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Can't tell the boys from the girls without the program

May 5, 2005

writers on dancing

Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo
Zellerbach Hall
U of California, Berkeley
[Presented by Cal Performances]
May 5, 2005

copyright ©2005 by Paul Parish

The Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo have been laying them in the aisles in Berkeley this past weekend (presented by CAL Performances as their homage to the comic muse). The Trocks will be giving gender theorists dissertaion material for generations to come. But theory aside, why is a performance of theirs so satisfying? I have several times found their version of "Swan Lake" or Pas de Quatre" more fulfilling than those of a legitimate company. How can it be that a travesty company can sound the depths and illuminate the heights like this? "They can't even point their feet."

Well, they CAN point their feet-though they sickle them a lot, and often don't pull their knees either. It's NOT as though they can't, and one of the secrets of the company style is that when they remove the parody, and go for high style, they can show you lines as beautiful as Tallchief's-maybe not Guillem's, but in fact they've now got some loose-legged guys with penchées as tall as the Ritz, and as the technical levels continue to climb (as they very manifestly have, since the days in the early 70's when Anastos started the company), they'll get even closer to Parnassus than they already have.

Perhaps that's the secret-as Arlene Croce pointed out in a great essay on the Trocks way back when-every ballerina is a metaphor. All they can do is give us a perspective that gives us a glimpse of the ideal, seen for a moment, in the ebb and flow of everything, from an angle discovered by a genius-a moment that will have to dissolve in real time but that will live in the memory forever.

That's what the Trocks are best at, understanding the rhythm of revelation, the hierarchy within any ballet of the moments when deeper and deeper beauties are revealed, and at the height of the mayhem in their burlesque of "Swan Lake," with a stage full of swirling bandy-legged swans exiting on each others' backs, trombones blaring, von Rothbart flailing away with his cloak, they'll deliver the essential white swan magic with the ballerina promenaded on pointe in a series of immaculate tilted attitudes that breaks your heart with their purity.

You never know whether she's going to fall out of a fish dive, both hands on the floor and glaring back at her partner, or stay up for a triple step-up turn. (Nowadays their technique is so strong, it's changed some aspects of the comedy. It gives them grace and the kind of glamor that Merrill Ashley could command; eventually quantitative changes become qualitative. More of that in a moment, when I get to "Raymonda.")

The Trocks have a huge natural asset, and they know it-right off the bat, they command the "Verfremdungseffekt"-Brecht's word for the ability to make the familiar look strange, which is perhaps the fundamental theatrical value. Nothing can hold your attention longer; even the sight of someone falling is gripping only till you see the outcome. Falls, dives, turns, modulate your interest, but the familiar rendered strange has an ongoing fascination. Put the two together, and you've got what Joan Acocella called "bang for the buck."

They get you coming and going-bad tendus, hunched shoulders, all those embarrassments that dancers consider laughable, the Trocks present for you to get a good look at; but also they show the peculiar way ballerinas walk on half toe, the "peek-a-boo" postures, they put little quotation marks around these things too and make you notice them as if for the first time.

They excel at the kind of comedy that reminds you of the vanity of human wishes. Let observation, with extensive view, survey mankind, from China to Peru, and what you always find is that the moments when people gloat over their successes are when they're most vulnerable to puncture. It's everybody's Achilles heel. The comforting aspect of this is that we somehow survive the murder of our darling moments and live on to make fools of ourselves again. To see this common humanity shining out through all the rigmarole and affectation of ballet is enormously refreshing; I think it does a body good to laugh this hard, and to have such a diet of revelations. It's literally good medicine.

The Trocks have a million ways of showing up the "voila!" moment. My favorite came at the bows of "Swan Lake," when von Rothbart came forward, gave his cape a villainous swirl, and its magnificent red lining flared up over his face and got stuck on his crown and completely destroyed that moment when he drops his eyes and receives our adulation. It was a four-count bow-tendu, arm, cape, and gracious acknowledgement.... ruined. He was hung up like a kite in a tree. I laughed till I cried.

On the other hand, it's a good idea I think to go a while before seing the Trocks again. One can only take so much tawdry finery, even in jest.

Their humor has changed since the days of Peter Anastos. Partly it's just that there's no-one like Anastos. And time changes things. Anastos's sense of humor itself belongs to the pre-AIDS generation, when the tragic divas had more clout and consequently were funnier to parody. The current style is gaggier.

As technique improves everywhere, and as the Ballets Russes dancers whom the Trocks parody recede into the past, the fact that Fifi Barkova actually dances Kitri's variation better than Toumanova did becomes un-funny, though the way the audience now cries "You go, girl" makes them seem a parody of Dance Theater of Harlem. They've become parodies of American dancers, which is perhaps a slightly diminished thing.

I got to hand it to Olga Supphozova, who danced Odette more like Martha Rae than Lucille Ball (which was the classic version I loved from the late Tamara Boumdiyeva) and went from the sublime to the ridiculous with moxie and aplomb and abandon; Supphozova also did a killer version of Stephanie's variation in Raymonda, where she danced like Terekhova.

The artist formerly known as "Prince" Myshkin was madly over-the-top in the "Don Quixote" pas de deux. Despite the fact that his double sauts de basque were utterly respectable-indeed, he hit all his marks thrillingly-he seemed convinced he was an Edwardian dandy and vamped the audience as if one of us was going to be his petit bonbon after the show.

Probably the funniest thing all night was the sight gag in "La Vivandiere," in which the short cavalier (Nikolai Legupski) did not reach breast-height on his ballerina, Gerd Tord, who did a pirouette a la seconde which cleared his head easily. Poor Legupski had to dance like a cavalier-behind her, and therefore out of sight. There were a million twists on how her skirt was in his way-all of them funny. The ballet was staged for them by the great Yelena Kunikova, who must have enjoyed exaggerating St Leon's drastic penchées-forward and back-into this ludicrous bobbing and pecking.

Legupski made very pretty work of an entrechat six, landing in second, with a double pirouette on the foot that came from he back landing on the knee with the head looking "into the little pool." Repeated immaculately three times, which made it hard to believe he really lost his spot in his hops a la seconde in the finale.

Finally, I don't know what to say about Lariska Dumbchenko's "Raymonda". She simply danced it beautifully, with better style, control, timing, and musicality, than I've ever seen in a live performance. I'm not sure she should have done that, but it was wonderful to see the bourrées begin at exactly the right moment after the cambré pulled her off balance. It wasn't funny, but it does show that parody is only an exaggeration of a style, and sometimes if you really love something, you CAN get there from here.

Volume 3, No. 18
May 9, 2005
copyright ©2005 Paul Parish

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