Tag Archives: men on pointe

Let’s Talk Trockadero

18 May

There’s nothing I endorse more than a good laugh and if you’re in need of one, what you really need is Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, the all-male ballet troupe that perform a variety of classical and contemporary ballets, doing the admirable (but not always enviable) task of dancing en pointe.  They have two DVDs in print, now over a decade old and many of the dancers in the filmed performances are no longer with the company, but the repertory remains largely the same.  I’m sure they’ve expanded since, as they continue to create more dances and push the envelope in terms of virtuosity and bravura technique.  As usual, I have yet to see them live…the one chance I almost had was when they toured to my hometown after I moved, but I shall continue to wait for the opportunity because as people like to say, the best things really are worth waiting for (although if you’re impatient like me, you hate it when people say that).

What I find extraordinary about the “Trocks” as they are so often called, is not the fact that they have all these men dancing en pointe (which is by definition extraordinary anyway!), but that they are perhaps the most liberated ballet company in the world.  Nothing is considered over the top by their standards and the result is pure, artistic freedom.  Most classical ballet companies value the art of subtlety, but this is like “Piqué 101”—every ballet dancer knows in order to execute a piqué into arabesque for example, you must push to step onto your leg on relevé and have enough chutzpah to find your balance.  However, the reality is that when learning to piqué en arabesque, many fall victim to erring on the side of caution, never to arrive on top of their leg.  It is my personal belief that in this step, falling backwards is the worst thing you can do because it means you never got there and it looks meek.  On the other hand, fall forwards, and at the very least you passed through and then you have options…a chassé, a whirl of the arms to cover up, etc.  There’s a chance that major ballet companies today are so concerned with proper technique and subtlety they’re not “arriving” and thus we find a number of reviews of tepid performances.  Meanwhile, the Trocks have an abundance of verve and of course they work on technique, but it seems to me that they’re more concerned with their mission.

Obviously, the Trocks aim to entertain with their comical ballets and really, how many ballet companies can say that they’re able to communicate with their audience so successfully and openly?  The painful truth is that artistic directors (particularly in the US) typically have to deal with pleasing an audience, satisfying donors with money, and sometimes stroking the egos of star dancers.   However, the Trocks are so loved for what they do, I wouldn’t be surprised if their audiences are happy to see them in anything.  Sure, those who are more familiar with the Trocks must have their perennial favorites, but when I read on Twitter or Facebook how excited people are to see them (you UK residents in particular were quite the chatty cats a few months ago), it really is about experiencing the whole performance.  I’m sure I’ve heard somewhere that THAT is what ballet is all about.  Just maybe, the major ballet companies could learn a thing or two about throwing caution to the wind and putting in just an ounce of reckless abandon…or go nuts, have two.

What’s also nice to see with the Trocks is the variety of dancers they have, all different shapes and sizes, which is something people want to see.  Obviously, it can look great when you have a uniform corps de ballet like the Paris Opera or the Bolshoi, but accepting dancers based on ability and not body type is what makes the Trocks relatable and inspiring.  Given, the number of accomplished male dancers en pointe make for slim pickings but at least a male dancer who does have the abilities can know that their physicality probably isn’t a deciding factor for a Trockadero audition.  At least in the DVDs some of the dancers didn’t have the highest extensions or the prettiest feet, but that never hindered the performance quality.  It’s definitely a small niche of the dance world, but thank Billy Elliot the opportunity exists for the aspiring male pointe dancer.

I do wish that male pointe work could be taken…(for lack of a better term) more “seriously” too though.  What the Trocks do is amazing, totally legitimate, and sometimes unappreciated in the same way comedy movies never win Academy Awards because apparently laughter is an inferior expression of human emotion than crying.  What I mean is the extent of male dancing on pointe is largely farcical—often relegated to performances in women’s costumes (like the Trocks, drag performances in galas, and I believe Ratmansky’s The Bright Stream) or animal costumes (Bottom in Ashton’s The Dream and Pigling Bland in The Tales of Beatrix Potter, also choreographed by Ashton).  There may be more…though I am not expert enough to know them, and while these are all amazing ballets and wonderful roles, the next step would be to create some chances for men to dance en pointe as they are, no costumes beyond what is normally worn for ballet, so that all opportunities are provided to express a broader range of emotions and ideas.  I actually have a fantastic idea in mind, something I’ve been researching for over a year, but that’s a long story for another day.

Anyway, I guess this didn’t turn out to be much of a DVD review (maybe I planned it that way, even though in all likelihood I did not).  It’s kind of hard to describe the unique touches the Trocks will put on their classical repertoire like Paquita or Raymonda, which is barely further from Petipa’s choreography than changes any other company would make, or the parodies like Go for Barocco (something of an homage to Balanchine) and poking some fun at Robbins in Yes Virginia, Another Piano Ballet (which I really enjoyed).  All I can say is that the humor is done in the most thoughtful ways, with little jokes that may make sense only to the seasoned balletomane, but also an entertainment value that easily appeals to someone who may not be so familiar with the ballets or styles that are being made fun of.  Good times!

Rather than post clips of their performances (a number of which are on YouTube) I would like to draw attention to their contribution to the “It Gets Better Project” in support of LGBT youth who are struggling with bullying and finding acceptance in society.  I’m sure there are young boys out there who maybe want to dance on pointe and could use some encouragement from the dancers themselves!

