Friday night was balmy and booked with events to please tourists and locals hoping to enjoy the best of what this River City has to offer. On the docket of possible to-dos during this maniacal Spring Break season was a little advertised performance of Les Ballets Trockadero De Monte Carlo. Held in the city’s expansive Straz Center’s smaller venue, Ferguson Hall, the performance was a hyperbolic cacophony of tradition, individual talent, and the tour de force of masculine prowess that draws near sell-out crowds consistently.
As with every performance, diversity is the key theme for both the dancers and the demographics who come to witness this show that I could not have anticipated and that I shall never, ever forget. In a world where it is often so scary to be different, the ‘Differents’ gathered on this night in Tampa—on stage and in seats. Together, we enjoyed the revelry that concurrently pays homage to the tradition of Ballets Russes and mocks the limiting norms and expectations that have evolved alongside classical ballet. Funny and full of folly, the program was also challenging, including Swan Lake, Act II, Nightcrawlers, a piece with its roots in an earlier parody of Jerome Robbins’ work, and concluding with Raymonda’s Wedding, a piece that first debuted in 1898 and that has now been twisted and morphed into a delightful finale complete with a happy ending! Let me be clear—these guys are funny—really funny. But never at any moment does that humor obfuscate the talent that keeps the troupe on the road about 200 nights a year.
And while talent underpins the show, comedy is his/her/their/your/our muse for the performance. The audience is indoctrinated into comedic expectation before the curtain opens. A disembodied voice, speaking formally in broken English replete with a Soviet-Block accent, sets the tone, announcing the spoof-centric names of the dancers and informing us of farcical changes made to tonight’s program.
The show begins with Swan Lake, Act II. The curtain rises to dancers in perfect costume, perfect posture, and, immediately, those who know Swan Lake on any level start sorting through expectations, just as with any regular, classical ballet. And that’s where they get you. The minute you think you know something, they break the barrier. What graceful arms, you say in your mind, only to note that the facial expressions of this little feathered angel are not wistful. She is not waiting for a male figure to make her matter. Oh, no. These swans are self-possessed and aggressive and, well, funny.
And so it goes for the night. You stop laughing for a bit during the two intermissions. You talk a bit to those around you about the layers and layers of what you’ve just seen—the perfect timing—the chance to laugh at yourself. You think you know where they are taking you. The curtain comes up again. And immediately, fast and furious and fastidious with their timing, there are moments when you see the female lead and think that you have never believed in a heroine more than you do right now. And then, there’s a pratfall perfectly timed or a troupe member taking too much stage-space and getting put back in place by an aggressive colleague—and you remember these non-traditional dancers are in control of this new world order. The jokes are on the tradition of dance, the realities of a life in dance, and the stereotypes and expectations of the consumer world that accepts ballet as it always has been. Those expectations make the show funny, and they make the audience pupils to the lessons in tolerance and possibilities that really drive the very physical performances of these bold men. On this stage, being too small or too old or too broad won’t keep you out of the action. Instead, being different will take you to the top of the troupe, a troupe that has dancers enjoying careers for more than twenty years and—get this—being proud of those years and that longevity.
You don’t have to fit in, but you do have to be able to function. Imagine going to work every day and being told those words, over and over again. How well could we nurture what makes us different—what makes us special? Those words are the mantra of Tory Dobrin, Artistic Director of Les Ballets Trockadero De Monte Carlo. Those words create an all-male troupe of dancers and performers who, through their differences, push boundaries and introduce ballet fans, old and new, to a new realm of possibility. Under Dobrin’s direction, gender and strength and tradition bump and gnash and rage against each other to create new meaning and new potential and new spaces for the performative.
The Trocks, as they are called by devoted fans and on their kitschy yet functional memento souvenirs, take expectations and toy with them—and you. Now in their 45th year as a company, The Trocks are still on the frontier, now adapting from their own earlier spoofs to create new spoofs, new layers on the trails they first chartered in the 1970s. They learn dance as young men, then come to the company to perform all roles in a way that makes us wonder where gender and humanity begin and end. You forget that your swan is not a prima female, and—the second you believe ‘her,’ the male heroine playing that role injects comedy or a masculine attack on the passage that a woman would never—could never execute. And you are reminded that you are in a world where traditional is just where we started; challenges to that tradition are why you came and why you can’t wait for the intermissions to end so that you can get back in the world that The Trocks devote their lives to creating. Are they Pavlova? No, but her tradition is in all that they do. And what they are doing is opening the world of classical ballet to audiences Pavlova and her peers might never have dreamed to imagine.