Irving — In the 18th and 19th centuries, many plays and operas, especially those that were the most popular, would re-appear onstage as a parody or satirized version of the original. These comedic versions, written by new librettists or playwrights, would usually bear new titles that offered a pun or riff on the original name, and the productions were intended to make light of all aspects of the original work. Lyrics were re-arranged, actors over-acted, and blue jokes were inserted in the text. Works that were once tragic or dramatic became slapstick and farcical comedy. While these productions were occasionally intended to seriously mock a truly bad opera or play, having one’s play or opera satirized in this manner was usually high praise to the original creators. Becoming the object of parody meant that you had made it in the artistic world of the early 19th century.
The 21st-century equivalent of these satirizers are the minds behind Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo. A company of all men who perform comedic versions of well-known ballets, the Trocks use the stage to lampoon the famous choreographers, the contrived plots, the unnatural postures, and the traditional gender dynamics of ballet. But like their 19th-century forerunners, they do so not only to point out codification in ballet but also out of a deep respect for the art form. The dancers are all technically strong, and, even in satire, they display real artistry.
Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo returned to the Irving Arts Center on Tuesday to a packed house. One hallmark of Trocks’ performances is that they tend to bring out a diverse audience, all interested in seeing ballet in a new and hilarious way.
After the introductory voiceover, in a mock Russian accent that set the audience to laughing, the company opened with its version of Swan Lake Act II that began with Von Rothbart (Robert Carter, aka Yuri Smirnov, his stage name in male roles) dragging a wooden swan across the stage. While the dance of the swans was the audience in stitches as the birds bobbed their heads and one lazier bird kept forgetting left and right in the choreography, the scene that I found the most satirically revealing was performed by Prince Siegfried. At one point, Siegfried (Duane Gosa, aka Vladimir Legupski) spent at least 60 seconds, if not longer, dramatically walking across stage, pausing with each step to reposition his toes and readjust his line. The spotlight followed him in jerks as he slowly posed across stage. He even gave the audience an angry look because they laughed as he repositioned himself again. The slow walk was an entertaining primer in the way that ballet requires dancers to focus incessantly on posture, pose, and continual, minute self-assessment and re-adjustment, down to one’s toes.
After Swan Lake, Joshua Thake (aka Eugenia Repelskii) and Haojun Xie (aka Nicholas Katchafallenjar) danced the Tarantella pas de deux. Although the dancers made the audience howl by tapping their tambourines on their heads in time with the music, they also danced with real technical precise. Nicholas Katchafallenjar performed energetic jumps that animated and accentuated the music.
Go for Barocco, the third work on the program, takes is cue from the neo-classical choreography of George Balanchine. Dressed in black leotards, the dancers hold hands and move in too-complicated geometrical patterns that have them creeping under each other’s outstretched arms and tying their linked arms in knots. As the dancer break and reform into new patterns, they power-walk across the stage to get in position, knees relentlessly straight. The piece parodies Balanchine’s well-known choreographic interest in working with patterns that shape and reshape the corps into new geometries that require leggy flexibility. The leotards, as well, draw attention to Balanchine’s preference to showcase the “paired down” (read: thin) female body on stage.
Go for Barocco was followed by the Dying Swan, a signature piece for the Trocks, performed by Robert Carter (aka Olga Supphozova). The swan, shedding feathers from her tutu by the handful, wrenched her back on stage, offering a more true-to-life version of what a real dying swan might look like. Carter’s acting chops are magnificent, and, when he was not parodying the original choreography, his fluid arms were gorgeously reminiscent of the best performances of Dying Swan by the ballerinas who made the solo famous.
The Trocks closed the evening with Valpurgeyeva Noch (Walpurgisnacht), based on the original ballet by Soviet choreographer Leonid Lavrovsky. The tale features Pan, Bacchus, Bacchante, and a host of fauns, nymphs, and maidens. Like Swan Lake, Valpurgeyeva Noch could rely on the plot itself to make its own jokes. While the entire ballet was colorful and musically joyful, it was the nymphs who stole the show, dancing a beautiful pas de trois, holding long white scarves that highlighted the patterns they formed by holding hands and rising on pointe together. Likewise, just as the Trockadero version of Swan Lake had done, the spoof version of Valpurgeyeva Noch used the music to make comedy. The dancers harnessed musical flourishes for hand gestures, head bobs, and facial expressions that broke the fourth wall by appealing to the audience for applause or for sympathy when partners (intentionally, of course) failed to provide good support.
As usual with Trocks performances, the curtain call included a totally hilarious intrusion of some other dance form: they closed with a little Riverdance to the tune of “Lord of the Dance” while the audience clapped along enthusiastically. Although ballet as an art form was the butt of satire the whole evening, the performance itself and the technically and artistically strong performers, reminded me that, as the case was in the 19th century, satire is the best form of praise. Art that make fun of itself stands the test of time.