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Straight and not so straight
Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo; ‘Dance Straight Up’

Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo returned to Boston last weekend for another hilarious bout with dance history. The company, now 30 years old, has brought travesti dancing to new levels of technical excellence and sartorial bad taste. Sponsored by FleetBoston Celebrity Series, the three performances at the Cutler Majestic featured the classical branch of the Trockadero’s extensive repertory, with numbers ranging from the Romantic period (Grand Pas de Quatre) through Imperial Russia (act two of Swan Lake and a pastiche ripped from Raymonda) to the early 20th century (The Dying Swan) and a contemporary throwback (Tarantella).

Drag performing isn’t the shocker it was 30 years ago when the Monte Carlo split from its mother company, the Trockadero Gloxinia, but the sight of male ballerinas still has the same fascination. The Trocks deck themselves out in eyelashes and tacky wigs, but you’re always aware they’re men. These are by no means the jawlines and calf muscles of sylphs. In fact, the better the pointe work gets, the more disorienting the sturdy ribcages become.

Ballet itself is an illusion, and the Trocks don’t try to duplicate that. Instead, they allude to it, expecting us to see both the ballet image and its inverse. This, of course, is the basis of parody. The Trocks do a lot of exaggerating and mugging, but their appeal goes deeper. Their dancing is neither light nor subtle, and things that female dancers can breeze through or make us think are easy become much clearer when worked at by these big bones. When one of the Trocks does a series of whipping fouettés with interpolated double tours, it seems more virtuosic than a ballerina cranking out 32. You have to appreciate the skill of the klutzy jumps, skewed balances, and musical pratfalls, even as you’re laughing at them.

The Trockadero’s humor is a combination of all-out slapstick and sly commentary on the conventions and vanities of dance culture. All 14 dancers have both male and female identities, with accompanying bios that make up a collective history of intrigue and injury, royal liaisons, fabulous successes, and political blunders. The company attitude assumes that dancing reveals and even inspires jealousies bordering on outright hatred. Grand playing up to the audience is permitted if not encouraged, and all performers must have an ability to cope with wavering spotlights, deteriorating costumes, and memory lapses by their colleagues. They must never lose their cool, even when being kicked by a rival — unless they can fit a return insult into the choreography.

The Grand Pas de Quatre may have been the first ballet competition. Staged in 1845 by Jules Perrot, it brought together four star ballerinas, and in the hands of the Trockadero, Marie Taglioni, Carlotta Grisi, Fanny Cerrito, and Lucille Grahn show off their differing styles of upstaging one another as well as their dancing.

The best possible role for one of these divas, of course, is the solo. In an interpretation of Michel Fokine’s cameo for Anna Pavlova, The Dying Swan, Ida Nevasayneva bourrées bravely through drifts of discarded feathers. After her touching demise, she recalls another predecessor in the role, Maya Plisetskaya, by working the audience, until the curtain call lasts as long as the dance.

The Trockadero is committed to perpetuating the ballet mystique (ballet is unknowable; therefore we won’t tell you everything). During a very long pre-performance announcement, many cast changes were read off, with copious excuses for the failure of the original dancers to appear.

The pas de deux Tarantella was inserted into the performance without any indication that the ballet had been choreographed by George Balanchine in 1964 for Patricia McBride and Edward Villella. Tarantella is Balanchine’s homage to Bournonville’s homage to Italian street dancing. In fact, Sveltlana Lofatkina and one of the brothers Legupski, I didn’t catch whether it was Marat or Vladimir, gave a quite credible representation of the work, except for that sudden lift when she turned him upside down.

