The Triumph of the Trocks, The Shame of New York Magazine

With their exquisite timing, Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo-the Trocks, to you-have bourréed into the Joyce. It was only weeks ago that the Kirov got out of town, and two of the ballets they were featuring- Swan Lake and Don Quixote -are also featured by the Trocks in performances that are looking less and less like outright parody. As the level of technical accomplishment among the Trock guys has skyrocketed, the idea of actually dancing Odette or Kitri has become more alluring. Yes, it’s fun to camp it up as a Russian ballerina with a funny name-Sveltlana Lofatkina, Elena Kumonova-or a danseur from hell like Igor Slowpokin. And at least one of the Trocks, Ida Nevasayneva, is still relying far too heavily on mugging: last season, in The Dying Swan ; this year, swathed in yellow tulle and prancing around with a watering can, in Agnes de Mille’s 1928 Debut at the Opera . But though the Trocks stubbornly persist in their tedious tradition of repeated pratfalls and outlandish exaggerations, they’re also seriously stretching toward Swan Lake and Don Q . Indeed, their recent Paquita and La Vivandière are creeping up on being straight.

It’s the tension between the over-the-top slapstick, the ruthless ambushing of the ballets we most love, and the disturbing yet moving vision of men striving to conquer ballerina roles that gives the Trocks their distinction and makes them more than a high-camp joke. The best of the guys are first-rate dancers who are happily at home dancing these prima roles. Robert Carter (Olga Supphozova), hurtling around the stage as Liberty Bell in the big slam-bang pas de deux from Balanchine’s Stars and Stripes , or tossing off triples in Paquita , would be triumphing in those very roles in “normal” ballet companies if he’d only bothered to be a girl. He’s wonderful-polished, musical, commanding (think Monique Meunier); he’s got style, not just attitude, so he registers less as a man in drag than as a somewhat hefty ballerina. Yet because he is a guy in a tutu, he’s also very funny. Carter and several of his colleagues, with their rock-solid pointe work, masculine power in turns and fouettés, and dynamic traversals of the stage, actually make a kind of case for men in women’s roles: They give us an alternate universe of the ballerina in which force takes the place of beauty. It’s tantalizing-at least until the lights come up.

The Trocks’ Swan Lake Act II is a happy corrective to those dreary productions we’re constantly being subjected to. The eight corps swans peck away when they’re not breaking into the breast stroke. The world’s tiniest Benno (Mr. Slowpokin) collapses under the weight of the formidable Odette (Madame Lofatkina). Prince Siegfried (Pepe Dufka) may have very little elevation, but his wig is even more ludicrously golden than those sported by so many Soviet and post-Soviet danseurs. And the whole gang gets hopelessly lost trying to decode all that undecipherable mime. (The Kirov version just leaves it out; the Trocks make Harpo look contained.) But through it all glimmers a real Swan Lake -of sorts.

As for the company’s new Don Q , Fifi Barkova (Manolo Molina), with her Hitler hair-comb and grimly flirty Spanishisms, takes center stage and fights to keep it. There’s a glorious parody of a Petipa vision scene with the corps in bright blue, waving fairy wands, and of course the inevitable Don Quixote Pas de Deux , carried off with panache by Barkova’s Kitri and her Basil (R. M. “Prince” Myshkin), until she breaks his spirit. Don’t mess with Kitri!

The big event of the season is the return to the Trocks of choreographer Peter Anastos after a quarter-century of disaffection. His signature pieces for the company- Go for Barocco and Yes, Virginia, Another Piano Ballet , parodies of Balanchine and Robbins-are probably the Trocks’ best-known works, and rightly, because they don’t simply mimic the mannerisms of their targets; they stand, as it were, as seditious new works by these masters.

The new Anastos piece, La Trovatiara Pas de Cinq , is relatively minor, because its target is less challenging, but it’s a real comic ballet, not just a joke. The giant and gorgeous Nadia Rombova (Jai Williams),with her far-flung extensions and the softest toe shoes ever seen-she’s all knuckled over-dominates as a kind of harem or pirate girl, swirling her skirts and beaming her relentless grin. Two other big wild hussies and two teensy guys flashing teensy swords fill out the pas de cinq with the help of Verdi. It’s all pure fun and games in the backwash of Le Corsaire , a spoof by a true choreographer who knows how to put a ballet together.

