Of all the shows in the Sadler’s Wells fall calendar, the one that jumped out at me was the return of Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo. I recently read an Arlene Croce review of their early performances way back in the 70s, and it made me want to go back and re-evaluate the company, far from my position when I saw them over ten years ago, when I’d never seen a Swan Lake and hadn’t a clue to either “The Dying Swan” or La Sylphide. Croce said the Trocks really got very well the whole concept of what it was that made a ballerina, and that their dancing wasn’t about making fun of the ego that frequently runs behind the makeup – but rather of celebrating “ballerinaness.” (It was a great essay: I may reproduce some of it here.) My recollection of them was very much of being clowns on stage, and my getting kind of bored with the shenanigans – but then, later, I realized both that they’d danced much better than I’d realized, and also that they were teasing ballet at a higher level than I could appreciate (I think that first performance ended with a sort of “Stars and Stripes Forever” thing a la Balanchine, which sailed right over my head). So I’m a much better educated ballet fan now than I was then; how, then, are the Trocks?
I picked the more challenging of the two programs, figuring (as I am wont) that I wanted to see more new work and less of the old standards (Program 2 has “Swan Lake” in it, which I wasn’t too compelled to revisit). This means that last night I got “ChopEniana,” a sort of hybrid of all of the Romantic-era white ballets; “The Dying Swan” (not on the program but a nice bonus especially now that I’ve seen it fried six different ways); “Patterns in Space” (a la Merce Cunningham); “La Vivandiere” (the program describes it as being an 1844 ballet about a camp follower and an inn-keepers son, and it’s apparently not made up though the fact the original lead was named “Fanny” had raised suspicions); and “Raymonda’s Wedding.” Now, I would have ALSO thought “Raymonda” was made up, but the BalletBag twitter feed did a series of “Raymondas” a few weeks back, so to my horror I have to say … all the ballet was based (mostly) on actual shows!
On to the show. We started with a ballet that was generally “romantic,” with some eight ballerinas and one man in an impossibly large wig. It featured typical Trocks clowning – ballerinas pushing each other out of the way, fluffing their dresses, hamming it up shamelessly, taking up the wrong position on stage, missing their cues, etc. Despite the title, I seem to recall an entire lack of Chopin. In fact, my focus really came back on stage when a dancer wandered on to the music of Giselle – my God, I thought, have I been listenign to this music all along and not recognized it? Is it a joke that she just walked on from some other ballet? But no, I’m pretty sure the music was mostly other songs of that era and not at all Chopin, adn the Gieselle was obviously intentional, though the dancers onstage were meant to be fairies and not Wilis. (At one point the male dancer, as hideously made up as the women, inadverntently plucked the wings off his partner’s back … then stuck it under his nose like a mustache.) For this one there wasn’t a lot of dance to be thinking about – it was mostly comedy.
This was followed by “La Vivandiere” (I think!), a romp in which much was made of the very small male dancer and his positively gigantic partner, who completely blocked his view from stage and was unable to dance under his arms. In fact, all of the dancers were mocking the lead ballerina’s gigantic size –
Then … I’m thinking back and remembering … yet another thing thrown in the mix? There was, and I can’t entirely remember if it was right after the first performance or not. A pas de deux was announced at the beginning, much as the “Dying Swan” was, but I couldn’t hear its title through the thick accent of the announcer. I think I thought it was the actual “Raymonda” … the dancer, was the least made up of the troupe in the first piece and had a smallish build – but damn, could she work it on pointe! What is sad, actually, is her partner, in his leaps across stage, had his following leg at such an odd angle that it made him look like he was still trying to clown – or, worse yet, that he wasn’t able to keep up with his partner. I wasn’t sure what was sure, or if perhaps the Trocks put their weaker members into the male roles, but what could have been some very good dance was really spoiled by the unevenness of the two performances.
The second act was opened with “Patterns in Space,” in which three dancers in leotards moved around the stage in mock-Cunningham style. They were accompanied by two musicians, one in a white, Andy Warhol-style fright wig; the other all in black and looking for the world like one of those art students who has no ability to laugh at themselves. This was even richer because the “instruments” they played included the kazoo, the bowl-and-mixer, the “paper bag,” and (my favorite) bubble wrap. They carried on with utterly straight faces throughout the leaps and twirls of the dancers; to me, it utterly skewered the entire Cunningham approach – random music, random movement, at what point does anyone ever say, “Hey, maybe not everything we’ve made here was not all that great, given its lack of intentionality?” The faces on the performers said it all: Merce is High Art and anyone who does not appreciate, or even questions the sacredness of the canon is to be roasted as An Ignorant Yob. But you know what? I also enjoyed the movement. Yay Trocks!
Now I may be confused about the show order but I do believe it was at the end of the second act that we had our Dying Swan, a large-beaked creature who shed flowers as she faded. Ahhhh after all of the arm waving and piteousness of the various swans I’ve seen expire at the last three galas I’ve been to, it was nice to see a performance that admitted openly the performer was doing it for the attention. And oh, her bony legs … it was like Charlie Chaplin in a tutu.
Our last act’s big production was “Raymonda’s Wedding,” which was back to clowning, with girls sliding out of their positions on stage, a silly white-robed, pointy-hatted priestess sort, and ballerinas jockeying for position. There was a bit of solid dance in the middle, but I liked it most for the curtain call, when the group returned to stage in sombreros and serapes and did a little Mexican hat dance in honor of Mexican Independence day.
Overall, this was a fun night out, but a little odd for me; I think I’d prefer straight ballet dancing, mostly, but it’s good to have the pipes cleaned out now and then.
(This review is for the opening night performance, which took place on September 14th, 2010. The Trocks will continue on at the Peacock through Saturday the 25th.)