Tutu much

Ruth Eshel, Haaretz
Posted on

Tel Aviv, Israel

Discover what lurks beneath the ballerina’s bodice as all-male ensemble Les Ballets Trockadero performs in Tel Aviv.

Classical romantic ballet is identified with ballerinas dancing on their tiptoes – and now Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo consists entirely of men in tutus and rigid satin pointe shoes. What began in 1974 as a parody of ballet technique and the mannerisms of Russian ballet stars from the early 20th century has become a ballet company of male dancers with professional technical abilities. The introduction to the performance prepares the audience for what is to come: The announcer introduces the company’s “ballerinas,” who have chosen Russian names for themselves, as was customary at the beginning of the last century when it was thought that only someone with Russian origins could become a “real” ballet dancer.

The question is, to what extent is it possible to laugh at the dance before it slips into cheap parody, and to what extent does the fact that men are dancing women’s roles here add to the performance? The better the spectator knows the original work, the more likely he or she is to discern the differences – be they executed with a heavy hand or in nuances. Since the Trockadero dancers are laughing at ballet but are also able to perform it impressively, the pleasure flows between healthy laughter and admiration for their technical prowess.

When you look only at the dozens of dancing legs encased in tights, it is hard to imagine these are men’s legs. The training for ballet en pointe has given the same musculature to their legs as it does to women’s legs. These are long, shapely and aesthetic legs, and less muscular and bulbous than the legs of male dancers in traditional male roles that require mainly leaps and the muscles to carry female dancers. The men of the Trockadero also have wonderfully arched feet and footwork and have acquired the flexibility in the male pelvis needed for the perfect opening of the legs outwards. It is also amazing how their work with their arms is soft and flowing.

However, from beneath the bodice of the ballet frock peeps chest hair, and bushes of hair grow in the dancers’ armpits. The dancers look like trained animals that have learned movement that is not theirs and from time to time the body revolts, the soft arms are thrust in a sharp, hard movement and beneath the magical, swanlike wrappings there are kicks, stumbles and unprincess-like slips. There are good leaps in accordance with ballet academy rules, with pointed feet, and there are also stray leaps with flexed feet, like “irons” – an image borrowed from my ballet teacher Valentina Arkhipova Grossman, who was of Russian origin.

Laughter by force

In their rendition of “Swan Lake,” the Trockadero dancers attempt to elicit laughter by force. The prince and his companion are blonds, sort of male swans, while Lariska Dumbchenko (original name: Raffaele Morra ) as Odette is energetic and very practical, with the famous exchanges of vows of love including a demand for a wedding ring. In contrast to the traditional corps de ballet in which ballerinas look like precise replicas of one another, all of them of the same height and build, here there is a motley group of tall and short, of various sizes and shapes.

At this point in the program it is not yet clear what the dancers’ real technical abilities are and the large number of gaffes, falls and kicks is indeed funny but also prompts the thought that maybe it all stems from an inability to cope technically with the original.

Les Ballets Trockadero sends its barbs at classical ballet but also at influential American choreographer Merce Cunningham, and the result makes you laugh so hard you fall out of your chair. Cunningham’s works are known for their cerebral aspect – there is no difference between men’s and women’s movement materials and all of them dance barefoot. Therefore the Trockadero’s parodic spotlight is directed at Cunningham’s style as the dancers move through space, with stops and sudden changes of direction.

The live orchestra – an extraordinary ensemble of two instrumentalists – plays the music of John Cage, who claimed that any noise or sound can be used to create music. The instrumentalists groan, exhale into paper bags and pop them, stir pots with a spoon and lord knows what else – all with the utter seriousness of avant-garde performers.

Also amusing is “The Dying Swan,” the famous solo originally choreographed by Michel Fokine and performed here by Ida Nevasayneva (originally Paul Ghiselin ). His skeletal body suits the role wonderfully as he advances in a bourree – a quick glide on his toes, shedding elderly feathers. Suddenly, he loses control of his feet, he becomes dizzy, he has chest pains and he darts despairing glances at the audience. Yet before the ambulance arrives, he recovers, gathers his strength, continues to advance on his toes, reaches the famous dying moments as he sits on one bent leg and reaches over his other, stretched-out leg with his torso and arms, when suddenly, oops, he loses his balance and falls sideways.

“Paquita,” danced by Yakatarina Verbosovich (originally Chase Johnsey ), is a stunning performance of this ballet with its virtuoso hurdles. At moments you forget that this is an all-male ensemble, though what does perhaps hint at this is the energy radiated by the dancers. The choreography takes aim at the only male dancer appearing in a male role and ridicules the role of the male in ballet. While the Trockadero ballerinas skillfully perform the intricacies of the choreography, the danseur noble – the noble, male dancer, as the ballerina’s partner is called – stays in one place and throughout the entire dance does a basic jump up and down, changing feet in the air – changement – and serves as an elevator to lift the ballerina, as though she were a sack of potatoes, and to sit her on his shoulders.

Throughout the entire performance the dancers look amused. Their smiles are open-mouthed and brightly wide-eyed with the naughty winks of knowing starlets. This is the joy of men dressed up to dance like girls, and every movement shouts, “We are better than the girls.”

Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo: “Swan Lake,” Act II, after Tchaikovsky; “Patterns in Space,” after Merce Cunningham; “Go for Barocco” by Peter Anastos, after George Balanchine; “The Dying Swan,” after Michel Fokine; “Paquita,” after Marius Petipa. At Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center, 19 Shaul Hamelech Blvd., Tel Aviv, until tomorrow.