ballet company that the modern age doesn’t have anymore,” Tory Dobrin, the troupe’s artistic director, told the Daily News recently. In fact, we do see something like that now and then—for example, when the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, which has had a number of important Russian teachers, comes to town. But Dobrin is right. The smell of the greasepaint, the ballerina in excelsis, the demented fans: for the most part, that kind of company is now an honored ghost. The last pure example was Sergei Denham’s Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, from whom the Trocks took their name. The Ballet Russe toured America from the nineteen-thirties through the nineteen-fifties, at which point it died a slow, overdue death. It’s nice of the Trocks to pay their grandmother this tribute.

The Trocks are still commissioning good satires. Their 2004 “Tarantella,” adapted by Pamela Pribisco, the company’s ballet mistress, from Balanchine’s, is a heavenly commentary on the Italian roguishness of that little dance, and of its star, Edward Villella, who—as the journalists, thrilled to have located what seemed to them a clearly straight man in ballet, never tired of proclaiming—was a street boy from Queens, a college boxing champion. Villella, if I remember correctly, banged the tambourine on his knee; Vladimir Legupski (Lionel Droguet), in the Trocks’ version, bangs it on his head. Patricia McBride, in Balanchine’s “Tarantella,” did a second-position demi-plié on point, a step known among the impolite as the “cunt dip,” and smiled at us sweetly, as if nothing special had happened. In the Trocks’ version, Sveltlana Lofatkina (Fernando Medina Gallego) performs that step and looks at us as if to ask our room number. How wonderful that this ballet, in its aggressive heterosexuality, was put through the Trocks’ irony mill.

But such knowingness is rare in some of the company’s recent acquisitions. Last year, the Trocks, faithful to their dusty-Russian-company identification, hired the Kirov-trained teacher Elena Kunikova to set on them the underwater scene from Alexander Gorsky’s 1901 “The Humpbacked Horse.” With variations for the corals, the goldfish, the starfish, and the jellyfish, presided over by the Queen of the Underwater, this is the sort of grand, and maybe also silly, inventory—with dances for all the kinds of jewels or flowers or dolls or whatever—that was standard in late-nineteenth-century ballet and has now largely vanished. (Its one famous survival is the all-the-candies divertissement in Balanchine’s “Nutcracker.”) We should be grateful to the Trocks for reviving this scene; according to Dobrin, they are the only professional company, worldwide, that is now performing it. They weren’t able to do much with it, however. The set (by John Claassen), with machines in the wings blowing bubbles onto the stage, was adorable. The costumes (by Kenneth Busbin) were even better. The corals wore big orange coquilles, as in the Shell Oil insignia, over their breasts. The jellyfish had glutinous tendrils wafting appallingly from their crania. But the comedy ended there. The dance was performed more or less straight, and it wasn’t very interesting. Maybe it never was, and the Trocks, sentimentally, touchingly, imagined that it was.

If so, they should have performed it better. The Trocks are no longer the balletically innocent group that they were in 1974. All the men have had ballet training; most have danced with regular classical companies. “We’re not a drag show, honey,” Robert Carter, the troupe’s foremost ballerina (Olga Supphozova), recently told an interviewer. “If you want to see that kind of crap, you can go to the bar.” Carter’s pride shows on the stage. His grands jetés in “Sylphides,” and also his fabulous, showy gargouillades (the shaking-out-the-legs step) in the “Humpbacked Horse,” fairly flame in the air, and he’s not the only standout. Lariska Dumbchenko (Raffaele Morra), in her red wig, does perfect, violent hops on point every chance she gets; the evil-faced Fifi Barkova (Manolo Molina), with her chin tucks and hand flicks, is a whole treatise on ballerina gesture. But, if accuracy is the goal, the troupe should go all the way. Carter should get that foot up to the knee in passé; he should finish his pirouettes in fifth position, not in let’s-get-this-over-with position. I hate to pick on Carter; he has greater mastery of the female technique than most females I’ve seen. But, that being the case, he’s the one to pick on.

The Trocks are very sophisticated. What they are doing is a carefully thought-out comedy about the history of women in ballet: how ballet ennobled what might seem fatuous in femininity (e.g., those dinky hand gestures); how it also gave women athletic power (e.g., those grands jetés); how, through these means, it posited the female as an emblem of the ideal. When the Trocks are at their best, that is what they show us. As in all great comedy, they pass through the joke and come out the other side, where the subject, having been laughed at, is once again embraced, enthroned.

Now is the time to honor female dancing, for in its extreme, tiara-topped version, which is the Trocks’ version, it is on its way out. These days, female dancers are now wearing costumes that look like the men’s. When the men lift the women, the women may turn around and lift them back. Meanwhile, the men are stealing for themselves the sort of hushed colloquy that, as in “Go for Barocco,” was once the women’s exclusive domain. Thirty or forty years ago, when two men did a pas de deux—in a Jerome Robbins ballet, for example—it more or less had to be combative, or at least very butch, lest the audience get the wrong idea. Today, after gay rights and the aids crisis and the whole reëvaluation of gender that accompanied feminism, the male-male pas de deux may be as rich and textured as the old male-female pas de deux. (Witness the male-male duets performed by George Piper Dances, the English group, at the Joyce a year ago.) In the decades to come, the special, unbreachable dominion of the ballerina, which is the Trocks’ great subject, may seem obsolete. For now, then, the company needs to give it everything that belongs to it—not just the saucy smiles and the finger fusses but all the steps.