Ladies of the Lake
Richard James Havis
There are very few incontrovertible truths in the world of the arts, but Roberto Forleo has just hit on one. 'When you see a ballet dancer on stage who is delicate and feminine, but has a hairy chest, it looks funny,' says the dancer with the all-male company Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, or the Trocks as they are commonly called. 'People tend to laugh.'
That's probably a good thing, as the Trocks inject their skilful interpretations of classical ballets with cheeky humour. Formed in New York in 1974, the company has made a name for itself by performing ballets such as Swan Lake with male dancers playing the female roles in drag. It's certainly hilarious, but they are not only camping it up: they treat their repertoire, which are often Russian in origin, with respect and they accurately dance choreographies created by ballet legends such as George Balanchine. The men even go 'on point' - dance on the tips of their toes. But the dancers, who are all trained in classical ballet, also make intentional mistakes and exaggerate movements to amuse ballet fans and novices alike.
'It's genuine choreography, but we add some comic touches,' says Forleo, who started appearing with the troupe in 2008. 'We respect the choreography of the Russian ballets and we are serious about the dancing. But we do things that break the moves. It's a balance between the real choreography and some humour.'
The men are convincing in their exotic costumes and tutus, he adds - so much so that audiences often forget they are not watching women. Part of the fun is reminding the audience of that fact: 'We do it so well that they sometimes forget we are not real women. So we will do something on stage to make that clear to them,' Forleo says.
Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo was formed by dancers who wanted to have some fun with their art form. It originally featured some women members, but as the drag element became more prominent, they faded away; it is now an all-male and all-gay company. The repertoire includes well-known classics such as Giselle and The Nutcracker, but also features little known ballets from 19th-century Russia. (The company draws its inspiration from legendary Russian companies such as the Ballet Russes, and their name refers to the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo.) Some pieces, which gently satirise famous choreographies, have been created specially for the company.
The troupe is based in New York, but tours constantly around the globe. It recently completed an extensive tour of China, and is now back in Hong Kong for a third time to perform at the Academy for Performing Arts' Lyric Theatre.
Andy Warhol once argued that drag queens were more feminine than real women. That's something the Trocks probably would agree with. Part of the appeal of the Trocks, says Forleo, is that they act like the glamorous ballet stars of the past.
'We are an homage to the classic ballerinas, the divas from the 1960s and the 1970s. Back then, ballet dancers were larger-than-life characters, like movie stars. I take my inspiration from Maya Plisetkaya, who danced with the Bolshoi, and Margot Fonteyn, who danced with the Royal Ballet in London. She was prima ballerina assoluta - the best of the best.
'I try to catch the essence of their personalities in my dancing. They have a beautiful technique and great charisma. The ballet legends also have powerful stage presence. With just one movement of the arm, they could change the emotions of a whole audience. They had real power,' Forleo says.
According to Tory Dobrin, the Trocks' long-time artistic director, this approach has led to acclaim from ballet critics. Today's ballet stars have a more ordinary appeal than the divas of yesteryear, and many fans miss the days when ballet dancers were feted like movie stars.
'We have a charisma that harks back to the good old days,' Dobrin says. 'Ballet has changed. It would be weird if a dancer had that kind of image today. It's even missing from opera - you don't really have opera singers like Maria Callas anymore. Audiences miss stars like that, and it's something we can give to them. One critic described our show as 'ballet like it used to be', and I think that description is a very good one.'
The company is keeping the past alive in more ways than one: it also stages smaller classical pieces that are rarely performed outside Russia. 'They are small ballets that have been lost to audiences outside of their country of origin,' says Dobrin. 'They were choreographed between the 1860s and the 1890s. The critics don't get a chance to see these works performed anywhere else, so they always come to see them at our shows. It adds another layer to what we are.'
The dances are learned at first-hand, Dobrin says. 'There are a lot of emigre Russian dancers in New York. Elena Kunikova, who I have known for around 20 years, comes in and teaches us these works. She has staged many of the ballets that she learned in Russia at ballet school with us.'
History is important, but comedy, stresses Dobrin, is what the Trocks is all about. Most audiences come to laugh at men in tutus.
Dancing in a tutu isn't a physical problem, the Italian-born Forleo says - as long as you remember that you are performing as a woman.
'As men, we are used to leading the girls. So it is difficult to let go and follow the man,' the dancer says.
There are benefits: 'The female roles in classical ballet are much more interesting than the men's roles. In Swan Lake, you have to impersonate a swan, so everything in the body has to work as a swan would. You have to forget that you are a human and you have to think that your arms are wings. It's a lot of work for the arms, the chest and the upper body,' Forleo says.
'The feeling is more internalised for female roles - you really have to look inside yourself. But ultimately, you just have to let yourself go and dance. The music of Swan Lake is wonderful and every step of the choreography makes sense.'
There is also the chance to go on point, a technique usually reserved for female dancers: 'I absolutely love that. It is one reason that I joined this company. Everyone can enjoy the Trocks. You don't have to like ballet - it's a family show. If you're a ballet fan, you will get the jokes. But if you don't know ballet, you will still find it funny,' Forleo says.
'It's also a good way to start learning about ballet. Some people who have seen us have developed a strong interest in classical ballet, and have gone on to watch traditional performances. The comedy helped them get into it, and they wanted to see more ballet afterwards.'
Dobrin adds: 'The dancers enjoy it as much as the audience, so everyone has a good time. It looks good visually, and we take care to make sure that the sound is very good, too. We try to offer a full and rich programme of works, and that's one of the reasons we have lasted so long.
'Dance fans have recently been commenting on how dance is moving away from tutus and classical elements towards something more realistic. Well, we go in the opposite direction. We do the older ballets and wear the older costumes. Equally important, we make people laugh.'