Comments by Gail M. Burns, October 2008
“We're men, MANLY men, we're men in tights. Yeah!
We roam around the forest looking for fights.
We're men, we're men in tights.
We rob from the rich and give to the poor, that's right!
We may look like pansies, but don't get us wrong or else we'll put out your lights.
We're men, we're men in tights (TIGHT tights),
Always on guard defending the people's rights.
When you're in a fix just call for the men in tights!
- Mel Brooks
I am not a dance critic, but the lines between dance and theatre have blurred more and more in recent years, and there is no doubt in my mind that many dance companies are now producing theatre. One of the key differences between theatre and dance has long been the spoken word, but I have seen dance performances that include dialogue and theatre performances that are silent.
Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo do not speak on stage, their repertoire is almost entirely 19th and early 20th century classical Russian ballet, but they are nothing if not theatrical.
And I have always wanted to see them.
The Hunter Center at MASS MoCA, configured as a traditional proscenium theatre, was packed. At the venerable age of 35, The Trocks are one of the few performing arts groups in the world that can survive on its ticket sales.
Who are The Trocks? They are a company of 16 male dancers who perform classical ballet in drag. They wear tutus and toe-shoes and dance en pointe. These men are real, trained dancers, and much of what the do is dead serious – until it isn’t. The result is a unique combination of thrilling technique and vaudeville slapstick.
The most compelling thing for me about The Trocks, are the powerful statements they make about gender. Remember that these are men dressed as ballerinas, and the ballerina is a male conceit to begin with. The resemblance between a ballerina and a real woman is miniscule. Classical ballet erases significant body parts – the body and legs are reduced to straight lines devoid of curves or angles, while the arms are constantly rounded. The tutu, at its briefest a bizarre pancake of stiff, scratchy cloth, projects directly from the top of the hips, camouflaging them, a fact that The Trocks manipulate to both conceal their masculinity and create a semblance of curves were non-exist.
But ultimately, the ideal ballerina body resembles that of a prepubescent boy or girl more than that of an adult of any gender.
So the most surprising aspects of The Trocks’ physical appearance are not their flat, hairy chests, but their height and musculature which betray them as adults and the not ethereal, child-like dream creature that is the ballerina.
Women are not ethereal, child-like dream creatures. Even children aren’t. The ballerina is as mythical a being as the unicorn.
So this is a very different sort of drag. These men aren’t impersonating women, they are impersonating an impossible ideal of the human body. It takes just as much hard work, make-up, and discomfort for a woman to be a ballerina as it does a man, which is what makes The Trocks so revolutionary.
Now we come to the part where the sentence “I am not a dance critic” comes into play. I cannot comment on The Trocks artistry and technique as ballerinas. One of my companions informed me that their technique was a little sloppy – that they went for the gusto in lieu of technical precision – and that for the balletomane their performance would have been even funnier if they had tidied those bits up. I am sure she is correct. The closer the parody is to the original in every detail the funnier it is to the insiders.
But as an outsider, I found the dancing to be energetic and thrilling. When I was a little girl I bought in to the ethereal child-like dream creature fantasy whole hog and wanted not just to dance but to become a Prima ballerina assoluta, (the role every Trock assumes while on stage, making for recurrent bouts of one-up-manship during the performance and the curtain calls) and could see no need at all for men in ballet. They looked lumpy in tights and their costumes were unappealing. For me it was all about beautiful, weightless ballerinas in sparkly pastel tutus tippy-toeing around en pointe. The Trocks obviously share this view, as they very seldom dance as men, even though each dancer has an official male and female stage persona, each with his/her own outrageous stage name.
My mother explained that men were necessary evils on the ballet stage, useful only for leaping and lifting.
The Trocks, therefore, offer the best of both genders’ ballet attributes – they wear the beautiful costumes, float about weightlessly en pointe, AND do some magnificent leaping and lifting. The lumpiness in tights, to which I objected as a child and came to appreciate as an adult, is cleverly concealed by the tutus.
