Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo
Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo Lensic Performing Arts Center, Jan. 24
Why is it that Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, the all-male drag dance company that performed at the Lensic Performing Arts Center on Jan. 24, didn’t seem as funny as in previous years? Has there been a cultural shift? Are audiences so accustomed to the sight of men cutting up in tutus, gaudy makeup, and toe shoes that Trock performances are no longer a guaranteed laugh fest? Or is it the fault of the directors, or the dancers themselves? The company has been around for more than four decades. The technical ability of the performers is now so elevated that they can pull off half-hour renditions of classic story ballets like Swan Lake and Paquita with nary a wobble.
Ballets Trockadero, founded in 1974 in New York, grew out of the gay liberation movement. What began as a political statement grew into an internationally successful touring group, lovingly satirizing dance, and ballet in particular. What they have lost over the years is their edge.
The best of the original Trocs had a Lucille Ball-like genius, a combination of physical and facial comic ability along with perfect timing. At the Lensic, there were 14 gloriously costumed men dancing almost as well as real ballerinas, but there were only a few funny moments. Gags, pratfalls, and comic pauses were added like a TV laugh track without being integrated into the whole. This was an evening with outrageously made-up, highly proficient drag drones on pointe — a full squadron of technical wizards offering very little enjoyment.
Two leading dancers were unfunny examples. Prima ballerina Philip Martin-Nielson, also known as “Nadia Doumiafeyva,” offered technique layered with attitude in the company’s Swan Lake Act II. He could pull off decent renditions of standard ballet tricks, like fouetté turns and footwork feats while traveling across the stage, but he approached his gags with little relish. Long Zou took the lead role in Paquita, a semi-spoof of the 19th-century classical French-Russian ballet. He could spin like a top, but his acting and comic skills were execrable.
Ballet itself has changed since the mid-’70s. The repertory of most companies is often contemporary and experimental. Ballets Trockadero, however, has settled into a routine, a kind of drill-team approach to dancing, which offers a repertoire stuck in its own past. Unfortunately, many people in the audience today are unlikely to have a connection to the marginal Russian touring ballet companies of yore, which the Trocs have been spoofing forever, or any real knowledge of the classical repertory being satirized.
An online video shows Trock alum Paul Ghiselin dancing a version of the solo Dying Swan, showing the bird in its last moments. He slowly circumnavigates the stage, dropping feathers from a bedgraggled tutu; his rendition is funny because he is unshaven, hairy, bony, older, and obviously male. Robert Carter, also known as “Olga Supphozova,” offered a toothy, more gag-filled version of the ballet in Santa Fe. He looked pretty to the end. Ghiselin presents a subtler desperation in his final moments. True comedy can tread a fine line between the ridiculous and the sublime. It may be easier to dance on pointe than it is to be funny.
The modern dance satire Patterns in Space — billed as having choreography after Merce Cunningham and live music after John Cage — hit all the right comedy notes. Three dancers in unruly permed wigs and crushed velvet unitards bounded around the stage performing rudimentary versions of the master’s choreography. Meanwhile, a pair of “musicians,” seated off to the side (not unlike a real Cunningham concert), improvised a sound score using paper bags, kazoos, and scissors, with amplified chewing and gargling. The lack of perfection in the dancing along with the deadpan delivery of the musicians created a perfect spoof. If only the rest of the performance had this balance of bad and funny. Pratfalls and bits of business are easy to pull off, but to be truly comic, the dancers might hire RuPaul as a consultant, go back to drag school, and let their technique slip a little.
Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo in Swan Lake Act II