By Mary Brennan
Good. Because I have something rather shocking to tell you about Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo. They do not come from Monte Carlo . They haven’t ever performed there either. But what the heck – home may be where you hang your size ten pointe-shoes… but if your spiritual home is somewhere in the annals – and heyday – of Russia ’s Imperial Ballet then Monte Carlo , where so many emigrees ballerinas fetched up during the Bolshevik uprising, is an appropriate heartland to claim as your own. And frankly – would you be lured into a theatre by a troupe of hairy-chested Swans from Hoboken?
Actually, these days the Trocks (as they are affectionately known) recruit their dedicated divas from all over the globe. Wherever they tour – and that’s to over 500 cities in more than 30 countries worldwide – chances are many a manly heart will skip a beat and, watching the troupe on-stage in their tutus and tiaras, the wannabe will make a ‘let it be me’ wish… Which is all a far, and unexpected cry, from the Trocks’ beginnings back in 1974.
On September 9 of that year, in a Manhattan loft-cum-club, a group of burly ballerinas wearing tutus and pointe-shoes entertained an audience with hilarious spoofs on well-known classic ballets – then totally wowed them by dancing those classic fouettes, arabesques and jetes with seriously classy, confident technique. Onlookers who’d been guffawing at the chest hair fluffing out over the bodice-tops, were not just impressed but actually moved by the combination of strength and delicacy present in the performances. Right from the start, it was obvious that this all-male ensemble couldn’t properly be described as a ‘drag act.’
Camp? Indeed yes, and knowingly so. Funny? Oh, absolutely, with all kinds of slapstick and mayhem programmed into the choreography. But when observers – and some hawk-eyed critics – took a closer look at what the men were doing, they realised that this wasn’t really about guys getting dolled up in female clothes, trowelling on the slap and gussying about pretending to be ballerinas. This was all about dancing. And about the repertoire divide that, ever since the first Sylph rose on pointe in the 1800’s, had put the ballerina centre-stage with roles and choreographies that in every sense elevated her position, her ability, her artistry.
Men, even those with exceptional talents – like Nijinsky – rarely had works made specifically to showcase their attributes. At times it must have seemed as if the male dancer’s lot on-stage was always to be the partner – supporting, catching, lifting the ballerina, with the consolation of occasional solos to show off the speed and height of his tours en l’air or the cut of his calves in cabrioles.
Now don’t, for a moment, think that those early-daysTrocks were out to pillory the
ballerina’s status or celebrity because of some hissy-fit of envy and pique. Always, always, the Trocks have positively celebrated ballet – be it classic or contemporary – while their sheer love of the Russian heritage repertoire, and the temperamental prima ballerinas who were legends in their own lifetimes, is an intrinsic part of their make-up. (Actually, the bright blue eyeshadow, red lippy, fluttering false eyelashes and rouged cheeks so beloved of these stars is a regular part of the Trocks’ make-up as well…)
What you can bank on is that none of those involved in the 1974 show envisaged the kind of international acclaim that today’s Trocks enjoy. Sure the audience back then went wild, just as they do now. But as the guys packed up their costumes, eased their toes out of pointe-shoes and back into penny-loafers, no-one said ‘I reckon, in thirty years time, the Trocks will be doing sell-out shows in major venues all across the world. Japan , Russia , the UK … Our name will be up in lights and we’ll be a hot, hot ticket. Hey – has anyone taken my swan costume?’
Why not? Because even though word spread that here was something markedly different – not just blissfully goofy comedy but with a real quality to the dance that Arlene Croce, doyenne of American dance critics at the time had noted in print – for a man to don Giselle or Aurora’s costume and satin pointe-shoes was a total career no-no.
