“Swan Lake, Act II: Le Lac des Cygnes” (Tchaikovsky/Choreography after Ivanov).
“Le Corsaire Pas De Deux” (Drigo/Choreography after Chabukiani).
“Esmerelda Pas de Six” (Pugni/Choreography after Petipa).
“Don Quixote” (Minkus/Choreography after Petipa and Gorsky).
Plus a few surprises.
Sounds, for the most part, like a glorious highlights bill for an evening of classical ballet at the Kennedy Center’s Opera House March 21 and 22.
It is, and it isn’t.
It’s the Trocks, otherwise known as Les Ballets Trockadero De Monte Carlo, under artistic director Tory Dobrin.
And that makes for a bit of a different evening.
Because the world-famous company is made up entirely of men, dancing all the parts—beautifully, but in an over-the-top, often near disastrous and laugh-inducing, and full costumed zest and flair. There will be mirth, there will be swans and men en pointe in tutus and a kind of affectionate derring-do and send-up of everything sacrosanct in the world of ballet. There will be lipstick and makeup, and dancers who are both graceful and something somewhat else. As one review headline put it: “The Trocks send up ballet with aplomb and body hair.”
“It is meant to be very, very entertaining and, of course, funny, but it is also full of affection for the art of it all,” said the Italian-born Raffaele Morra, a 16-year veteran of the company which was founded in 1974. Morra is from Fossano, Italy and had his training with Estudio de Danzas, run by Mirta and Marcelo Aulicia. “I was at a place in my life where I wanted to do something different,” he said. “And then, they came and I saw them, and I said, that was it. I wanted to do what they did, and so I ended up with them, in New York. I was more experienced in contemporary dancing, and this was classical dancing, in its truest sense, but with a difference, of course.”
“It is, I think, one of the most difficult things to do in the world,” Morro said.
Classical dance has its own myths, its legendary aspects and tropes, and its larger-than-life figures on both sides of the genders—there is the Nuryev, the Nijinsky, the Barishnikov, who can glide and lift and move and take flight from wood floors as if shot by a cannon, combining grace with muscularity and tendons at breaking points. And there are the ballerinas, the primas, who play all the swans, the Juliets and Giselles, the princesses, to their prince, holding them aloft.
And we know that what they do in tandem and alone, is very difficult, it takes years out of people’s lives in terms of training, of doing everything just so, and then making it seem as if everything comes out of thin air and soul, instead of blood, sweat and tears, and the very real danger of things breaking, tearing.
Ballet is hard.
Dancing is hard.
Clumsy, jocular, side-splitting ballet is harder, in many ways.
“It’s not easy to make things—scenes and moves, and partnering, lifts and so on—that normally look graceful and beautiful become the object of purposeful laughter,” Morra said. He is now in addition to taking on roles, one of the company’s ballet masters.
“It takes great skill to do what we, all of us do,” he said. “You have to approach the material with respect, of course—it is not making fun of but having fun with.”
Originally, the company was composed of ballet enthusiasts who were not necessarily great dancers, but who wanted to present “a playful, entertaining view of traditional, classical ballet in parody form and en travesty.” According to the company history, Les Ballets Trockadero first performed in late-late shows in Off-Off Broadway.
It might have stayed that way, but dance critics, especially the dance writer Arlene Croce of the New Yorker, and others discovered them and the rest, as they say, was history.
The company quickly became the darlings of New York fans, but their fame soon spread all over the world to all kinds of audiences—people who didn’t have a clue about ballet, or had never seen anything more than “The Nutcracker” and came to be entertained, and laugh, to be sure, but also to receive perhaps their first sprinkling of ballet magic.
“I think there are so many people whose first contact with classical ballet has been through us,” Morra said. “You can do many things with ‘Swan Lake,’ including making swans look clumsy, but you must always treat the material, the dancing with affection.”
Over the years, the dancers have acquired certain identities, invented characters out of the plausible thin air of ballet legend. Morra, for one, also has embodied dancers like Lariska Dumbchenko , a Russian star who was the first ballerina to be shot into orbit as well as Pepe Dufka.
“It is all in the spirit of entertainment,” Morra said.
“It isn’t about gay dancers,” he added. “It is a particular aspect of culture, very unique unto itself.”
The Trocks, as they are affectionately known, tour every year, everywhere, often on college campuses. They have appeared in more than 34 countries and 600 cities, including places like the Bolshoi in Moscow, the Folies Bergere in Paris. The company lends its presence and does charity benefits, performing for international AIDS organizations, such as the Life Ball in Vienna, London’s Stonewall Gala and for Dancers Responding to AIDS.
“I imagine it is very different now than at the beginning,” he said. “The world changes—and so do we. As a ballet master, I see things differently, too, how the company is perceived. I think we bring ballet to the world, and at the end of the day, everyone of the performers in this company are first and foremost exceptional dancers.”