Peacock Theatre, London

Graham Watts, Ballet Magazine
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‘Giselle Act 2’, ‘Diana and Acteon pdd’, ‘Vivaldi Suite’, ‘The Dying Swan’, ‘Majisimas’, ‘The Little Humpback Horse excerpt’

The “Trocks” (as this company is affectionately known the world over) have been touring their unique brand of classical ballet, mixed with riotous slapstick and playful parody, for more than 30 years. For anyone not yet familiar with their work, the unique selling point lies with an all-male ensemble dancing traditional ballerina roles en travesti. It provides the spark for much of their humour but it’s also a subliminal throwback across centuries to an era when females dancing for public entertainment were considered immoral and all roles were danced by men.

It would be wrong, however, to dismiss the Trocks as funny, dancing, drag artistes since their rationale is so much deeper than this. Sure, there is lots of fun but whilst each programme starts like “Carry on Arabesque” it always gets progressively more serious to show that these guys can really dance, albeit mostly as girls. Some are obviously men in drag, with hairy chests belying the feminine grace of their port de bras; others are incredibly feminine – one looked suspiciously like an ex-girlfriend, which was a distinctly unsettling thought!

Their remarkable impersonation of women dancing is most strongly articulated in the principal ballerina roles, whether it’s Sveltlana Lofatkina (aka Fernando Medina Gallego) as Odette or Lariska Dumbchenko (Raffaele Morra) as Giselle. There’s no mistaking that they are men but the gestures, the expressions, the arms and – most importantly – the legs belong to a woman.

There are advantages to their cross-gender delivery of famous roles. I’ve certainly never seen a scarier Myrtha than the ever-scowling, Amazonian Queen of the Wilis portrayed by Minnie Van Driver (Joseph Jefferies). Like an encounter with the Gorgon, I’m surprised that the hapless Albrecht didn’t just drop dead on the spot. I also especially loved the permanent, crooked-mouthed concentration of Nadezhda Bogdownova (Christopher Lam) as Moyna. Lam returned after a quick change into his male alter-ego, Boris Nowitsky, to partner Roberto Carter’s Olga Supphozova in the Diana & Acteon Pas de Deux. This was danced with surprising clarity and accuracy, even allowing for the frequent outbursts of comedy, which took off into new heights in the Vivaldi Suite by pairing the tallest “ballerina”, Katarina Bychkova (Joshua Grant), with the most diminutive – and undeniably pretty – man, Araf Legupski (Camilo Rodriguez), wearing a pageboy’s blonde wig, just to rub it in. When “she” was en pointe, Legupski’s nose was somewhere south of where Bychkova’s breasts should have been, so you can visualise where the humour came from. Benny Hill would have been proud.

I don’t know how many times London has now seen Ida Nevasayneva’s everlasting ‘Dying Swan’ but it’s still capable of raising many smiles, even though we know what’s coming next. Paul Ghiselin’s portrayal of a decaying-but-proud ballerina delivering her swansong over-and-over again is a timeless exercise in burlesque. Ida’s eyelashes seem to get longer, the tutu sheds even more feathers, the curtain calls are more over the top and it’s all out of the comedy top drawer. Ghiselin is by far the longest-serving Trock, now also the company’s ballet master, but I hope that he can keep the swan dying for a while longer, yet.

Another significant aspect of the company’s raison d’être is its reverence for classical ballet and the recreation of works we don’t often see anywhere else, such as ‘Majisimas’, a dance divertissement from the second act of Massenet’s ‘El Cid’, which closes the first programme. The second ended with a retrieval of the underwater divertissement from Pugni’s ‘The Little Humpback Horse’, which was danced with gentle, affectionate humour, enhancing the Petipa/Gorsky choreography. There were touches of Bourne-like genius in the costumes (by Kenneth Busbin) and décor (by John Claassen), like the heavy spectacles worn by the Star Fish and the bubbles blown in from the side to provide the underwater context. Dumbchenko (Morra) and Lofatkina (Gallego) were again gloriously feminine as the two Corals, set off by Grant, this time in his male persona as Ashley Romanoff-Titwillow.

Cross-gender issues aside, the Trocks are a ballet equivalent to the Harlem Globetrotters, or perhaps even the way the late Les Dawson used to play the piano. In order to play that badly, they had to know how to play really well. There is no pretending that the Trocks are the best dancers in the world but they can surely dance and they certainly love the essence and conventions of their art to be able to make it this much fun.

This second programme runs at The Peacock until 27 September, 2008 and then the first programme returns from 30 September to 4 October before they embark on a nationwide tour in two halves: All the Bs (Brighton, Bradford and Birmingham) b4 Mid-November and then back in February, 2009 for a further 8 venues over a month.