When Tory Dobrin, now the Trocks’ Artistic Director, joined the company in 1980 there was still a (more than five o’clock ) shadow over the notion that men should do pointe-work at all. Apparently, he used to sneak into classes, with black socks pulled down over his pointe-shoes, so as no-one would think he was doing anything other than an additional work-out on technique. And there are countless woebegone tales of lads in training whose polite requests to join pointe-work classes were abruptly dismissed as if somehow perverse, unsavoury. What’s sad – and actually maddening – about this is that the origins of classical ballet as we know it can be traced back to a man: Louis IVth, the Sun King of France who adored leading the dance in the elaborate masques he deemed an essential part of court life. Cast an eye over other dance forms and other cultures and you’ll discover that men are more likely to have the power moves than women. In Georgian folk-dance, for instance, the men dance on the points of their (unblocked) boots, and pulse-racingly dashing and swaggering they are too.
Closer to home, and the Highland dances that now offer equal opportunities to girls as well as boys to cry ‘hooch aye!’ and kick up nifty heels, were born out of clan traditions – call them tribal, by all means – that saw men preparing for battle or celebrating victory by showing off their physical prowess in stylised movement full of energetic leapings and fleet footwork. What these dances didn’t have, however, was any kind of emotional range. That expressive subtext, when it infiltrated staged choreographies in the narrative ballets of the Romantic era, was primarily given over to the women. Theirs were the shoulders that could droop in anguished despair, theirs the dainty hands that could flutter in exquisite death throws and theirs the coquettish disposition that could set them flirting on darting pointe-shoes, throwing winsome ‘come hither’ glances at the handy man who could provide a safe pair of arms for high rise lifts.
In the course of the 20th century, modern choreographers saw beyond those limiting conventions and male dancers increasingly edged into the limelight that had been commanded by Nureyev and Baryshnikov. Yet, at some level the perception remained that men danced ‘strong’ – with a stiff upper lip, no matter what – and that women were custodians of all that was soft, touchy-feely and poignant… and they got the pointe-shoes to show off in as well.
At the time when the Trocks were just beginning to garner a smitten following in New York, other male artists in the city were looking at ‘drag’ beyond the lip-synching cabaret remit, and exploring female characterisations as a form of radical, experimental performance. It’s this aspect of the Trocks, as much as their phenomenal ballet technique, that still delights us when they step on-stage. We’ve already waited, in happy anticipation, for a pre-show announcement (in a cod-Rooshian accent) that the ballerinas are in “vyerry good mood tonight” – we know it’s a cue for daft shenanigans and fizzy displays of bravura temperament. That the ballerinas, with slyly contrived names – Ida Nevasayneva, Olga Supphozova, Lariska Dumbchenko – are true prima donnas when it comes to who gets the bouquets and who gets left standing on the side-lines during prolonged curtain calls.
Like so much of their carefully-researched repertoire, this fiercely competitive streak has its (touched-up) roots in the Imperial ‘old school’ regime. Tales abound of rival ballerinas who would think nothing of sabotaging costumes, upstaging other dancers, throwing tantrums – and furniture – if they suspected that some lesser ‘she’ had been favoured with a better dressing room, let alone a better role. So when the Trocks cut up comically rough with one another – a little nudge to send a neighbouring Swan off-balance, say – they don’t just serve up a mischievous parody, they salute the ladies who lunged at every opportunity to be in the spotlight of the public’s adoring gaze.
But if the Trocks mock and mug their merry way through some of the absurdities of formal ballet practice, they lavish unstinting care and attention on many a neglected gem of 19th century classical ballet. Unearthing and re-staging such once-cherished relics as The Humpback Horse – a fairytale which, by the way, Gergiev wants to see re-worked by Alexei Ratmansky for the Maryinsky – has brought the Trocks the kind of kudos that many ‘straight’ ballet companies never warrant. In 2006, the Trocks bourreed off with the UK’s Critics Circle National Award for Oustanding Repertoire (Classical). Rumour has it the ballerinas were so affected by this accolade they wanted to dance on air – but the flying harnesses interfered with their attitudes and compromised their arabesques…
And now, they’re back in the UK again. Ready to slip-slide one pointe-shoe into a fandango of farce and the other into a whisk of perfect fouettes – all because they, and we, love that special Trock cocktail of low comedy and high art.