Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo is an all-male ballet company based out of New York. It was founded in 1974 by a group of ballet enthusiasts and dancers, and in its early years, it performed late shows in Off- and Off-Off-Broadway spaces. The company is famous for its interpretations of classical ballets, which feature male dancers playing the lead female roles. In tutus and en pointe, their performance blends a commitment to iconic choreography and ballet technique, with a camp humor that parodies what is usually a serious art form. They just recently closed a short run at the Joyce Theatre in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood, where I saw them perform, before continuing on to dates scheduled around the world.
For the most part, the Trocks (as they are known for short) maintain the choreography from the original productions, swapping in men for the roles usually played by woman. Although they are incredibly physically challenging, these roles demand grace and elegance, qualities usually associated with femininity. In the famous scene of the dying swan from Swan Lake, for example, Ulyana Lopatkina, a prima ballerina for the Kirov Ballet in St. Petersburg, Russia, exudes these qualities:
The dance requires significant skill and training, yet Lopatkina makes it look effortless. As she enters the stage, her torso and her legs form a straight line, while her arms flutter in contrast to suggest the flapping of the swan’s wings. She remains mostly en pointe, which means that she dances on the her tip-toes, yet she never loses her balance. Her steps instead are either small and dainty (the careful tip-toe of the opening) or grand and flowing (the sweeping arches of legs and arms, like at 1:02). Either way her performance achieves the qualities of grace and elegance.
In contrast, the following is the Trockadero interpretation of the same scene, with Ihaia Miller, whose stage name is Maya Thickenthighya, in the role of the swan:
At the beginning of the scene, and for moments throughout, the choreography is the same as the original production. Miller keeps his torso and his legs in a straight line, and the steps that he takes en pointe as he glides across the stage are elegant–each one advances only a little bit so as not to disturb the strong line from the ankle to the head. Although his muscles are bigger than Lopatkina’s, his arm gestures maintain the grace of the swan’s beating wings. Such resemblance between the two performances suggests that feminine qualities need not emanate from feminine bodies. For the young boys who yearned to play these feminine roles throughout their ballet education, such an insight might be obvious, but Les Ballets Trockadero provides an opportunity to realize that desire on a professional stage.
In some of the scenes that the company performs, this resemblance between the original ballerina and the Trockadero ballerina is the primary goal, but like the clip from Swan Lake, most incorporate campy elements that spoof the seriousness of the original. In her iconic essay “Notes on Camp,” Susan Sontag describes this humor as “a vision of the world in terms of style–but a particular kind of style. It is the love of the exaggerated, the ‘off,’ of things-being-what-they-are-not.”
This exaggeration is throughout the Trockadero performance, but we might see it most clearly in the feathered tutu. In the original, there are no feathers–just a formal tutu of stiff taffeta–but Miller has a feathered tutu that sheds throughout the dance. This shedding adds further drama, visually emphasizing the slow and tragic death of the swan. These feathers continue to fall throughout most of the dance, their ridiculous quantity contributing to the exaggeration. Even the dance gestures are changed, like at 1:20. The camera focuses first on Miller’s legs, whose steps achieve the feminine qualities of grace and elegance. Following the straight vertical line of the body, however, the camera arrives at the feathered tutu. In contrast to her legs, the ballerina’s arms are whapping the tutu with erratic gestures to precipitate the feathers’ fall. The costume, the props, and the dance work together to exaggerate the original production’s pathos, but the performers push it so far that pathos turns to humor. This incongruity is where camp emerges.