Forty years ago, Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo made a political statement concurrent with the second wave of feminism: if women can do anything that men can do, then vice versa. According to the program notes, the founders of Les Ballets Trockaderdo sought to prove “the astounding fact that men can dance en pointe without falling flat on their faces.” While this groundbreaking company did garner international fame and acclaim for doing just that, there are further implications of an all-male troupe performing as women in the 21st century.
On May 19th at the UW’s Meany Hall, as paroxysms of laughter began to subside into giggles, it hit me: several of the prima ballerinas could easily have been women. Not only were they “passing” to me, it was becoming difficult to hold onto the idea in my mind that these dancers actually were male. The thought was troubling. Even days later, I feel discomforted by the knowledge that I equate certain head movements, a softness of port de bras, with being biologically female. Clearly, this is a cultural construct, as these movements can be and have been learned (by not only men, but myself, even, as a young girl!). I worry that these reactions mean that my viewing of the Trocks made me complicit in reinforcing harmful and outdated gender stereotypes.
Classical ballet is extremely gendered and sometimes arbitrarily heteronormative. The men do the lifting, the women, the balancing. Harems of identical maidens in diaphanous gowns are pursued by only a few men. The footwear. The types of jumps men get to do. Fouette turns while the leg remains extended is seen as manly, while bending the knee each time is womanish. Watching the Trocks systematically overturn all of these stereotypes, I sincerely hoped that the ensuing humor was not merely a symptom of the shock of seeing men in tutus break gender taboos. In an era in which drag performance gravitates ever closer to the mainstream, there must be more nuanced intentions to interpret in order for Les Ballets to remain relevant to today’s audiences.
The Trocks’ particular brand of humor is multilayered and vast. There are plenty of slapstick moments. A dancer falls down after being “accidentally” kicked in the head when a soloist shows a little too much exuberance. The dying swan frantically tries to stick her feathers back in after she’s shed them all over the stage, then is racked with tortured convulsions before finally succumbing. One corps de ballet member gets mixed up and travels the wrong way, or executes sassy head bops instead of the subdued swan choreography.
The performers’ facial expressions are exaggerated and clown-like, their false eyelashes so long that every wink and smirk is magnified to the back of the theatre. More intellectually, Les Ballets Trockadero mocks classical ballet tropes. In Swan Lake, Siegfried and Odette mime to each other excessively, past the point of comprehension. In Esmerelda, one company dancer fights the tedium of waiting for the soloists to finish by eating an apple loudly onstage, later a banana. The dancers run around the stage, at first as if driven to travel to a new location, but eventually they realize the futility and tiring nature of their journeys. Is it possible to still get the jokes, I wonder, even if you don’t know anything about ballet?
The Trocks also take on cultural aspects of the ballet, especially Russian ballet à la Les Ballets Russe(s) de Monte Carlo. The soloists competitively exhibit prima donna attitude; men being lifted are too heavy and fall down. During a sublime duet, a treelike ballerina uses her much shorter partner’s head to balance. How undignified! Later on, the ballerina collapses with fatigue and can only continue once sugar is rubbed on her gums. Sometimes the dancers break another central tenet of ballet by refusing to mask their efforts. Ballet is hard, they reveal! But, at other times they do execute superhuman stunts with nonchalance. One dancer accomplishes her series of fouette turns, her spot changing each rotation. Another dancer throws some backflips into his Le Corsaire variation, and lands in an arch with his head touching his foot. In Don Quixote, Kitri pulls off the dreaded attitude balances as seen in the classic “Rose Adagio” from Sleeping Beauty, in which her partner leaves her precariously hovering en pointe for as long as she so desires. Aptly, I overheard another audience member quip the first intermission, “If they weren’t such good dancers, it wouldn’t so be funny.”
I wondered, while my mind was being boggled by virtuosic feats and hilarious caricatures, are the Trocks still relevant in this era of gender fluidity? Would a trans man be welcome in this company, or would that inclusion undermine the company’s mission? The Trocks are role models to ballet’s next generation of boys, visible in the audience. On the one hand, the Trocks’ comedy subverts traditional gender roles, but on the other, the invitation to laugh at their absurdity in effect reinforces those positions. To some young men, this might imply that if they chose to continue in ballet they must either work to be perceived as hyper-masculine, or be the kind of joke they saw on stage that evening. Perhaps when the Les Ballets Trockadero was founded in 1974, a man getting in touch with his feminine side was innately funny. In 2017, it feels problematic not to delve into the ramifications of this notion. Nonetheless, grappling with these implications enhanced Les Ballets Trockadero’s potent beauty and power.