‘Ballet is woman’ insisted George Balanchine, but ballet can also be a big man in a dress as any fan of Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo will testify.
The Trocks began life in 1974, dancing for a select few in pop-up performance spaces in Manhattan, but the troupe’s irresistible blend of low comedy and high art soon outgrew its coterie audience. By the mid-1980s it was a fixture on the national and international tour circuit. Japan, with its ancient tradition of cross-dressing onnagata, is practically a second home.
Classical ballet has long been a soft target for physical comedy — think of Freddie Starr retrieving a packet of Rothmans from the ‘lunchbox’ at the front of his tights or Morecambe and Wise joining the four little swans. The first few dozen laughs in a Trocks show come easily. The bogus cast-change announcements, the corps of squabbling swans and the bottle-blond premier danseur all serve to tenderise the audience in readiness for the ballet history lessons that follow. Tutus predominate but the eclectic back catalogue offers an impressive stylistic range, with sly pastiches of August Bournonville (a ditzy and delectable Napoli pas de six), Balanchine (Go For Barocco) and even Merce Cunningham and John Cage, who are mercilessly satirised in Patterns in Space set to a live score for electric razor, bubble wrap and aspirin bottle.
Last week’s mixed bill at the Peacock kicked off with a painstaking piss-take of Michel Fokine’s 1909 Les Sylphides, a love letter to the vaporous charms of the romantic ballet in which a fey young man in a beribboned velvet jerkin and Veronica Lake coiffure wafts around a moonlit glade with a bevy of mysterious maidens in white. The gags practically write themselves: steps are forgotten, entrances fluffed, stars upstaged. But just as the audience is relaxing into the comedy, Nina Immobilashvili (aka Alberto Pretto) unleashes her grand jeté, Nina Enimenimynimova (Long Zou) swizzles silkily through another pirouette en attitude and the realisation dawns: these jokers can really dance.
Bravura technique, as the late Pina Bausch once put it, ‘is a lollipop’: delicious but not particularly sustaining. Even when played straight, ballet is never just about balances, high kicks and spins. It’s an art, not a sport and some of the all-time greats would have struggled to score a perfect ten. Trocks dancers clearly relish showing off their tremulous petits battements and shimmering gargouillades but they know that these stunts are two a penny. The world’s ballet companies are stiff with pyrotechnicians. What they don’t have are ballerinas: magical beings who seduce the eye and touch the heart, infusing well-worn steps with a potent blend of drama, musicality and ego.
Watch a Trock embark on a solo and see how cleverly the comedy is woven into the fabric of the dance: the preening pride as those huge pink satin feet tiptoe clear of the wings; the imperious nod to the (non-existent) conductor; the micro-pause before the fun begins. A big bloke machine-stitching a pas de bourrée from wing to wing will always impress but it doesn’t matter if the footwork is fudged because these divas have more subtle pleasures to offer. Even without the luxury of a tame conductor they inhabit the scores with an instinctive musicality and the steps are enhanced by their luscious use of epaulement. This all-important interplay between head, arms and shoulders is a lost art in many companies but the Trocks are sticklers for it, exaggerating each tilt of the head, each shift in alignment to create a comedy masterclass in ballerina allure with monster false eyelashes that weaponise every glance.
This scaling up of the old-school tics and mannerisms can be extraordinarily illuminating, like a familiar object placed under a microscope. A super-sized ballerina — Eugenia Repelskii (Joshua Thake) is over six foot six on pointe — amplifies every step, laying bare its mechanics and revealing the little tricks of timing that enhance its impact. Her Amazonian proportions also supply a rich seam of comic opportunities — as when she resorts to doing the lifting in her duet with the tiny Boris Dumbkopf.
Many of the sight gags in the current programme play on the mismatch between a jumbo ballerina and her pipsqueak porteur. ‘Straight’ ballet was making comedy capital from this before the Trocks were born or thought of — Frederick Ashton, Jerome Robbins and Kenneth MacMillan all had huge fun with the pas de deux gone wrong — but few mainstream ballet dancers could subsist on a comic diet without degenerating into the broadest slapstick. They haven’t the stamina — or the humility. Even after 44 years the Trocks retain that big-hearted vaudevillean abilityto bring old material to life, nightly re-energised by admiring laughter and grateful applause.