Not Even the Russians Can Do This ‘Laurencia’

Valerie Gladstone, New York Times
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Backstage: Philip Martin-Nielson of Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo as Nadia Doumiafeyva. Credit Julieta Cervantes for The New York Times

Tory Dobrin, the artistic director of the all-male drag company Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, affectionately known as the Trocks, first saw a clip of the Soviet-era ballet “Laurencia” on television in the early ’80s, and it stayed with him. The ballet shows its choreographer, Vakhtang Chabukiani, dancing in a ripped shirt, with a bare midriff and torn pants, surrounded by women in peasant skirts and blouses. “It features great solos and music with a catchy tune,” he said by phone from Bali in October, while vacationing after the troupe’s Asian tour.

But finding the financing for a restaging, currently being performed at the Joyce Theater through Jan. 6, turned out to be difficult. Finally, last winter, with a commission from the Joyce Theater Foundation and support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Harkness Foundation for Dance, Mr. Dobrin began planning to present a condensed version of the ballet during the company’s engagement at the Joyce. (The season also includes excerpts from 12 other ballets on two different programs, including pas de deux from “Swan Lake,” “Le Corsaire” and “Flames of Paris.”)

“I checked it out on YouTube,” Martin Wechsler, the director of programming for the Joyce, said of “Laurencia.” “It’s hysterical.” The ballet, with a score by Alexander Krein, had its premiere by the Kirov Ballet in 1939. It won great popularity at the time because of its socially conscious and dramatic story, based on Lope de Vega’s play “Fuente Ovejuna,” about a Spanish peasant girl who leads her village against its oppressive ruler.

The ballet remains a favorite in Russia, where the Kirov and Bolshoi ballets, as well as other Russian companies, still perform it. The Mikhailovsky Ballet of St. Petersburg presented it in London last year.

To stage the work for Les Ballets Trockadero, Mr. Dobrin enlisted the help of Elena Kunikova, who trained at the Vaganova Ballet Academy (the school of the Kirov Ballet) and is a former member of the Maly Theater Ballet in St. Petersburg. Mr. Dobrin and Ms. Kunikova have previously collaborated on stagings of “Paquita,” “The Humpback Horse,” “Esmeralda” and several other ballets for the company.

Using a cassette tape of the music and video of a Kirov Ballet performance of “Laurencia” as source material, Ms. Kunikova and Mr. Dobrin decided that the company should perform a combination of the opening dance for the villagers, several solos, the pas de six and the boisterous finale. It adds up to a 16-minute piece.

Though the Trocks have taken on obscure works before, “Laurencia” posed special challenges. Often compared to Nijinsky, Chabukiani was a fiery and virtuoso dancer, who choreographed technically challenging steps and solos requiring great stamina.

He also helped develop a new hybrid style of choreography popular in the Soviet Union that came to be called choreodrama. These ballets were based on dramas that were in keeping with Soviet political philosophy and, to express their themes and tell their stories through gesture, relied as much on the performers’ acting ability as on their technical skills.

As part of the Trocks’ mission, Mr. Dobrin likes to offer audiences an opportunity to see idiosyncratic works, like “Laurencia.” “Everything in the Russian repertory has a specific look,” he said, “especially in regard to the national styles of the character dancing.”

“Western dancers usually don’t have this as part of their training, because it’s considered too exaggerated and old-fashioned,” he added. “The fun aspect of dancing with the Trocks is learning and performing the proper style of the individual ballets. It’s also one of the fun aspects of watching a performance of the Trocks.”

Ludmila Raianova, a former dancer with the Bolshoi Ballet, gives the company classes, and Ms. Kunikova takes care of coaching. Ms. Kunikova was keen to work on the Spanish-themed “Laurencia,” having once performed “Paquita”; the pas de deux from “Don Quixote”; “Carmen”; and the Spanish dance from “The Nutcracker.”

“They require a passionate and lively display of emotion,” Ms. Kunikova said. Rehearsals began in earnest on Mr. Dobrin’s return from Asia in November. In an Upper West Side studio, he, Ms. Kunikova and the ballet master, Paul Ghiselin, worked with the dancers Robert Carter and Paolo Cervellera on the roles of Laurencia and her lover, Frondoso. The Trocks not only play male and female characters and dance on point; each one is also given two Russified names. For instance, Mr. Carter is also known as Olga Supphozova and Yuri Smirnov.

When everyone was ready, Mr. Ghiselin turned on the sweeping music, and Mr. Cervellera, a handsome, muscular man playing Frondoso, dashed to the center of the room and leapt into high-flying turns, finishing with a flourish on one knee, his arms stretched to the sky.

“Remember,” Ms. Kunikova said, demonstrating, “you must have Spanish arms; you should be implying holding castanets in your hands. Your fingers must be very strong.”

She studied him closely. “Your hands are too classical; they have to look more Spanish,” she said.

New to the company, Mr. Cervellera, 23, wasn’t yet accustomed to the style, though he had watched clips of the troupe’s performances in his native Italy since he was a child. To show him how to convey a sense of victory, Ms. Kunikova lunged forward, her face and body tensed.

“Look like a runner just before he charges out in a race,” she said. To illustrate further, Mr. Dobrin opened his laptop to YouTube and went to a clip of Chabukiani as Frondoso in “Laurencia,” looking slightly mad, with his chin jutting out and his eyes wild. “The jokes just emerge naturally from the ballets,” Ms. Kunikova said.

When Mr. Cervellera finished working on his variations, Mr. Carter, 37, started on his solo. A member of the company for 17 years, he knows its style. But the part of Laurencia is harder than most roles he has undertaken. Unlike the female leads in ballets choreographed before “Laurencia,” it calls for almost as much virtuoso dancing as the male lead. After all, she is a heroine leading a revolt.

As Mr. Carter turned in one pirouette after another and then began a series of jumps, Mr. Dobrin marveled at his accomplishment.

“A woman couldn’t do what Bobby is doing so powerfully,” he said, when Mr. Carter slowed to a final arabesque. “She would never have such strong, muscular legs — nor would she want them. That’s where the excitement of the Trocks comes in.”

Performances run through Jan. 6, 2013 at the Joyce Theater in Chelsea; (212) 242-0800,

New York Times