THE Trocks – an all-male ballet company who dress and dance the female roles – build lots of laughs into their shows. But the pratfalls belie exemplary technique and raw power, says Kelly Apter
Sometimes it takes a minute, sometimes it takes five. But when the dancers of Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo are in town, you can be sure the laughs will come eventually. Tonight, at the Teatro los Canal in Madrid, the audience is quick on the uptake. Within seconds of the dancers arriving on stage to perform their inimitable version of Swan Lake, the crowd is guffawing. They’re well aware that the member of the corps de ballet who just tripped and fell had every intention of doing so – it’s all timed, and executed, to perfection.
We always try to hire better and better dancers. So now we have a very good company of strong dancers with a lot of personality”
Some audiences take longer, however – and it’s not just cultural. I recall sitting in a different Spanish theatre several years ago, where the first ten minutes of Trockadero’s show was met with bemused silence. You could almost see the collective thought bubble above the audiences’ head saying “is it OK to laugh at this?” They eventually did, of course, because yes, it’s most definitely OK to laugh at a Trocks show – in fact it’s impossible not to.
Since 1974, the New York-based company has been crafting its own unique (and for once that word is entirely appropriate) mix of ballet and comedy. Spending most of the year on tour, the performers are used to the atmosphere changing from venue to venue – at least at the start.
“The audience reaction changes every single time,” says Raffaele Morra, a dancer with the company since 2001. “You can go to the same place, but it will be different.
“Even in the same city – from opening night to last night there’s a huge difference. Sometimes the audience knows what they’re coming to see and they laugh straight away, other times it takes a little longer. Of course, by the end of the show, they all love it.”
I meet Morra in the hotel bar, the morning after the Teatro los Canal show. But without the full make-up, bun wig and tutu, he’s completely unrecognisible. Like the rest of the company, he’s looking forward to the Scottish leg of their UK tour, where a warm welcome always awaits.
Each visit features new works previously unseen by audiences – but part of the fun is also seeing the same pieces again and again. So alongside the Merce Cunningham-inspired Patterns in Space and a re-vamped Don Quixote, the UK tour includes old favourites Swan Lake and Go for Barocco. Which is fine for us, seeing them every couple of years – but what about the dancers, performing the same pieces every couple of nights?
“Our repertoire is very broad, but our signature pieces have stayed pretty much the same for 15 years,” says Morra. “We’ll always add something new, especially if we’re coming to the UK, but we perform the same seven or eight ballets repeatedly.
“So I’ve danced Swan Lake and Go For Barocco many times over 15 years, and yet every day is different and a new challenge. The stages change, we’ll dance in different pairings, or if a dancer isn’t on that tour or another is injured, we move things around. So every day something happens that changes our perception of what’s on stage – because we need to keep it entertaining for us as well as the audience.”
Once upon a time, a stage full of men in tutus and pointe shoes would have garnered a range of reactions, good and bad. Today, the company still has the capacity to surprise and delight, but the shock factor is long gone.
“The new generation doesn’t think about things in the way we did ten or 20 years ago,” says Morra. “They don’t see the company as being outrageous as it was seen in the past. They come and enjoy our shows in a very different way – so we try to keep up to date with what the audience wants.”
Part of that strategy is re-visiting works which no longer feel like the right fit, such as Don Quixote. Originally choreographed by Marius Petipa in the late 19th century, the work already has a comic element, making it perfect Trocks material.
But back in the 1980s, when Don Quixote was first given the Trocks makeover, getting laughs rather than showing off strong technique was the company’s number one priority. Today, both are equally important, so it was time for a change.
“I felt there was no relationship between our Don Quixote and the actual Don Quixote,” explains Morra. “The choreography was good for the Trocks at the time, when we were mostly about comedy and less of a ballet company, but it was not good for us anymore.
“Because being that silly doesn’t work for audiences any longer, we have to be more refined these days. And the technical level within the company has changed, because we always try to hire better and better dancers. So now we have a very good company of strong dancers with a lot of personality.”
Those who have seen and enjoyed the Trocks in the past are well aware that comedy is only part of the appeal. Yes, they’ll make you laugh – but over the course of a two hour show, that can only take you so far. By the end of the evening, it’s the power of the dancing that impresses most. Because when you take the beauty and grace of a ballerina and mix it with the muscular strength of a male dancer, that’s quite a heady combination.
“We always compare it to a male and female tennis player,” says Morra. “They both learn the same skills, but the male player hits the ball much harder – and that’s exactly what we do with ballet, which gives our shows a lot of energy. We don’t try to compete or be better than anyone else, it’s just different.
“And we don’t want to take anything away from ballerinas, or to mock them in any way – that’s never what we do. We just want to show the same things from a different point of view.”
• Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, Edinburgh Festival Theatre, 20 and 21 October; Eden Court Theatre, Inverness, 23 October.