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Les Bal­lets Trock­adero de Monte Carlo

Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO - — Michael Wade Simp­son

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

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