Nostalgic for Nutkin

14 Jan

Been doing a lot of reading, including Dan Brown’s most recent Robert Langdon novel, The Lost Symbol.  I won’t really talk about it because I don’t want to spoil it for anyone (it’s really not that new anyway) but it did inspire this whole story in my head about a secretive dance story involving a mysterious labanotation score and the dancer who receives it uncovers clues as to who wrote the score and what the dance really means as they learn the dance from notation.  And then it occurred to me that I really don’t know anything about labanotation and even if I read a book or two from the library, labanotation is something people spend lifetimes studying so there’s a good chance scratching the surface wouldn’t be enough to write a compelling story.  It would require significant research…that I’m not really willing to do.

However, what I was willing to do was sit down and watch Frederick Ashton’s The Tales of Beatrix Potter on DVD.  I was in a cranky mood because I’ve had another breakout of dishydrotic eczema (this dry winter is wreaking havoc on my right hand), which I’m supposed to remedy by using baby oil.  One brand I purchased was the Peter Rabbit brand (available at Whole Foods…who knew Peter Rabbit made skin care products?) because I like Peter Rabbit, it’s organic and free of mineral oil.  Mineral oil is in most baby oils and apparently it can kill you if you drink it.  Obviously I know better than to do such a thing, but the thought still freaks me out.  Anyway, I forgot to oil my hand for a few days so of course the eczema came back, but the point is I associate Peter Rabbit with comfort so The Tales of Beatrix Potter (and Frederick Ashton choreography) was perfect for my ailing mood.  When you catch a cold you have some chicken soup and when your hand itches like crazy you just want to lie down and watch cheerful rodents dancing.

It’s interesting to see the challenges of having to dance in humongous animal costumes.  Especially considering the fact that the masks themselves obviously can’t change expressions so it’s entirely up to how the dancer moves their head (aka, épaulement) to bring their character to life.  Otherwise, you’d get a glassy-eyed, monotone facial expression that rivals the unfortunate creepiness of people who have to dress in animal costumes and patrol amusement parks (thankfully, Beatrix Potter is so well done it is far, far, far from anything that resembles that).  The épaulement was the first thing I noticed, because it had to be exaggerated differently when the dancers had giant mouse heads and for some costumes like Jemima Puddleduck, the head of the animal actually sat on top of the dancer’s head and the opening for the eyes was cleverly hidden in the neck, so that had to be even weirder to manipulate a head on top of your own and make it look convincing.  The costuming overall was pretty amazing, considering how they had to emphasize features of certain animals while still allowing for movement.  My only quip about the costumes was that I didn’t quite understand why all the animals wore clothes while the squirrels were completely naked.  It seems unfair…or racist, or something.

This ballet brought up a lot of good memories for me, as second grade was my rabbit phase.  The Velveteen Rabbit and Buttermilk (from the Serendipity series) were among my favorite books, Swiftheart Rabbit was my favorite Care Bear cousin, and I also owned rabbits as well (Cottontail was a white Angora named after Peter Rabbit’s sister, Sweet Pea was a Californian and Cinnamon…was something else).  Needless to say I was well versed in Beatrix Potter mythology, and I was a little disappointed that Benjamin Bunny didn’t make Ashton’s lineup and that Peter Rabbit’s appearance was fairly short (and didn’t relate too much to the actual Tale of Peter Rabbit…where was Farmer McGregor?  Is it coincidence that Wayne McGregor bears the same name?  After all, the latter McGregor is far from Ashtonian.  All good questions.).  I was however, so obsessed that I even wrote my own Beatrix Potter inspired story, about the chinchilla, which in my world used to be a white rabbit with a long, luxurious tail until a wolf bit off part of that and its ears.  It then rolled around in dust to make its white coat a dirty gray, thus explaining the appearance of the modern chinchilla and why they roll in dust.  It made sense at the time, but now that I think about it, it was a little morbid.  Beatrix Potter didn’t shy away from the gruesome either though…Old Brown (the owl in The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin) actually tries to skin Nutkin alive until he manages to escape, albeit at the cost of his tail.  I do have to say though, that the gargantuan owl they use in the ballet has the potential for hilarious pranks…can you imagine asking a newly hired stagehand at Covent Garden to go to the back to get something by himself and then you could hide in the owl and screech like a harpy and flap the wings when he walks nearby?  I’d do it…

Some interesting notes about the choreography (besides the idea of doing brisé volé or double tours in a squirrel suit, which if you’re a video game geek like me, you’ll know that in Final Fantasy VI there’s a piece of armor called the ‘Nutkin suit.’ Another coincidence?) is that the ballet was originally done for film, then adapted to the stage (the DVD I watched was the stage version, with Steven McRae as Squirrel Nutkin, who I believe reprised the role this past December for the Royal Ballet).  It should also be noted that Beatrix Potter is one of the rare ballets to have roles en pointe for men (Ashton’s The Dream, his version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream also has pointe work for the character Bottom.  Figures some of the rare times men dance on pointe, they’re required to wear a pig or donkey mask.  But he obviously liked how they kind of mimicked hooves).  Pigling Bland has the most pointe work, although it’s nothing excruciatingly difficult, as his love Pig Wig has significantly more advanced pointe work.  He has like one soutenou, a pique into arabesque and some bourées and she has all kinds of goodies.  It’s kind of funny to imagine pointe class for the men of the Royal Ballet …as simple as those movements are, I’m sure they train well enough (and probably with the women).  This Pigling Bland (Bennet Gartside) didn’t quite look like he was on top of the box to me though…so even one little soutenou can be quite the nightmare.  I say, bravo!

So my mood improved thanks to this ballet and if you’re a kid at heart like I am you’d enjoy it too (unless you’ve already seen it, in which case I’m sure you enjoy it).  Here’s a little clip from the film version featuring two of my favorites, Jemima Puddleduck and Squirrel Nutkin, and another that kind of sums up the staged version.  So don’t be a stick in the mud…nurture your inner child.