What are classically trained dancers doing in a parody troupe like Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo?
Dancing superb ballet, that's what.
"If you want to make fun of something, you've got to know it first," says Raffaele Morra, a Trock danseur and associate ballet master of the company. "But we don't mock ballet in a bad way. It's almost elegant the way we dance."
Morra—and the other dancers in the all-male troupe who will jeté onto the Centennial Hall stage this Saturday, April 20—have impeccable credentials. Morra studied ballet in his native Italy under teachers trained by the incomparable Alicia Alonso of the Ballet Nacional de Cuba. His school in Torino was staffed by teachers from all over the world, he says, but "mainly they were Cuban."
Several times a year, the renowned Alonso dancer and teacher Ramona De Saá flew in from Cuba to tweak the program and to teach master classes in the Alonso style.
Likewise, Morra's fellow Trocks studied and danced with leading companies around the world, from Ballet Nacional de Cuba to Boston Ballet to the Metropolitan Opera Ballet in New York and the Ballet Nacional de Colombia.
Yet these dancers switched from danseur to ballerina, from men's tights to women's tutus, from flats to pointe shoes, and used their hard-won dance skills to go up on their toes and affectionately skewer the conventions of traditional ballet.
Morra says he opted for satirical ballet because he was dissatisfied in the ballet troupe he danced with in Torino.
"I wasn't happy with the reaction of the audience," he explains. "We were doing serious work, a few comic works. I felt the audience was not always understanding what we were doing."
He longed for a more visceral response, he says. "I want to perform and also entertain."
He first saw the Trocks live in 2000, at a Balanchine festival in Torino. First up was the Miami City Ballet, founded by Edward Villella, a renowned Balanchine dancer. The Miami's serious rendition of Balanchine was flawless. Then came the spoof version by the men of Les Ballets Trockadero.
"They were doing Balanchine-inspired pieces," he remembers. "They were amazing."
So amazing that Morra contrived to meet the director and auditioned the following day. By the next year he was ensconced with the troupe in New York.
Ever since, he's been happily dancing the world with the Trocks-in-drag. All the dancers are equipped with punning Russian names, of the likes of Maya Thickenthighya and Sonia Leftova. (Morra is Lariska Dumbchenko.) Sometimes the men dress as men and perform the traditional male roles. But when they take the women's parts, they're in pointe shoes and tutus, their hairy chests and armpits showing above their sequined bodices.
But their concerts, filled with pratfalls and primo moments alike, take serious journeys through the history of ballet. The Tucson program begins with a version of the famous Russian ballet Les Sylphides from 1907, moves on to a Balanchine collection of neoclassical dances and finishes up with a Soviet-style mid-20th-century ballet.
"The most camp part is in the beginning," Morra says, when the ballerinas jealously jab their stage mates with their elbows or trip them onto the floor, all the while making eyes at the audience through heavy false lashes.
"The last part is more stylized. We show our dance qualities and try to be very good dancers."
Les Sylphides was originally called Chopiniana, after the composer of its music. The Trocks call it Chopeniana, slightly changing the spelling to signal that this version is comical rather than canonical.
Even so, the troupe follows the original choreography by the masterful Fokine, who gave it its debut at the famed Maryinsky Theater in St. Petersburg. Since renamed Les Sylphides, the ballet is a staple of the repertoire. (Ballet Tucson's youth company, BT2, just for instance, will dance Les Sylphides May 18 and 19 in its spring concert.)
"It's very romantic," Morra says, danced to piano pieces by Chopin orchestrated by Glazunov. Dressed in filmy tutus, the Trocks glide—and gallop—through a series of solos, duets and group dances.
The second work is a "surprise for the audience," either a modern dance or a pas de deux that will be announced the evening of the concert.
"Go for Barocco" is in the "Balanchine style, but not modeled on a particular Balanchine dance.
"You do see many references to specific works, 'Agon' and 'Serenade,'" Morra says. "It might remind some people of Balanchine's 'Concerto Barocco,'" a 1941 work also set to Bach. The dancers get out of their tutus and into solemn black-and-white leotards.
The grand finale is a return to Russian ballet. "Walpurgis Night" is a takeoff on the Bolshoi Ballet's "Valpurgeyeva Noch," from the Communist era. The New York Times called it a Soviet-style bacchanal, and the program notes wickedly deride it as a "specimen of "Soviet balletic camp."
Inspired by a scene in Faust, the opera by Gounod, "Walpurgis" is a mythological romp, filled with maidens and fauns. Bacchus, Bacchante and Pan make appearances, and Lariska Dumbchenko, aka Morra, is a nymph.
As the Times reviewer noted, "Walpurgis" is "wonderful fodder for the Trocks."