Does my bourrée look big in this?

The Times

August 25, 2010


The tutu was orange, beaded and corseted. My editor had suggested I dress up as a Trock — I was in midtown Manhattan watching the all-male ballet company in rehearsal for its imminent London run — suddenly it seemed a terrible idea. I don’t have the body or inclination for drag: too hairy, hopeless in heels, the usual boy impediments. More humiliatingly, I don’t have the body of a Trock: ripplingly hard legs, flexibility, suppleness, an arse like two scoops of ice cream — you don’t want to be Mr Ordinary in a tutu next to these guys.

The company (full title: Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo), which started in 1974, has what its 20-year-old member Long Zou calls “serious fun”. Its 16 dancers are professionals and so dedicated to, and knowledgeable about, ballet that they are perfectly placed to deconstruct it, with as much glitter, make-up and flouncing as possible. They perform 40 weeks a year, all over the world, taking the work of the classical repertoire and subverting it, not just by playing the female (as well as male) parts, but by spiking the melodrama of ballet with mocking glances, outrageous moves and deliberate pratfalls.

Ballet and ballet history isalso gently mocked in the diva-ish old school female ballerina personas that each of the company takes on, such as Ida Nevasayneva, Giuseppina Zambellini and Nina Enimenimynimova.

Each dancer also has a male persona, such as Yuri Smirnov who, “at the age of 16, ran away from home and joined the Kirov Opera because he thought Borodin was a prescription barbiturate”, or Boris Nowitsky, “who has been with the greatest ballerinas of our time and has even danced with some of them”. Boom boom.

Tory Dobrin, the artistic director, directs the dancers through an exhilarating, exhausting rehearsal: out of drag the humour is muted, the physical demands evident. The London show will include the “abstract ballet” ChopEniana, the Merce Cunningham-inspired Patterns in Space, the pas de six from La Vivandière and Raymonda’s Wedding. The second half has a Trocks crowd-pleaser — the second act of Swan Lake; expect feathers to be shed — as well as a pas d’action from Marius Petipa’s Harlequinade and Valpurgeyeva Noch (“Wal-purgisnacht”), set to music from the opera Faust, with a stage full of bare-chested fauns, nymphs and frolicking maidens engaging in a bosky bacchanal.

Dobrin, 56, says he likes the stage to be “full of activity”, the apparent chaos that creates so much hilarity — vain, swaggering princes falling over; a divatrying to hog centre stage a moment too long — is, emphasises Dobrin, “controlled”. Last week he got to the final scene of one of the pieces and realised “there was way too much going on, people were in serious danger of getting hurt” with the whirling of legs, arms and conflicting moves. A drastic edit was made.

“Hold your places please,” he calls out to the dancers, as they practise a wedding dance which begins quite sedately with flowers being scattered, progresses through a crazy Cossack-looking sequence (folded arms and crouching leaps), before a sudden mélange of gallops, a perfect set of pas de deux, piqués and furiously precise fouettés and jetés. “We mix it up,” says Dobrin. “You wouldn’t see the Bolshoi doing that.”

As more than one Trock tells me, the female dancers do most of the work in a ballet, so these talented men are gaspingly occupied, rather — as Christopher Lam, 36, puts it — than “standing around and acting as a crane for the girls, or as decoration”. The Trocks dance en pointe (in specially designed shoes), traditionally the preserve of female dancers. Lam says that where male dancers use “the big muscle groups — glutes, quads — female dancers use smaller muscle groups and that’s challenging to reprogramme your body to”. He demonstrates and it looks like impossible physical agony, as if it is putting heinous pressure on the ankle; but no, says Lam, all the centring movement comes from the hips, “digging down” through the calves.

The company is all-gay, but Dobrin says they are not making overt political statements: the Trocks don’t need to. That they are all-male and enact love, flirtation and romantic slapstick cleverly rewrites the classical ballets they perform, whether in drag or not — no other banners are needed. Unusually for a rehearsal room full of performers, there is a warm sense of togetherness here. The resolutely democratic Dobrin ensures all the dancers rehearse all the roles. He has been with the company since 1980 and recalls the Trocks (like the British theatre troupe Bloolips) coming out of the gay rights ferment of the late 1960s and early 1970s, when, as Dobrin puts it, “you’d do these little performances in little spaces three weekends in a row after midnight”.

Dobrin, who stopped dancing in 1996, has seen the Trocks decimated by Aids and near-penury after funding from the National Endowment for the Arts dried up when right-wing Republicans targeted gay-themed theatre and art in the late Eighties. “There was a time when all I did was go to funerals. For about two years, it was only touring in Japan that kept us going,” Dobrin recalls, “but ourstrength has been that we’ve always kept it simple: we don’t have an office or infrastructure or permanent space.” The Trocks flourished after Dobrin carefully researched what venues wanted from the company and tailored their programmes accordingly. Now the Trocks perform to deliriously appreciative audiences in the US, Australia, Japan, Europe and Russia.

The Trocks, says the dancer Davide Marongiu, 26, is “a family — we travel together, we work together, dress together, eat together and, yes, sometimes people can get a bit irritated, but it passes — we’re there for each other”. Lam recalls dancing at the Bolshoi with particular pleasure: “You see the world,” he says, and perhaps him more than anyone as his boyfriend of ten years lives in Geneva and they meet once a month wherever their schedules coincide. A few of the dancers are in relationships with one another. One couple are fiery off-stage, says Dobrin. “I tell them to keep it out of the rehearsals,” he smiles. There are no real-life divas. “We don’t tolerate any difficult behaviour, we’re too small for that,” says Dobrin. “Texting in rehearsal irritates me the most.” He smiles and nods when I describe him as a benevolent dictator.

And so to the tutu. The lovely Trocks whoop enthusiastically when I appear, made over and reassured my testicles are not, as they seem, extremely visible. Dobrin asks how I feel about being held aloft. Terrified of falling, of looking even more ridiculous . . . “I’ll do it,” I say. Dammit, I’m an honorary Trock: man up. And so, five hands supporting my initially shaking frame, into the air I go. It feels bloody marvellous. I want to be taken to the shops like this. I pose daintily. The prospect of returning to civvies seems a drudge. I have to be forcibly removed from the tutu: that is the magic of the Trocks.