Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo.
The Trocks are a travesty.
I mean this in the classical sense. When it came to the stage the word originally meant cross-dressing – dressing in the guise of another, but more frequently as someone of the opposite sex. Travesty as a genre is traditionally conflated with burlesque. Both terms seem to have lost a lot of their older meaning these days, as well as what made them so interesting.
When someone calls something a travesty of justice, or says that Obama’s winning made a travesty of the Nobel Peace Prize, or that rapist footballers make a travesty of the sport, they’re not talking about the theatrical form of travesty. Sometimes they mean ‘mockery’ or ‘parody’ but that’s not really accurate usage either. In some cases they even mean ‘tragedy’ but that term is just as abused to the point of meaninglessness.
My point is that ‘travesty’ in its older sense was a very positive thing (to its fans, at least).
Transvestism had power. It was an exception, sure, but it also had the potential to be exceptional.
What about we get male ballet dancers dressing up as female ballet dancers? The whole concept sounds like the kind of idea someone starts kicking about after N+1 drinks on a Friday night (if N=the point at which you should stop drinking). Most of those ideas end the same way: with you naked and strapped to the inside of a giant tyre-tube as your “friends” roll you down your ex’s driveway at midnight singing La Marseillaise. The Trocks, on the other hand, have managed to spin a 35-years-and-counting career out of their harebrained scheme.
Of course you can’t milk three decades-plus out of such a simple concept and the Trocks add a few extra layers to this lasagne. First up there’s the slapstick, whereby they engage in much clowning and falling over and “Whoops Matron!”-style mugging. Then there’s the lampooning of ballet itself, which is generally pretty austere and humourless (or not funny when it tries to be) and so is prime for irreverent treatment. Here they take on particular genres of classical dance, to mixed effect. The sequence satirising Merce Cunningham’s style was just plain dumb: three dancers moving in a pointless abstracted way while a pair of musicians played increasingly silly ‘instruments’ – kazoos, paper bags, kitchen utensils. Look how ridiculous postmodern dance is. Right.
But beyond all of these are the claims that the Trocks, despite the comedy, are also first-rate dancers. They’re good. Don’t get me wrong there. But they’re not that good. On opening night there were plenty of synchronised bits that were out of sync, a couple of wobbly moments that weren’t meant to be wobbly, and only a few really impressive pieces of challenging choreography. I know the objection: they’re big blokes doing things that are amazingly hard for a tiny woman to do! Well, hard for a reason. An 80-kilo man is not built to stay en pointe for long. Neither is a 40-kilo woman, but that’s a whole ‘nother discussion. Imitating what is already a pretty ludicrous activity and making it even harder doesn’t make it more astounding. It just highlights what’s so odd about the whole endeavour in the first place.
This is where the weird and complicated gender politics of male drag come in. There are a few schools of thought here. One is that drag upsets traditional gender roles by revealing how they’re just based on masquerade and performance, and aren’t dependent on biological sex. Drag shows that gender is fluid, and is liberating – and fun – because it laughs at the straightjacketing we experience in a gendered society.
Then there’s the argument that drag reverses gender typing only to reaffirm it. This is the old argument about the way supposedly revolutionary, carnivalesque antics provide a moment of release in which power flows seem to be reversed, but once the pressure valve has gone off the status quo reasserts itself. The Trocks on stage, according to this thinking, are so enjoyable only because we don’t have the Trocks in real life.
There’s also the veeeery difficult ideas about drag raised by theorist Judith Butler. She was a big proponent of drag’s revolutionary capacities at first but her thinking altered over time. She began to assert that the specific politics of a lot of drag acts were very conservative – they involved a male colonising the already artificial performance of “the feminine” and reclaiming even that space for the patriarchy, by being more “feminine” than even a woman could be. You could extend this argument into the nineties and noughties to look at how female celebrities have tried to match this hyper-femininity by altering their bodies so much as to create a standard of femaleness that is utterly at odds with what you’re born with. From Pamela to Paris we’ve seen women who seem to be trying to emulate drag queens who themselves are trying to emulate women. The debate is a lot more nuanced than this but I’m just aiming for the outlines here.
The Trocks don’t really do that much that’s subversive, in any case. There’s certainly nothing in their show that you wouldn’t see on prime time commercial TV, or wouldn’t have seen there 30 years ago. Guys have been frocking up for centuries for popular amusement. And the Trocks offer an oddly sexless show: though there’s transvestism there’s no sexuality of any sort (although this can also be said for ballet in general). This kind of defuses any dangerous energy produced by the drag.
If we’re laughing, then, it’s at what? At ballet? Easy target. I laugh at ballet all the time. At the silly slapstick? Not really top-shelf comedy. At men dressed as women? You can find that at the most reactionary bloke’s buck’s night.
So there: I’ve explained why I don’t think the Trocks are that much chop in the classical ballet department and then I’ve gone on to explain why I don’t think the jokes really work. My god. What a grumpy old farter I’ve become. Nobody likes someone who tries to explain why a joke doesn’t work. It only proves that I didn’t get it. All credit to those (many, many people) who do.
The Arts Centre. Ends tomorrow.