Mixed bill (very)

Graham Watts, Dance Tabs
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Trocks in Walpurgisnacht. © Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo.

Paris, Folies Bergère,
Paris, 28 September 2012

The “Trocks” at Les Folies Bergère is a marriage made in marketing heaven. The world’s most famous music hall on whose tiny stage have appeared the giants of international comedy from Charlie Chaplin to Benny Hill, now plays host to the unique farceurs of drag ballet: that remarkable institution, Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, which has toured the world like ballet’s glammed-up version of the Harlem Globetrotters since 1974.

The Folies is best known for the decadent cabarets of the 1920s fronted by the likes of Josephine Baker and Mistinguette, Charles Trenet and Maurice Chevalier. It is a venue with a history that simply screams to add the “Trocks” to the roll call. The famous French ballerina, Zizi Jeanmaire starred in the film Folies Bergère and now the stage of that name plays host to sixteen ”ballerinas” whose glamour and glittering tiaras (not to mention their heavy mascara and ruby red lips) vies with the very best, albeit clashing in many cases with a hairy chest. But woe betide anyone who sees this as simply a troupe of men dancing as women: sure, drag ballet is the major part of what they do, but it is a unique genre of dancing comedy that defines this immensely successful company. It is often as the hapless, egotistical or ridiculously small male danseur that these comedians achieve the biggest laughs.

Like the cabaret acts of yesteryear, a secret to their success is the formulaic structure of every “Trocks” show. It will always begin with a deadpan announcement as to the indisposition and absence of certain “ballerinas”, invariably spoken slowly by a dancer who is not fluent in the native language, and always ends with an encore that has some topicality to the venue or the times. In between there will be a “white” ballet; a series of divertissements (including a “late addition” announced at the beginning); the ubiquitous Dying Swan; a neoclassical or modern ballet (who could ever forget their homage to Merce Cunningham and John Cage entitled Patterns in Space); and a final one-act ballet (often taken from the soviet back catalogue) that is danced almost straight, the humour coming from their exaggerated expressions and balletic positions. Within this well-honed framework, the artistic director, Tory Dobrin, picks and mixes from an extensive – and growing – repertoire to fit each bill.

This Parisian performance seemed to herald a fresh and vibrant energy in the ensemble: perhaps it was due to the unique appropriateness of the venue – although if truth be told, the Folies Bergère is much in need of the extensive refurbishment it is currently undergoing (particularly to upgrade the extreme dilapidation of the backstage areas); or, more likely, the refreshing zest that has been added by five new dancers joining in 2012 (one as recently as three days’ before this show), representing a turnover of almost one third of the company in the past few months. But while the faces change the names carry on: thus we still have the redoubtable Minnie Van Driver (although “she” is played by Trystan Merrick) and the newest recruit, Carlos Hopuy, has recycled the names of Alla Snizova and Innokenti Smoktumuchsky. In their own inimitable way, the “Trocks” are ballet’s own version of Bobby Ewing stepping out of the shower.

This show opened with the White Act of Swan Lake which now has the well-polished patina layered through hundreds – probably, now thousands – of performances. All the much-loved farce was there, such as the corps de ballet dancer ridiculously out-of-place and desperate to be noticed, the ill-matched quartet of cygnets, the hopelessly inept Benno (played by Raffaele Morra’s Pepe Dufka) and the absurdly grotesque von Rothbart (played – on his 51st birthday – by Paul Ghiselin in his male alter ego of Velour Pilleaux). Watching this irreverent take on ballet’s most popular “white act” is like revisiting any classic comedy routine. One knows exactly what is going to happen and yet we are laughing almost in anticipation. The novelty for me, here, was that I had never previously seen Roberto Forleo (dancing as Marina Plezegetovstageskaya) performing the Odette role and, bizarrely, s/he seemed at times a dead ringer (only facially, of course) for the great Maya Plisetskaya!

The 2nd act of Swan Lake was followed, after the interval, with the Black Swan pas de deux (the divertissement announced at the beginning as a replacement for something else) and the humour coming – as at least one dance always does – in the youthful looks and small stature of Hopuy (the Cuban dancer is actually 28 but looks no more than 16) contrasting with the big, muscular frame of Chase Johnsey (dancing as Yakatarina Verbosovich). The Cuban schooling of Hopuy is impressive and his variation was expertly danced, including the trademark Cuban flicking over of the take-off leg in a jeté en tournant. This was followed by Go for Barocco, a neoclassical pastiche of Balanchine’s Concerto Barocco, which was danced at a furious pace, led by the principal pair of Maya Thickenthighya (Carlos Miller) and Giuseppina Zambellini (ENB School graduate, Davide Marongiu). The interval was approached by the mandatory performance of The Dying Swan, not on this occasion by the veteran Ghiselin (as Ida Nevasayneva) but by Raffaele Morra (dancing as Lariska Dumbchenko). Although all the main ingredients were there (spots failing to find the dancer’s entrance, malting feathers, “chicken walk”, milking the applause etc) Morra puts his own particular stamp on this most famous of all divertissements and one senses that a post-Ida generation of new dead swans is being born.

The final section was Valpurgeyeva Noch, a re-imagining of Leonid Lavrovsky’s version of the ballet divertissement entitled Walpurgisnacht from Charles Gounod’s opera Faust, made for the Bolshoi Ballet in 1941. Walpurgisnacht is a spring festival – usually commemorating May Day – celebrated across central Europe, which is often referred to as the “Other Halloween”. The Lavrovsky version is dominated by revelling nymphs, faunes and virgins in a bacchanalian celebration presided over by the god of the grape harvest himself (Mikhail Mypansarov aka Carlos Miller) and Bacchante (the incomparable Robert Carter as Olga Supphozova) with Boysie Dikobe as Pan. The most outrageous turn of the evening came with the three nymphs of Dumbchenko, Plezegetovstageskaya and Zamellini. Of course, this wasn’t the end since we then had a hilarious “River Dance” finale, apparently because there was another spin-off from that highly successful Irish dancing franchise playing somewhere else in Paris on this weekend. It rivalled the famous “hat” dance for fun.

The Trocks coped admirably with the surprisingly small stage space of Les Folies Bergère, that grande vieux dame of French theatre, much in need of a facelift. Now I “Supphozova” that some of the grande vieux “dames” of Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo might also be in need of a botox injection or two although that’s all a part of the hilarity but – as a company – it’s good to see that the natural process of regeneration continues into another new generation of Van Drivers and Smoktumuchskys.

The Trocks are touring the UK in January/February 2013 with a programme that includes the Swan Lake 2nd Act, Valpurgeyeva Noch and (of course) The Dying Swan.

(Graham Watts visited Paris as a Guest of Les Ballets Trocadero de Monte Carlo)

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