Men in tights and pointe shoes ballet super seriously and have fun doing it. The all-male comic ballet company Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo returned to the Kennedy Center March 21 with a program of favorites from the great classical ballet repertoire. And, why not? The 19th century father of classical ballet Marius Petipa is listed as the company’s “stylistic guru” in the program credits.
The Trocks, beloved by many and a hoot for all who have seen their programs live … or on popular YouTube channels – are masters of parody. Poking gentle fun at the traditions and highly codified demands that are legend in the world of classical ballet. The company was founded in 1974, and has remained popular and beloved by balletomanes and first time ballet goers alike. This go-round at the Kennedy Center the company is joined by the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra under the baton of George Daugherty – a real treat.
Milking the Russian ballet tradition of temperamental ballerinas, and eccentric noble dancers, every Trocks program begins with obsequious announcements of program changes, in a heavy Russian accent: “In accordance with the greatest Russian tradition … there will be program changes … please also note the absence in this evening’s program of Natasha Notgoodenof.” And, finally, “all of our ballerinas are in very, very good mood this evening.” The company’s 18 men, develop both a male and female dancer’s persona, including ridiculously funny ballet names – for in the early and mid-20th century, non-Russian ballet dancers were notorious for Russifying their names, thus, true story: nice British ballet dancer Alice Marks became Alicia Markova.
The program opened with the Trocks’ signature piece, Le Lac des Cygnes, or Swan Lake, for those not in the know. The company milks Lev Ivanov’s beloved and memorable choreography with broad strokes, so even if the ballet isn’t familiar, what’s on stage is still funny. From the opening strains of the Tchaikovsky score when a cheap cardboard swan is pulled across the stage by a string to the glitches, falls, over exaggerated ballet mime that tells the story of a beautiful princess who has been turned into a swan by Rothbart, the audience guffawed and giggled at the improbabilities. The lake behind Odette is filled with her mother’s tears, she explains via authentic, yet little-used ballet hand gestures. This act brings together a Dudley Doright blonde, brainless prince Siegfried danced by Boris Mudko (Giovanni Ravelo) and the swan princess Odette Nadia Doumiafeyva (Philip Martin-Nielson) for an emotional and awkward duet, with plenty of punctuated shtick that plays off the grand classical tradition. But best of all, the Trocks have returned Siegfried’s buddy Benno, Innokenti Smoktumuchsky (Carlos Hopuy), to prominence, providing him with plenty to do and much with which to interfere.
Wisely much of the choreographic footing from the 1895 version of Swan Lake remains intact, whether the audience recognizes it or not. The modest corps of eight swans goes through their paces, mugging, missing steps, bowling each other over, and pecking and twitching to belie the graceful image of the ballet. The four little swans are always a hoot when the Trocks dance: the perfect unison offers its own in-joke when the last dancer in line falls out of closely timed synchronization and then shifts her head side to side on beat, like a Soul Train dancer.
As funny as this parody Swan Lake is, these men leave no doubt that they can dance very well. Another classic duet, the grand pas de deux for Le Corsaire shows both virtuosity from Araf Legupski (Laszlo Major) as the barechested bravado dancer and his partner Nina Enimenimynimova (Long Zou) and grace. The complex lifts, the ballerina’s head-level extensions, and a pass of aerial flips and back handsprings that Petipa might secretly love elevate the crazed technical precision that ballet unforgivingly demands. This Corsaire’s dancers could compete with any ranked ballet company in the U.S. That was again evident with the high level of dancing in a truncated version of Don Quixote, which closed the program. Basil’s pirouettes, jumps and sweeping manage of leaps that circled the stage sparkled with the virtuosity the role demands. Equally, a fiery and glittery Yakatarinna Verbosovich as Kitri (Chase Johnsey) reveled in her balances in arabesque on pointe, then shrug them off as if to say, “No big deal.” And then she flicked open her fan like nobody’s business.
The program also included another Trockadero’s signature piece, the brief ballerina’s solo “The Dying Swan,” an elegy and homage to “Swan Lake,” of course, here done cheekily by a molting Helen Highwaters (Duane Gosa), whose feathers dripped and floated to the floor as the dramatic death sequence featured shock, tremors, twitches, and a less-than-graceful flop to the floor. As in many ranked ballet companies the world over, the Trockaderos, too, allow their top dancers to add flourishes and personal touches. With the Trocks, though, those flourishes are laugh-inducing over-the-top comedy performed by highly trained male dancers, who just happen to wear pointe shoes.
A gypsy-inspired snippet from “Esmeralda,” a never-done classic aside from the solo or duet, featured a morosely depressed Nina Immobilashvilli (Alberto Pretto) much in need of a dose of Zoloft and her peppier partner Jacques d’Aniels (Joshua Thake). But best of all, one of the tambourine-wielding background dancers ate an apple and banana, while waiting for her turn to perform. What a missed opportunity, though, that no one slipped on a banana peel.
Trockadero bows are an art form in and of themselves, as performers milk the audience for applause, fight over who gets the bouquet of roses, and, like the saying goes about Russian dancers: won’t stop bowing until their mother stops applauding. And, in a sly wink to the Ailey company, which does a perpetual encore every time it performs its Christian spiritual “Revelations,” for some reason the Trocks’ encore was a rousing, hand-clapping, foot-tapping version of “Hava Nagila” as the dancers grapevine stepped across and back, before forming a circle to dance the hora in pointe shoes and tutus. The only thing missing, was a bride and groom, lifted in chairs. As strange as their encore sounds, and it was ridiculous, it makes some sort of oddball sense. What else can you do but love these men who simply love ballet classics so much that they’ve made them palatable for everyone, dance lover and novice alike.
Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes, including two intermissions.
Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo played March 22, 2017, at The John F. Kennedy Center’s Opera House – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets call (202) 467-4600, or purchase them online.