Of Tutus and Pointe Shoes

Manly men bring a lighter side to ballet.


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Parody pros: Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, a male troupe, performs "Don Quixote" and will be in Berkeley.

Photo by Zoran Jelenic

The Trocks are to ballet what Victor Borge was to classical piano—loving the art but willing to parody conventions and absurdities that creep into highly codified artistic disciplines. Since 1974, Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, as the troupe is formally known, has enchanted ballet lovers and haters in equal measure, and the members show no signs of slowing down.

To George Balanchine’s aphoristic Ballet is Woman the Trocks reply “not in my book.” Smartly, however, they choose most of their inspiration from the Romantic repertoire when ballet indeed was woman. The guys were reduced to being porteurs—the noble task of parading the ballerina around, making sure to show her at her most flattering. In the original Swan Lake, Siegfried’s was a minor character, in part because its originator, Pavel Gerd, was 50, and that’s all he could do. But by the end of the 19th century, male roles were so diminished that at the Paris Opera Ballet, women danced the parts en travesty (in men’s clothes).

Why were there men not willing to embrace ballet?

Same old story: It was not “manly” to be a dancer. Fortunately, we are slowly getting rid of this old canard. Some believe—and new repertoire seems to bear this out—that we are entering an era in which male ballet dancers finally are getting into their own.

So the Trocks, with all their hilarity and madcap parodies, perhaps are more up to date than even they know. In the ’70s, they drew their strength from drag, which was and still is, part of the gay culture. But general audiences long ago have learned to cherish fabulous entertainment when they can get it.

Their skewed lenses into the 19th century offer glimpses into works that just about have disappeared from the repertoire. The upcoming program at Cal Performances, for instance, includes the Esmeralda Pas de Six from Cesar Pugni’s 1885 La Esmeralda, which is almost never seen outside Russia. In that and other Romantic interpretations—Giselle, Act II, The Nutcracker, and Pas de Quatre—the Trocks marvelously perform the steps though in size-12 pointe shoes. The story ballets’ pure dance sections were meant as pure entertainment. The four cygnets, who will flutter across the stage in Swan Lake, Act II at Cal, recall that tradition. The brilliance of these performances come from the faux pas, the collusion with the audience, and above all, the dancers’ humanity.

Ingeniously, the Trocks also realized that in classical dance, humor or comedy is a rare commodity. You find funny parts in Coppélia, La Fille Malgardée, and Cinderella. But LOL ballets? There is only one: Jerome Robbins’ The Concert. Perhaps Alexei Ratmansky’s 2003 Le Carnaval des Animaux for San Francisco Ballet, his first American commission, comes close. Don Quixote has its moments of silliness. Liz Harler, the Trocks’ general manager, has described their highly condensed version to Cal Performances: “It is basically a ‘greatest hits’ of the ballet—some of the village scene in Act I, including some of the major variations, some of the dream scene, and the wedding Pas de Deux. Plus a lot of ridiculousness to tie it all together!” Also promised are “a surprise or two.” You may want to look for some flying feathers.

Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo. Zellerbach Hall, Cal Performances. Berkeley. March 2, 8 p.m., March 4, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., $18-86, 510-642-9988,
CalPerformanes.org.

 

This report appears in the March edition of our sister publication, The East Bay Monthly.

Published online on Feb. 24, 2017 at 8:00 a.m.

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