For the big production of the evening, Swan Lake, Madame Nevasayneva, in her alternate persona of Velour Pilleaux, played the arch-villain Rothbart, terrorizing the corps of women-turned-swans with his flamboyant cape and orange wig. The Trocks’ rendition of this classic brings back the forgotten character of Benno, the prince’s confidant; he was played by the versatile Igor Slowpokin, who as Fifi Barkova also impersonated Taglioni, smirking aggressively at her companions, in the Grand Pas de Quatre. Benno was introduced by the choreographer, Lev Ivanov, to help an aged Pavel Gerdt in partnering Odette, the Swan Queen. Slowpokin, however, rushed in eagerly at all the wrong times and nearly dropped the imposing Odette (Olga Supphozova) when she hurled herself confidently backward into his arms. The prince, Pavel Tord, tall, pale, and easily flustered, backed off and waited to see whether they’d both be all right.

HOW TO TELL A STORY without resorting to the more apparatus of verbal theater has been a preoccupation of dance for a couple of hundred years. The 19th-century ballet found a very successful solution in stringing together virtuosic set pieces and celebratory groups, with enough mime to move the plot along (see Swan Lake and Raymonda). In contemporary times, collage effects can mix dance movement with sounds, objects, and visual devices like film to create images that make sense in non-linear ways.

Lorraine Chapman’s Authentic Histories was the most interesting of the four works on Crash Arts’ "Dance Straight Up," for Boston-based choreographers, at the Tsai Center last weekend. Based on scenes from Don Quixote, the dance didn’t so much retell the Cervantes story as create a portrait of a man with an innocence too trusting to distinguish between perfection and danger.

The four women and two men introduced the work with a formal dance that began with odd, doll-like motions and evolved into a galloping circle. One man (S. Christien Polos) emerged as the central character, entering into danced encounters with other cast members and performing more ordinary but sometimes surreal actions in a video projected in the background. He put a bucket on his head and, clutching a branch and a garbage-can cover, mounted a carousel horse. Later he was walking in a misty park when he was beset by some small boys, who seemed to beat him up. The other dancers accompanied these filmed images with abstract movement patterns.

There were shots of windmills; the dancers twirled sticks. There was a long scene where someone led a donkey across a peaceful landscape toward a barn; later there were close-ups of people’s noses, mouths, skin. The videos (by Dillon Paul) were quite beautiful, and sometimes the camera’s motion created a layer of dizzying countermotion behind what the dancers were doing. Then, in a shocking merger, the stage action and the filmic action, the concrete subjects on the film and the abstract movements of the live dancers, came together. Polos was pushed to the ground, roughed up and stripped by the other dancers, and left, perhaps still without a clue, as they disappeared.

The other "Dance Straight Up" entrants all had mysterious implications as well. Christine Bennett’s Surfacing, a duet for herself and DeAnna Pellecchia, was an exploration of the possibilities for sliding across the Marley floor with a film of water on it. The women did basically the same movements, in unison or follow-the-leader fashion, sometimes looking at one another for cues, but otherwise they remained detached. Finally each one touched the shoulder of the other — and the lights went out.

Malinda Allen’s This Will Not Be Quick was an elaborate, ritualistic work for 10 women, nine of whom wore gauzy tunics with splotches of red that turned out to be crimson designer undergarments. First they performed what could have been a warm-up exercise, stretching and lunging together very slowly. Then one woman became separated from the group and crouched on the floor while the others, in twos and threes, seemed to threaten or rouse her. Later on, a woman in white appeared, and the rest, having left, re-entered through the theater for a group dance. They were all assigned roles in the program (Innocent, Mother-Sirens, Amazons, and Erotic Jesus-Guru and Marys), but it all looked more like a sorority initiation to me.

There was a mysterious corpse who came to life in balkanBLUES, by Ahmet Lüleci and the Collage Dance Ensemble, but I had no idea what the significance of that was except to vary the group action as they carried her in and knelt by her side. The piece mostly consisted of folk dancing, in captivating Eastern European rhythms, a slow step dance for women, couple dances, and fast line dances for men and women. I loved the heeled boots pounding into the floor, the easy torque of hips and swinging legs, the sudden squats and equally sudden jumps, the hypnotic circlings and gradual accelerations. Especially I loved the corporate energy that linked them into the patterns.

Issue Date: January 23 - 29, 2004
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