Settle back and relax.
The curtain is about to go up… An unseen voice is making some preliminary announcements – a couple of cast changes could well be among them. Maybe Colette Adae won’t be dancing this evening and her solo in Les Sylphides will instead be performed by Nadia Doomiafeyva, or perhaps Jacques d’Aniels will replace Sergey Legupski in the role of The Poet. Already there’s a whiff of cod Rooshian in the air, the tongue in cheek humour signaling the mischievous spoofery that lies ahead – but also slyly referencing the influences and ballet history that the Trocks hold dear to their hearts, their dancing feet and their fabulously full on eye make up.
Legacy runs through Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo like the lettering in a stick of old fashioned rock. The company’s origins, more than forty years ago, had a playful toe in two different camps: classical ballet and parody, the latter made all the more piquant because it was done ‘en travesti’. The Trocks, as they are now affectionately known worldwide, have continued to honour that delightfully contrary partnership in every performance since. They have buffed up the manner in which they trip the light fantastic in a 19th century ballet blanc – ensuring the comedic emphasis is on the ‘trip’ that then sends mayhem rippling merrily through Swan Lake and its ilk. The best punchline, however, comes when the spoof shifts into something that never fails to surprise and delight: as when a male ballerina dances Odette with an expressive finesse that reaches back, across time, to 1877 and that premiere appearance of a hapless princess, turned into a swan by an evil sorcerer.
Marius Petipa is the choreographer credited with that first incarnation of Swan Lake, and in the Trocks programme lists, Petipa is credited as the company’s ‘stylistic guru’ – and it’s not a whimsical little joke, folks. It’s a genuine tribute that highlights how the Trocks’ repertoire draws energies from the 19th century heyday of the Imperial Russian Ballet. So when Paquita arrives on stage in a rainbow whisk of ornate tutus, or La Esmeralda kicks up her heels and flaunts her tambourine, what you are seeing on a 21st century stage is balletic legacy in action. The cleverly engineered fooling around is punctiliously sidelined into the wings, and the diva tastic prowess of the men on pointe becomes an unswerving celebration of classic traditions.
Raffaele Morra is very much a custodian of those traditions. He joined the Trocks in May 2001, and until recently was one of the company’s leading ballerinas. He’s now their ballet master, teaching class and overseeing rehearsals as well as helping with the restaging of additions to the repertoire. Raffa, as he’s usually called, not only has years of practical experience to call on, he has a profound connection with the essential dynamics of classical ballet – and how reviving old, often neglected, works requires more than just mastering the moves. “It can be easy, I think, for a modern company to bring together steps, costumes, music, lighting design and think ‘okay, that’s enough’. But you know, really it’s not.” He smiles as he says this, but he’s serious. “All that does is create a kind of ‘empty perfection’ – with the potential danger of losing what I would call the ‘soul’ of the choreography. If you are obsessing about getting ballerinas to lift their legs higher, or for male dancers to push for as many tours en l’air as they can fit into a musical phrase, then yes, it will probably look impressive on stage. But what it is, really, is showing off. And, for me, this is an artform that deserves more than the big tricks from us as performers. We need to connect with the purpose – the story line, the emotions, the drama – behind the choreography, and express it so as the audience understands why it is important to revive the integrity of these old ballets.” He pauses. Grins broadly. Then adds “of course we also do the tricks – sometimes for comedy, but also because it’s fun to show off your technique. We’re men dancing in pointe shoes. That’s not something many companies allow you to do. I know that from my own career before I joined the Trocks. But even when we are falling over for laughs, the humour doesn’t mean we’re not serious about being the best ballerinas we can possibly be.”
An intrinsic part of that commitment takes place in front of the dressing room mirror and, as Raffa reflects on what the hour long ritual of preparation entails, he allies the gradual transformation of a hairy chested Trock into a performance ready ballerina with what he means by the spirit, the ‘soul’. that imbues a ballet with evergreen appeal. It’s a process that – for all the lipstick, rouge and fluttery false eyelashes – conjures up a vividly individual character that is more than skin deep. “Bit by bit, you come face to face with your ballerina self,” is how Raffa describes these moments of shape shifting. “And I think that for us, it is more intense, more striking, than for a female ballerina who is used to putting on make up in front of a mirror. For us, it’s about becoming an ‘opposite’ self. The pointe shoes physically change how you hold yourself, how you find your balance – but it goes much deeper inside you when you perform steps that have been danced by countless legendary ballerinas. You’re suddenly aware of being yourself as a dancer – but somehow more of who you now are… because you are now also a ballerina self. For me, that was always a feeling of being truly complete as a dancer. And that is, I think, the wonderful door that the Trocks have opened for so many other male dancers – an artistic fulfilment that I hope reaches out to our audiences.”
The announcements are over. The ballerinas are waiting in the wings. Another footnote in the Trocks’ embodiment of legacy is just a breath and a beat away…
Settle back, relax – ENJOY!
Mary Brennan is the Dance/Performance critic for The Herald
Dancers as ballerinas: Robert Carter (OLGA SUPPHOZOVA), Carlos Hopuy (ALLA SNIZOVA), Joshua Thake (EUGENIA REPELSKII), Alberto Pretto (NINA IMMOBILASHVILI) and Raffaele Morra (WAITER)
London photographs by Elliott Franks, Swan Lake photo by Zoran Jelenic