Dancing in drag, Trocks toe line between mastery, mockery

ballet dancers

Lariska Dumbchenko, played by Raffaele Morra, as Odette and Vyacheslav Legupski, played by Paolo Cervellera, as Siegfried in the pas de deux from Swan Lake (Act II) (Photo by Marcello Orselli)

Dressing like a ballerina doesn’t make you one. But it does make it easier to play the part. That’s what the all-male drag ballet troupe Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo have been doing since they first relevéd on stage in 1974, showing the world that ballet can be fun — even absurd — and still compete with the best.

ballet dancers

Swan Queen Odette with her swan maidens in Swan Lake (Act II) (Photo by John L. Murphy)

The Trocks (as the troupe is affectionately known) first performed at UC Berkeley’s Cal Performances 40 years ago. They return in March, this time with a new take on two works — Swan Lake (Act II) and Don Quixote — that they first presented at their Zellerbach Hall debut in 1976. They’ll also do a scene from La Esmeralda.

Joanna Harris, who received a Ph.D. in drama from Berkeley in 1975, saw the Trocks at their campus debut. She says their mastery allows them to adeptly point out the absurdity of ballet’s conventions. “In order to satirize anybody’s work, you have to know it very well,” she says. “It’s quite remarkable what they do. Most companies take dancing very seriously — too seriously.”

The 16 members of the company dance delicate female roles en pointe and en travesti — a term that surfaced in Europe a few hundred years ago when men acted both the male and female roles in a play, as it was considered indecent for women to be on stage. (The term “drag” comes from this period, too, and started as an acronym — “dressed as a girl.”)

Drag plays an important role in society, says Juana Rodriguez, a professor of gender and women’s studies and performance studies at Berkeley. “Drag points to the ways in which all forms of femininity and masculinity are artificial, constructed and performed,” she says.

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The Trocks’s parody of Don Quixote eliminates the main characters, Quixote and Sancho Panza. “You may, if you like, imagine the aristocratic vagrant and his constant companion, Sancho Panza,” read the program notes, “wandering about aimlessly and getting in everyone’s way, which in most versions is all they do anyway.” (Photo by Zoran Jelenic)

The Trocks playfully poke at gender norms in their dancing. They don’t attempt to fully disguise themselves — a tilt of the head will reveal a protruding Adam’s apple; a long leap will display a dancer’s chiseled calves; a low-cut dress will expose a hairy chest. After all, they aren’t ballerinas — they’re just playing them on stage.

“We don’t try to perform as women,” says ballet master Raffaele Morra, who joined the troupe in 2001. “We just try to do the same roles that a ballerina usually takes, but still approach the steps with a male strength and power.”

In a nod to drag tradition, dancers take on outrageous faux-Russian stage names, complete with backstories. One character, Ida Nevasayneva, is a socialist ballerina who was awarded a plastic metal for “bad taste” and became known as a heroine of the Revolution after she lobbed a loaded toe show into a capitalist bank. Another ballerina, Olga Supphozova, is said to have made her first public appearance in a KGB lineup and, after a 7-year hiatus, has returned to the limelight.

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In the Trocks’s version of La Esmeralda, the young gypsy woman is so heartbroken after a wayward romance that not even playing her beloved tambourine can cheer her up. (Photo by Zoran Jelenic)

Morra says the Trocks’ comedy is always evolving to stay relevant — what was once funny doesn’t always stay funny. And while they aim to entertain their audiences, he says they are never clownish or slapstick, something associate director of Cal Performances Rob Bailis affirms.

“The Trocks so clearly respect the art they parody,” says Bailis, “to say nothing of their deep knowledge of the stereotypes they lance with delight and impeccable precision. Their message of inclusion is embedded in the fact that they don’t mock ballet. They enhance it. They celebrate it.”

This year, dancer Chase Johnsey received a 2016 award for best male dancer by the Critic’s Circle National Dance Awards in the U.K., the first time a male dancer has been nominated and won in a ballerina role. Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo was also nominated for the outstanding company award and Johnsey for outstanding male performance.

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The Trocks will teach The Dying Swan at a workshop on campus. (Photo by Marcello Orselli)

In addition to performances in Zellerbach Hall, the troupe will stage two other notable events. On March 2 at 6 p.m. in Durham Studio Theater on campus, dancer Robert Carter will transform himself from street clothes to his stage character, Olga Supphozhova, wearing full makeup and costume. Those interested in attending the free event can register online. On March 4 at 10 a.m., members of the company will host a community dance class to teach attendees a short, four-minute ballet, The Dying Swan. The dance workshop is sold out.

Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo appear March 3 and 4 at Zellerbach Hall. Tickets start at $36 and can be purchased online, by phone at (510) 642-9988 or at the ticket office. Tickets are available at half-price to UC Berkeley students. The performance runs 2 hours 10 minutes with two intermissions.

To learn more about Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, visit Cal Performances.