Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, Touring

Ismene Brown, Arts Desk UK
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Les Grands Ballets Classiques de Stoke Poges are a company waiting to happen for most of us, but for Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo a bitter rivalry must be endured – one of their ballerinas didn’t show up last night in High Wycombe, due to winging on a last-minute errand of mercy to the Stoke Poges mob. Fortunately Ida Nevaseyneva was available to totter in with her eternally moulting Dying Swan – and all suddenly became right with the world. The Trocks are an errand of mercy, to anyone who loves old ballet, anyone who loves smart comedy.

This all-male US ballet company started in low-rent gay nightclubs in New York 37 years ago and recently danced in the Bolshoi Theatre, which is some career plan. They are all both well-trained dancers and comic specialists in fastidiously synchronised mistiming, but their repertoire strategy deepens the joke – it is drawn from the vaults of ballet’s arcane history, an era of mystique, improbable divas and legendary lost ballets that they disinter, and add their joyful parodic touch where necessary.

‘The pratfalls of slapstick movies were no more split-second in synchronicity than the splats and tantrums in the Trocks’ oeuvre’

The show is finely plotted from the opening announcement in thickly Russian-accented English, mangling the low-pun names of the performers, and putting us all in a very good mood. The more I see them, the more I admire their discipline and professionalism – and I still laugh like a drain. Watching their evergreen Swan Lake Act 2 last night, for the umpteenth time, I thought how smart the performing has to be to convey each night the idea that this is a stage teeming with maladjusted personalities, with grudges, jealousies, lusts and inadequacies, each bent on sabotaging the next in order to seize the spotlight – and yet the entire thing depends on the lot working like clockwork as a team.

For instance, it always happens that wee Benno, reeling back from a Taser of a glance from the Swan Queen, trips by accident over a swangirl, who topples in a heap and brings Benno down in a vengeful tackle. It’s a one-two-three with added sprinkles that works whoever the cast are because they all get themselves into precisely the right place for the domino effect. The pratfalls of slapstick movies were no more split-second in synchronicity than the splats and tantrums in the Trocks’ oeuvre, which has become so smart that they’re now a reference point in ballet comedy: when the Royal Ballet’s new Alice attempted comedy, it was disparagingly compared with the Trocks.

Their Swan Lake launches in High Kirov style with much flapping around the stage by the evil Rothbart (played by The Artist Formerly Known as Prince Myshkin), followed daintily by the two leading men checking their hairdos, and much less daintily by the corps of eight swans, one of whom forgot to come in on the right side. The corps have been updated with a bit of rap attitude, matched, or indeed maxed out by the Odette of Olga Supphozova, in the burly form of Robert Carter, who doesn’t let the fact that he’s wearing pointe shoes and a tutu prevent him from behaving like De Niro’s Al Capone with a baseball bat in The Untouchables whenever he thinks he’s not getting the respect due to him.

‘The six men look pleasingly disgusting in little black tunics that emphasise all their bumps, bulges and armpit hair’

Every programme changes slightly: our mystery pas de deux was a Soviet favourite, the Grand Pas Classique of Alexander Gsovsky, in which Chase Johnsey, known as Yakatarina Verbosovich, displayed pristine fouettées and an almost feminine grace in classical style – his hands and arms are more delicate and fascinating than nine out of 10 real ballerinas’. Having one of these fairly straight ballet numbers in each programme allows one to enjoy the jokey ones even more, like a touchstone of the old-school style the Trocks are guying. And these are usually rarities that are hardly ever danced. The Trocks do, unlikely as it seems, give us an education too, disinterring historic bits of balletic rhinestone.

Last night Go For Barocco was on, the only piece that didn’t exist until the Trocks commissioned it – a spoof of a Balanchine Bach ballet (pictured right, © Sascha Vaughan) in which the six men look pleasingly disgusting in little black tunics that emphasise all their bumps, bulges and armpit hair. The flowery, constantly touching hands of the Balanchine style were deliciously deployed for maximum bitchiness between the two main ballerinas. The trademark daisy-chains of dancers got tangled into deeply complicated knots. And tilted pelvises, anyone?

The comedy changes nightly as the roles get swapped around, power balances shift, visual gags change. A huge ballerina one night with a very very small partner, such as Katerina Bychkova (Joshua Grant in his girl guise) and the new Trock recruit from South Africa, Boysie Dikobe (aka Andrei Leftov), who doesn’t quite reach Grant’s shoulder, is just helplessly amusing. Wherever it appears in the hierarchy on stage, you can’t tear your eyes easily from this perilous giraffe-and-hamster duo, Grant’s perfect crimson lips smiling ecstatically, seeming to sigh in happiness as he topples backwards onto the almost invisible male partner behind him.

The great thing is that in the Trocks they seize on opportune mispairings such as that, and yet it doesn’t crowd other divas’ comedy – they just find their own. Ida Nevaseyneva’s Dying Swan (pictured left) may not have changed as much as a single shedding feather in the decades that Paul Ghiselin has danced it, but his gnarled Twiglet legs and the alarmed eyebrows drawn higher and higher as years go by are assets he uses with consummate comic judgment to make it freshly funny each time.

And Sveltlana Lofatkina may have been bumped out of the leading role to a supporting soloist in their palatial (ish) Raymonda’s Wedding last night, ceding to the forcefully flamboyant Lariska Dumbchenko, but in her solo she pulled down her cleavage, fluffed out her black chest hair, and sniffily reminded everyone who was the classy piece of ass on stage.

Les Ballet Trockadero de Monte Carlo are in High Wycombe’s Swan again tonight, then tour to Birmingham Hippodrome 30 Mar-2 Apr, Sheffield Lyceum 5-6 April, Bradford Alhambra 8-9 April, Edinburgh Festival Theatre 12-13 April, Salford Lowry 15-16 April, 2011. Their next UK tour is January 2013