I had a minor scuffle with one of my companions about whether it was appropriate to shout “Bravo!” or “Brava!” in appreciation of a fine Trock performance. Many people don’t even realize that the word Bravo is gender specific, but it is and it can only be used when the performer being saluted is male. My companion shouted “Brava!” I corrected her. She replied that since the performer was in drag as a woman it was politically correct to address him as one. I said that regardless of how he was dressed, he was biologically male and therefore it was grammatically incorrect to use the feminine.
Ah, when the Grammar Police and the PC Police go at it the fur can fly!
However, after reading The Trocks program (which is an hilarious piece of writing that I will treasure always), I concede this fight to my companion. The performers refer to themselves as female and therefore it is only proper to salute them as such while they are on stage. “Brava!” may still be grammatically incorrect, but it is the polite thing to shout.
The program presented at MoCA consisted of Swan Lake – The Trocks signature piece – followed by a pas de deux from Don Quioxte, and then a Balanchine parody entitled Go for Barocco. The first half concluded with the priceless “execution of a dying swan” by Mme. Ida Nevasayneva (Paul Ghiselin).
After intermission they presented Paquita, with choreography after Marius Petipa, a piece more focused on dance than comedy and featuring solo spotlight turns for six of the ballerinas.
It is now time to reveal The Trocks hilarious stage names as I discuss some of the outstanding performances. Lariska Dumbchenko (Raffaele Morra) was spectacular as Odette, Queen of the Swans in Swan Lake and continued to impress in her solo variation in Paquita. Not only was she technically brilliant, but she had a flawless sense of comic timing and theatricality.
Robert Carter was hilarious in his male alter ego Yuri Smirnov as the melodramaticly bewigged Von Rothbart, (an evil wizard who goes about turning girls into swans), and thrillingly supple in his female solo turn as Olga Supphozova, principal soloist in Paquita, ably supported by Nolan Kubota as one of the Legupski Brothers, in this case Marat.
Joshua Grant also turned in strong male and female solo performances as Ashley Romanoff-Titwillow dancing the role of Prince Siegfried in Swan Lake and as Katarina Bychkova, principal soloist in Go for Barocco, along with Carlos Miller as Ephrosinya Drononova.
I also very much enjoyed the energetic leaping and prancing of the Trock who danced the male role in the Don Quixote pas de deux, but, alas, the piece was a surprise addition and therefore not listed in the program – and I am at a loss to identify the dancer.
The costumes are every child’s ballerina dream. Mike Gonzales is credited as Costume Designer Emeritus and Christopher Veraga is the current wardrobe supervisor. The lighting, by Paul Fydrychowski, is dramatic and the scenery is basic and non-existent because the floor space is all taken up by the dance and because The Trocks tour so extensively that lugging a lot of scenery with them would be impractical. They need all the space in their trunks for size 14 toe shoes.
Ghiselin is The Trocks’ Ballet Master, and he is superbly talented. Nothing those men do on the stage is easy, although they make it look all fluffy and effortless, and dancing en pointe is PAINFUL! Ballerinas routinely leave the stage with their shoes full of blood. We all know how large the pound force per square inch is on our feet in their natural state, now concentrate all that pressure on the very tips of your toes…and hop vigorously for two hours. Ouch!
I am so very glad to have seen The Trocks, and I am delighted that northern Berkshire County gave them such a warm and enthusiastic welcome (they danced at Jacob’s Pillow in Becket just this past summer.) There is a lot more I could write about theatre and dance and gender, but those opportunities will arise again, and I will have my Trock experience to draw on.
If you didn't get to see them this time, grab a ticket the minute they tip-toe back into town!
The show ran two hours and twenty minutes with two intermission and was suitable for everyone with any sense of humor. Go to Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo's's Web site for more information about the company and his future performances. For information on future programs at MASS MoCA please call 413-662-2111.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2008