Les Ballet Trockadero de Monte Carlo in Swan Lake

Allan Ulrich, Voice of Dance, Berkeley
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After a six-year hiatus, those hairy-chested Pavlovas known as Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo have returned to the University of California’s Zellerbach Hall for one of the drollest evenings you will spend in a theater in this lifetime. This is male travesty ballet of consummate wit and lofty sophistication – the two, in this case, are inextricably linked – and, although I have doubts about the narrow range of the current Cal Perfomances program, which opened Thursday (May 5), the affair should not be missed by anybody who thinks that classical dance is both a glorious and improbably silly experience. These guys are of the same opinion.

Get there early and read the program carefully. The hilarious biographies accompanying the diabolically inventive stage names should put you in the mood for the two hours of informed merriment that follows. Founded 31 years ago and directed for many years by Tory Dobrin, the Trocks are maddeningly funny because these Fonteyns with five o’clock shadows dance on point so well – better, in fact, than a couple of traditionally gendered suburban troupes hereabouts I could name. Veteran Trocks watchers live in the past; my memories of the divine Olga Tchickaboumskaya remain undimmed by time. But this new generation – I had not previously encountered Alla Snizova, Sveltlana Lofatkina and Lariska Dumbchenko, though a reliable source informs me that the venerable Margeaux Mundeyn has finally applied for a green card – can easily compete with memories of an earlier era.

The Trocks have prospered for several reasons. To be sure, one of them resides in capitalizing on the world’s continuing fascination with all matters balletic that derive from Russia. Another is our love for and complicity in ballet egos. When Ida Nevasayneva (Paul Ghislein) concludes her ineffable interpretation of Michel Fokine’s The Dying Swan (molting feathers to stuff mattresses for years to come), she milks that applause for minutes and if we didn’t respond so enthusiastically, the gag would fall flatter than Fifi Barkova’s arches.

What endears some of us to the Trocks is the company’s respect for historical details. In the sidesplitting Act II of Swan Lake, which opens the Berkeley program, everybody stumbles over Siegfried’s pal Benno, who even worms his way into the pas de deux. In fact, this character, who has mostly disappeared from modern stagings, was prominent in the 1893 Petipa-Ivanov version, because Siegfried was danced by the honored but aging Pavel Gerdt.

Here, Nikolai Legupski (Carlos Garcia) thrilled in the part. Once you recovered from his O-Cello wig, gangly Pavel Törd (Bernd Burgmaier) served Siegfried on a silver platter. But the performance belonged to the inimitable Olga Supphozova (Robert Carter) whose cheesy appeals to the audience’s affections were matched only by graceful backbends, fluttery port de bras and clenched fists. Aside from one laggard, the cygnets’ pas de quatre was up to the high standards set in the past by the Trocks. The von Rothbart, Velour Pilleaux (Ghiselin), tired easily, maybe because of the weight of the toilet brush he was wearing on his head. The eight-person swan corps, tough old birds, dispatched their assignments well, fervor dripping from every armpit hair.

Staged by Elena Kunikova, Arthur Saint Léon’s La Vivandière Pas de Six is new to this area. The work itself, with the dancers’ trailing ribbons from bodices and long skits, seems almost impervious to satire; we don’t know enough about late Romantic ballet in France to send it up. The running gag, tiny Legupski attempting to partner the absurdly tall Törd, wears a bit thin before the end. The Pugni score sounded as banal as ever.

But the team’s Don Quixote pas de deux was a gem, at least for insiders. Never mind that Kitri, Mme. Barkova (Manolo Molina) should be wearing a white, rather than a red tutu for her wedding. Still, the partnering gambits, in which the Basilio, R.M. (“Prince”) Myshkin (Fernando Medina Gallego), descends and swivels at his lady’s command, were to be relished by all of us who have sat through this competition piece more times than we’d like to admit. Barkova’s nubile ballerina relished every (you should excuse the expression) swish of the fan and didn’t so much defy gravity as reprimand it.

Heaven knows, how you skewer Petipa’s Raymonda, when it’s so ungainly to start with. Zellerbach, which housed the Bolshoi’s version last fall, Thursday night got the Trocks’ version of Act III, Raymonda’s Wedding, including the wondrous designs by Chas. B. Slackman and the dotty costumes by Mike Gonzales and Ken Busbin. Oddly, the Trocks, for all their kinetic exaggeration, seems the more authentic setting of the ballet. Here, for example, we got the White Lady carrying a wedding cake (she has disappeared from the Bolshoi version). The Trocks’ mania for authenticity yielded Tartars, Saracens, Hungarians and probably a few Ruritanians in this feast of celebratory dancing. From Dumbchencko (Raffaele Morra), we witnessed a Czardas to char the soul. From the hapless Jean de Brienne, William Vanilla (Grant Thomas), we shared a collision with a speaker blasting the Glazunov score. The pushy Supphozova careered through Raymonda’s fourth bridesmaid as if the ballet were about her. Well, it was and it wasn’t. Let her make Tartar sauce on her own time.

Lest you think that the Trocks lack sufficient irreverence, here’s what happened at the end of Raymonda. A crystal ball descended. The music segued from Glazunov into Benny Goodman’s “Sing, Sing, Sing,” and all these medieval Hungarians erupted into a demonstration of swing dancing (darn good, too). Patrons who left before the bows will never know what they missed. So, now for the complaint. The Trocks are master satirists, and, in restricting the fare to 19th century tutu stuff on this visit, they have deprived a new generation of their incomparable takes on Robbins (via Peter Anastos’ Yes, Virginia, Another Piano Ballet), Balanchine (Go for Barocco, and Robby LaFosse’s skewering of Stars and Stripes), Cunningham, Graham and Pina Bausch. The team is just as deadly accurate with contemporary fare, too.

To the Trocks’ credit, they’re much more forthcoming these days in identifying the talented ballerinos behind the pseudonyms. I love, too, their solution to dealing with chronic audience harassment. Booms a voice in a thick Slavic accent: “Everyone is requested to turn off all cell phones and paging devices – or we will turn them off for you.” The KGB lives. Other presenters, please note.

Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo dances Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. at Zellerbach Hall, University of California, Berkeley. For tickets, call (510) 642-9988.

The evening ended with a trademark Trocks encore, involving Benny Goodman’s “Sing Sing Sing” and a sparkling disco ball. It wasn’t quite as fabulous as the “Riverdance” encore of their last Seattle visit, but it shows that the Trocks keep moving forward, trying something new. Long live this company, who so aptly blend the joy of ballet and the fine art of silliness.