Make 'em Laugh

“Les Sylphides,” “La Cage,” “Le Grand Pas de Quatre,” “The Dying Swan,” “Raymonda’s Wedding”
Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo
Joyce Theater
New York, NY
December 21, 2007

by Leigh Witchel
copyright 2006, Leigh Witchel

How to make ballet funny?  There are several ways, and the Trocks, now in season at the Joyce, know them all. The most obvious is broad silliness; even people who have never seen ballet before think hairy-chested guys in tutus are funny. Then there are the jokes that the Trocks make for balletomanes in the audience; the ones that spring from careful observation of the choreography and pushing it logically to the most ridiculous outcome. In the Trock’s version of “Les Sylphides”, Olga Supphozova (Robert Carter) grinned maniacally as she thundered across the stage in the Mazurka. She posed at the front wing to secure our undying affection (or else) and then literally jogged offstage for the sprint to the back wing to barrel out for another bout of leaps. My companion, a woman who had danced the same role professionally and had to make that same breathless dash, leaned over and whispered. “It feels exactly like that.”  It’s funny either way but if you know the role, it’s hilarious. The Trocks are great at comedy, but they’re golden at parody.

All the old standards on the program, “Les Sylphides”, “Le Grand Pas de Quatre”, “The Dying Swan” and “Raymond’s Wedding” showed the Trocks’ skill as incisive parodists. The publicity shot alone — of “Raymonda,” showing the whole company cowering before the flustered White Lady, who was holding an ungainly wedding cake — made me desperate to see it.  It also shows their affection and love for the material; who even recalls the White Lady as a character in “Raymonda” besides the Trocks?  Alas, the new girl on the block, Robert LaFosse’s “La Cage”, didn’t live up to the rest of the program.

“La Cage” is a gloss on Jerome Robbins’ “The Cage”, a compelling ballet that has given several ballerinas at NYCB a juicy role to sink their feelers into despite the ballet’s misogynistic overtones. It’s also ripe for parody. The plot, involving a tribe of females who like Praying Mantises, mate with their victims before killing them, is part “Giselle,” part “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.” Parody is something that Robbins understood; he created the gold standard for ballet parody, the “Mistake Waltz” from “The Concert.” As easy as “The Cage” sounds to skewer, La Fosse’s version is surprisingly lifeless. He’s reproduced moments of the Robbins choreography to a score by Geoff Gersh that sounds occasionally like electronic sampling crammed through a Casiotone and spends the rest of the time not being the original music, Stravinsky’s “Concerto in D.” All there is to watch is a flock of men in drag doing a reduced version of “The Cage”, waiting for the jokes. “It’s not really about getting the laugh” La Fosse is quoted as saying. Note to LaFosse: It is. In the end, the Trocks aren’t about drag; they’re about parody, and parody is commentary. It’s not enough to reproduce a women’s ballet for men.

On to better things. “Les Sylphides” started out surprisingly flat; the comic timing felt off, but by the Mazurka things were on track. One long suffering corps member, Maria Gertrudes Clubfoot (Edgar Cortes), fell asleep on stage along with the rest of the corps during a calm moment, but then arose sleepwalking into the wings, back onto the stage and finally off the stage into the audience with a yell. That’s one of the silly moments. A parody moment was at the end of the ballet when the corps does excruciatingly slow jumps that need to land softly — and never do. The Trocks don’t bother with the jump at all; they just give us the sound effect as they lean over and slap the floor with a thud.

“Le Grand Pas de Quatre” and “The Dying Swan” are what all the girls in the company joined up to do; each dance has all the ballerina myths cooked up into one delectably poisonous little bonbon. “Pas de Quatre” — the divertissement for four stellar ballerinas of the Romantic era that nearly didn’t get produced because of backstage rivalries — has been parodied by biologically female dancers. Drag is superfluous here, so the Trocks feed us cotton candy helpings of drifting pinkness and barely concealed passive aggression. As Marie Taglioni, Lariska Dumbchenko (Raffaele Mora) is a matron dripping with pearls and a healthy tuft of chest hair.  She was as demure as a duchess and twice as vicious. Yakatarina Verbosovich (Chase Johnsey) danced Lucille Grahn’s variation quite well given the limitations of the wrong anatomy, and without losing the parody. “The Dying Swan” is a calling card for drag ballet, molting feathers from the tutu and all. This version danced by Clubfoot looked a bit different than others; it relied more on sight gags than drifting bourrées and waving arms. Clubfoot, who was quite funny all evening, desperately gathered a few stray feathers off the stage to shower on herself as she plopped over and expired.

“Raymonda,” subtitled “A traditionally confusing divertissement” was delightful mayhem. Svetlana Lofatkina (Fernando Medina Gallego) had an understanding of the role that is the mark of a parodist. If only the women at ABT had this kind of coaching; Lofatkina knows that the variation needs more than steps; it needs soul.  Of course, in the Trocks’ version, soul is glaring offstage after your first slow handclap — on the second, a garish light cue happens right on it and everyone in the wings claps with you.  Or else.  All the bridesmaids (Dumbchenko, Verbosovich, Supphozova and Gerd Törd – Bernd Bergmaier) did fine jobs at both dancing and pushing the divertissement’s Hungarian soul of the cliff of absurdity.  Dumbchenko did enough head waggling in the first variation to make us, and herself, dizzy.  The White Lady (Nadia Doumiafeyva — Nolan Kubota, “sometimes a statue, sometimes a ghost, always an enigma”) raced around pointlessly — but on point — and looked like an extra from a drag version of “The Flying Nun”, but kudos to the Trocks for rescuing her from obscurity. The whole divertissement is historical and hysterical to boot.

Photos: In order from top: "Les Sylphides," "The Cage," "Pas de Quatre," the White Lady from "Raymonda"

Volume 5, No. 1
January 2, 2006

copyright ©2006 Leigh Witchel

©2006 DanceView