It’s a terrible thing to confess, but I got more pleasure from the Trocks than I did from the recent brief Merce Cunningham season at the State Theater. Yes, he’s a master. Yes, he has superb dancers: the astonishing Holley Farmer, with her helmet of cropped red hair, dancing full-out and thrillingly; dark-haired Jennifer Goggans, a relative newcomer, outstanding in every situation; electric Ashley Chen, exciting Robert Swinston-there are no weak links. Yes, it was fun listening to Cunningham and his long-time associate David Vaughan dryly reciting the anecdotes that help make up the background to the 1965 How to Pass, Kick, Fall and Run (although I have to protest the slighting reference to peanut-butter pie). And yes, it was important to bring back two major Cunningham works: Suite for Five (1956-1958) and Fabrications (1987). I had never seen the former, and found it very beautiful.

But the new piece, Loose Time , which appeared on both programs, seemed like an effort of will, trying too hard to be groundbreaking. And the surround of Merce-worship-the season was heralded as “Fifty Years of Forward Motion”-was hard to take, particularly given a self-congratulatory film shown to captive audiences at every performance. No doubt all the 50th-anniversary fuss was in the noble cause of fund-raising, but the danger of this kind of thing is that it can come across as vanity.

A different kind of milestone was celebrated, if that’s the word, by Oregon Ballet Theater earlier in the summer: the imminent departure of artistic director/choreographer James Canfield. All the ballets were by Mr. Canfield and all of them were lousy. But there are degrees of lousiness: Up , set to seven recordings of Rodgers and Hart’s “Blue Moon,” was less offensive than three pas de deux set to Chopin, Philip Glass and the Doors. And it’s been quite a while since I’ve seen anything more offensive than Coco , in which recordings by Edith Piaf, among others, were deployed to vulgarize the life of Coco Chanel. Five chorus boys started things off in little black hats with flying feathers; there was lots of lugubrious lighting and far too much silhouetting (a Canfield specialty); and the lady dancing Chanel was both undernourished and overtaxed. Mr. Canfield is a Joffrey graduate, and he’s a throwback to the Robert Joffrey–Gerald Arpino aesthetic. I report on this fiasco only to point out that the life of a dance critic is not all cakes and ale.

If further proof of that were needed, consider the most disturbing news of the dance year: the abrupt firing of the eminent critic Tobi Tobias, who has been an ornament to New York magazine for 22 years. Ms. Tobias can be lacerating and she can be rhapsodic; what she has never been is dishonest or half-hearted.

Ms. Tobias was originally told by New York ‘s editor, Caroline Miller, that she was being dismissed for “budgetary reasons,” and Ms. Miller quickly announced that dance coverage would from now on consist of listings, previews and occasional feature articles. (In other words, P.R., not criticism.) But when she was bombarded with protests about the elimination of serious dance writing from her magazine, she started to change her line. Indeed, the only joy one can take in this sorry business lies in comparing versions (I’ve seen five) of the explanations she has been giving out. Early on, she told the Los Angeles Times that “it’s no surprise to anyone that the audience for dance has diminished.” (In other words, dance criticism is now commercially expendable.) But the protests escalated, Ms. Miller met with several distressed and highly vocal representatives of the dance world, and she is now eagerly looking forward to “New directions, new voices and new opportunities.” The implication: Ms. Tobias was fired not for budgetary reasons but because she stands for old directions, old voices and old opportunities. It’s a classic case of blame-the-victim.

Is Ms. Miller on the level? Over the past year, just about every critic has seen his or her space shrink, presumably so that the magazine can continue devoting itself to weightier topics, like restaurants, shopping and the Hamptons. Daniel Mendelsohn recently quit after finishing a two-year gig (he won the 2001 National Book Critics Circle Award for book criticism), in part because the space allotted to books had been sharply reduced. He hasn’t been replaced; such book reviews as appear sporadically are by staff writers. One of the other New York critics with whom I’ve spoken told me that when he asked whether the space he was losing was likely to be restored, he was told, “Not in the foreseeable future.” My guess is that Ms. Miller simply miscalculated when she tried to pull in her budgetary horns still further by getting rid of the dance column, and is now trying to put the best possible face on things.

Are any of the other major critics endangered? Perhaps not, giventheoutrageMs. Miller has stirred up, no doubt to her astonishment: After all, if the “audience for dance” is so “diminished,” who’s making all the fuss? Still, if I were Peter G. Davis (classical music), Mark Stevens (art) or John Leonard (TV), I’d be looking over my shoulder. (Movie reviews, of course, are sacred, and I doubt that Ms.Millerisfoolish enough to tangle with theater critic John Simon.) As for Ms. Tobias, she will undoubtedly find other places to write about dance. But the issue isn’t personal. Every art form needs educated and uncompromising criticism to keep itself honest. Eliminating a major voice from an important venue-either for budgetary reasons or to bring in someone trendier-is not merely a dance-world scandal, it’s a dark comment on the priorities of today’s journalism.