By Christopher J. Treacy
The idea is that you need to know the rules first in order to properly break them.
Otherwise, all you’re left with are happy accidents – fine and well for an occasional boon, but not really the sort of thing that you’d want to depend upon. And that’s precisely why a dance company like Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo needs to stay on its toes … literally. You can see for yourself on Friday, July 5 when they come to the Power Center as part of Ann Arbor Summer Festival.
Since the mid-’70s the troupe has toured tirelessly, proving once and for all that men can dance en pointe if they’re willing to work at it. Indeed, there were women in the Trocks at the beginning, but the sight-gag wasn’t nearly as powerful; cross-dressing women aren’t as amusing to audiences as a man in a tutu. Plus, the gals often had a tough time lifting the male dancers. Eventually, it became an all-male revue, the current age range of which spans from 19 to 51.
What started by selling out a loft space on 14th Street in Manhattan’s meat-packing district eventually made its way to Lincoln Center’s “Out of Doors Festival” by the summer of 1999. The fuel propelling the Trocks has always been a unique ability to bring unexpected and hilarious touches to dance pieces that are not normally thought of as funny – from “Swan Lake Part Two” to Balanchine’s “Stars & Stripes.” But being able to render them with humor requires not only a disciplined dancer’s skill; there’s also the matter of comic timing to consider. It’s a fair bit trickier than a mere comedy of errors.
“Classical ballet wasn’t set up to be humorous,” asserts artistic director Tory Dobrin during a recent phone chat. “In that way, it’s like opera. In order to be funny, we need to take the material and exaggerate it for comic effect. But it’s also a two-hour-and-15-minute program, so we have a mission to offer a number of different things – slapstick, parody, physical comedy – in that time frame.”
Dobrin originally hails from Los Angeles. He says that having grown up in West Hollywood, the concept of a drag ballet performance didn’t seem that off-the-wall to him when, after landing in New York by-way-of-Texas, he joined the group for a South American tour in 1980. Since then, the Trocks have wowed audiences in over 500 cities, many of which they revisit on a regular, rotating basis. To look at their schedule, it’s plainly obvious that this is a full-time gig … it’s not a hobby, not something that can be balanced with a day job. Dobrin, who eventually stopped dancing in favor of a fulltime management role, admits that rising to the challenge of staying busy in an iffy economy is a top priority.
“There’s a limited amount of times we can return to the same cities – once every few years – and maintaining the work schedule is really important for us,” Dobrin says. “We have to be sure the show is good fun and attracts the widest range of audiences possible. This isn’t a Mark Morris Dance Company, to use a random example – what we do has to have much more universal appeal and is geared toward the audience’s needs.”
And appeal they have, as Dobrin points out that this is a ballet performance which attracts dance mavens and haters, gay and straight, the young and the old alike. Children, in particular, will warm to the playful nature of the show, whereas a traditional dance performance would likely bore them.
One place where the Trocks have really endured is in Japan, where they have a fan club and will be spending the latter half of this coming September. Dobrin outlines certain cultural factors (cross-dressing in theater/Kabuki, a natural interest in gender issues, the wacky sense of humor fully on display in some of their television programming and a general love of dance), that make this less surprising.
But, like Kabuki, the Trocks are engaged in a higher form of impersonation than what we normally think of as drag in the traditional gay-bar sense.
“We’re trying to create a high-quality show with lots of components, and we’re always searching for a good balance between dance and comedy. With regard to drag, our lineage comes from something more like the Charles Ludlam school.” The late Ludlam, you may recall, was a New York-based actor/director/playwright who specialized in an edgy brand of absurdity. Adjusting to the aesthetic can be a bit of a tightrope walk in the beginning.
“New dancers can have a hard time figuring out the sensibility,” Dobrin says. “It takes a good six months to settle in. Certain aspects of the dance itself – staying in line, for instance – require discipline. But a new dancer also needs to learn that they can’t let the audience manipulate them into an extreme. If you’re the performer, you’re in charge … this is an act and it needs to stay within certain framework. That’s not to say we don’t want dancers to bring their own sensibilities, but they need to be able to make that work with the context of our show. A new dancer might be tempted to take it over the line when the audience reacts to something, but we have a routine we need to stick to, and when you overindulge like that, you alter the aesthetic – it’s no longer funny,” he says, adding that when Joan Rivers called Adele fat, she’d stepped over the line in a similar way.
Knowing the value of restraint is a quality that most artistic directors hold dear, but resisting the temptation to be goaded by an audience by no means infers the Trocks want stoic crowds. In fact, they prefer a lively show where the audience is audibly enthused.
“It should be a party,” Dobrin says. “If it’s fun for the audience, then it’s fun for the dancers. The Trocks are comedians, but they also want to dance very well. Ideally, the audience leaves having laughed hysterically but also in a state of astonishment over the high level of skill. Dancing up on pointes is hard.”
“But,” he adds, “we kinda know what we’re doing.”
Trockadero de Monte Carlo
8 p.m. July 5
121 Fletcher St., Ann Arbor