Thursday, 24 September 2015

A cultural diversion

I'm reposting a lot of old blogs about India this week, so I thought I'd give you all a treat with an extra blog about something completely different.

A few weeks back, I wrote about a production of Carmen at the Soho Theatre. Now, in my continuing attempt to inject some High Culture into my blog, I'm writing about the ballet. And I'm posting it now because Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo have just two days more in London before they vanish beyond the M25, and I'd like you to have the chance to see them before they go. You'll probably have to kill someone to get a ticket, but it will be worth it, I promise.

It's ballet, Jim, but not as we know it.

There are a few men in the history of ballet who have enhanced their reputations by dancing en pointe. Frederick Ashton famously choreographed the comic lead in Fille Mal Gardée for him to show off in the tortuous footwear that, for so many people, defines the classical ballerina. So when the curtain rises on the company affectionately known as “Les Trocks” there must surely have been some mistake. For this famous company of male dancers are draped around the stage ready to dance Les Sylphides, a classical ballet which seems designed specifically to test the ankles of even the slenderest ballerina.

It’s no mistake. Chopin’s music starts and the company glides, apparently effortlessly, into their version of this chocolate box ballet. What follows is, as ever with the Trocks, an astonishing mix of virtuoso dancing and brilliant comedy. They stagger, they fall, they miss their cues – yet when they settle to perform a set-piece dance, every step is perfect. In fact, their technique is significantly better than many a more traditional company. If you are to get a laugh by collapsing on your fellow dancers, the audience needs to know that there is no question but that you did it on purpose.
Much of the comedy is straightforward slapstick, but there is also a subtle (or sometimes less subtle) sending up of many of the conventions of classical dance: the pretty-boy principal who stands around propping up (or, in this case, not) his leading lady; the endless rearranging of ballerinas around the stage because, back in the 18th century, moving around to make pretty patterns was much of what ballet was about. The audience roars with appreciative laughter as dancers fall to the ground, somehow landing in perfect splits. Splits? But these are men. For a moment, despite the chest hair peeping above some of the costumes, we’ve all forgotten. But splits? From a jump? One or two, maybe. But the whole company?

Photo: (c)Zoran Jelenic

Yes, splits, fouettés, spins, even high lifts (though the man doing the lifting is barely bigger than the “girl” he lifts). The Trocks do it all, with a passion and élan which lets their love for ballet shine through. Les Sylphides is almost a parody of classical dance and it deserves sending up, but never have I enjoyed a performance so much and, when I’ve wiped away the tears of laughter, I realise I am still sitting through some sublime classical ballet.

Next it’s Merce Cunningham’s turn. Older ballet fans, like me, may still vaguely remember when Cunningham was exciting and new. It was pretty strange, though, even then. The Trocks dance it wonderfully, though it is so far beyond parody that I'm not sure that there would be that much difference if they did it straight. A couple of live musicians accompany them in music that the programme describes as “after John Cage”. Let’s face it, getting a laugh out of Cage’s music is not difficult but, as the sound of rustling paper gives way to the popping of bubble wrap, the audience collapses. The pastiche of the music is crueller than the sending up of the dancing, yet, even at its cruellest, it is still recognisably music (of a sort) and unmistakably John Cage.

The Trocks on Wall Street    Photo: (c)Zoran Jelenic

The Balanchine parody is nicely done, but it is nothing to the Dying Swan. I'm old enough to have seen Margot Fonteyn dance the Dying Swan as a gala piece and it was very lovely indeed. But this dying swan was like nothing you have imagined in your wildest nightmares. Shedding feathers, clutching its stomach, palpitating at its chest, there’s no doubt this swan is in a very bad way and then, suddenly, the dancer is channelling Fonteyn with that lyric pose, held for a breath – before she breaks it to gesture for more applause. It’s classic Trock – technically brilliant, beautifully moving and then crashing straight into the crudest slap-stick. Brilliant!

Finally we get the peasants dancing in the village from – well, from every three act classical ballet you ever saw really. Ostensibly, this is Don Quixote, though the programme notes tell us that “due to economic reasons” neither Don Quixote or Sancho Panza features. Peasant girls do, though. And gypsies. And an ugly hag, a virtuous mother and somebody else who hangs around in the background doing not a lot, because classical choreographers always like to put in a part for their old girlfriends whose dancing days are pretty well over. There’s a handsome hero and an ugly old man who tries to steal away the beautiful heroine. And there are fairies. Why not? It’s a traditional classical ballet – why shouldn't there be fairies? The plot, such as it is, is communicated through those mime gestures that little girls learn in their ‘First Ballet Book’ and these are shoe-horned in whether they are appropriate or not, together with the odd gesture that definitely doesn't feature in the ‘First Ballet Book.’ There are solos and pas de deux and pas de quatre and dances for the whole company and, by the end, you have seen every village dance scene you will ever want to see and, if you stop laughing for long enough, you will notice some truly beautiful dancing sandwiched between the jokes.

Photo: (c)Zoran Jelenic

There is no other company in the world like the Trocks. What started as a joke in an off-off-Broadway show has become an institution in which an astonishingly talented multi-national cast of male performers dress up in tutus and dance their hearts out. And are really, really good. And funny. I did say that they’re funny, didn't I?

I doubt you can get tickets for the London run by now. (It closes on Saturday.) But they are just starting a UK tour that lasts until mid-November. Whether you are a ballet fan or just enjoy a really good laugh, do yourself a favour and go.

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