Drag isn’t what it was. Pantomime dames, character actors and any number of sketch-show comedians had fun dressing up as harridans or movie stars (check out Benny Hill’s unforgettable Elizabeth Taylor) but those old-school travesti turns have been out-camped by a more unsettling performance style that women are finding increasingly hard to take. Directors and commissioning editors tread very carefully when it comes to ethnicity, sexual orientation and disability but women, it seems, are still fair game. The trampy excesses of the modern drag wardrobe, the cartoonish, almost spiteful exaggeration of female features – haystack wigs, F-cup prosthetics, the whole ‘womanface’ box of tricks – doesn’t feel like an homage any more but a misogynistic send-up, reducing the very notion of ‘female’ to something tawdry and synthetic.
A big man in a tutu and tiara ought to arouse the same unease but somehow Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo manage to bypass drag’s difficulties. The company was conceived almost as a private joke in 1974, performing in off-off Broadway lofts and they are still on tour nearly half a century later, perpetuating a style of ballet that died out long before most of the current company were born. Rigorously rehearsed, thriftily but authentically staged and meticulously observed, the Trocks are home to the grandest and funniest ballerinas in captivity.
I have been watching the Trocks for 35 years and, despite their demon-queen maquillage, their portrayals are affectionate, even innocent, with none of the seedy, sex-worker vibe inherent in a 21st-century drag act. Next month the 16-man troupe will arrive in the UK for an eight-week, 11-city tour but back in May they were paying a flying visit to Spain and Portugal, adding Zaragoza to the 600 cities they have conquered.
Zaragoza’s pretty old Teatro Principal, with its red plush upholstery and gilded, cherubed ceiling, is the perfect setting for the swans and sylphs of the Trockadero repertoire but the city has no real tradition of ballet-going and Spain’s belt-and-braces Covid regulations – they wanted masks on the beaches at one point – meant that box office was initially slow-moving.