The all-male, usually all-gay comic ballet company Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo might not seem the obvious choice to bring dance’s most serious genre into the mainstream, but these butch ballerinas will surprise you. With their technical prowess and scintillating humour, the ‘Trocks’ in fact have a wide audience. Balletomanes appreciate the historically informed send-up, while the less enthused get to guffaw at an art form that normally demands reverence. This month, the men in tights – and tutus – twirl into Beijing.
Named after the Ballet Russe period in Paris’s early 1900s, the New York-based Trocks have their roots in America’s turbulent 1960s, which saw the birth of countless social movements, among them cross-dressing. Founded in 1974 by a group of ballet enthusiasts who feltdance worked better with smiles, thecompany sought to poke gentle fun at staid tradition.
But what so easily could have been clowns in heavy make-up and tulle skirts has a touch of greatness – simply put, the Trocks can dance. These are finely honed performers trained in classical ballet who can fouetté with the best of them. Size and mannerisms vary – some petite dancers could pass for women, others sport body hair and size 14 toe shoes – but their technique is undeniable. The comedy is always unexpected, never overdone, and executed with lethal timing. Dancers crash into each other, lose their places, or go sailing into the wings.
At the same time, ballet lovers will recognise specific movements from classical works, albeit done with a comic touch. Take Marius Petipa’s ‘Dying Swan’ from Swan Lake (which should be grindingly familiar to Chinese audiences). The Trocks’ version features a spotlight scanning an empty stage, then a swan making a hasty entrance, molting all the way. Or the already silly wedding scene from Petipa’s Raymonda, with a dancer struggling to lift his much larger ‘female’ partner. The more familiar the originals, the funnier the parodies. It shouldn’t work, but somehow it does – and brilliantly.
It’s just as well, because Trocks membership requires stylised training that doesn’t easily transfer. For example, take male pointe work, rarely seen outside of Georgian folk dance. ‘Pointe work is an extension of ballet vocabulary,’ says the Trocks’ artistic director Tory Dobrin. ‘If a male dancer is well trained, he can make the adjustment.’ But he cautions that, since women start earlier, they have better technique, whereas men rely more on their physical power. However, this strength comes in handy for lifts; a man’s enhanced leaping ability will take some pressure off his partner. And since many join the Trocks later in their careers, they have little to lose; often, dancers become instructors, costume designers or even make-up artists upon retirement.
The Trocks aren’t for everyone. For some, the parody wears thin; for others, ballet is not to be trifled with. But these lords-a-leaping have been both critic and audience favourites since they sold out their first venue, a second-storey loft in Manhattan’s meat-packing district. In 1999, they set a Lincoln Center record for drawing the New York theatre’s largest single dance audience, and have since played all over the US, Europe, Australia, Japan and even Siberia. ‘Humour is understood by any kind of audience,’ says Dobrin. ‘[Theatregoers] familiar with classical ballet will have the added value of understanding the context, but this is not the essence of the performance.This is an all-male ballet company, using visual aspects of dance, costumes [and physicality] to make a comedy performance.’ Trock on!