The Trocks’ Deadly Serious Spoofing; City Ballet’s Revitalized Coppélia

dance 0 The Trocks Deadly Serious Spoofing; City Ballets Revitalized CoppéliaIt’s a new year. The Aileys and the Nutcrackers have come and gone, and so, alas, have Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo—the Trocks, to their friends. They recently spent almost three weeks at the Joyce, and it wasn’t enough. It’s never enough.

No company has evolved more conspicuously than this group of male dancers in and out of ballet drag. Back at the beginning, in 1974, the joke lay in watching guys clonk around in tutus and toe shoes, parodying (broadly) well-known dance works and making fun of old-time Ballets Russes mannerisms. No more. The same old gags are still in play—the pratfalls, the collisions, the sneaky acts of sabotage, the blindingly blond wigs of the danseurs nobles, the molting feathers of the Dying Swan.

It’s a new year. The Aileys and the Nutcrackers have come and gone, and so, alas, have Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo—the Trocks, to their friends. They recently spent almost three weeks at the Joyce, and it wasn’t enough. It’s never enough.

No company has evolved more conspicuously than this group of male dancers in and out of ballet drag. Back at the beginning, in 1974, the joke lay in watching guys clonk around in tutus and toe shoes, parodying (broadly) well-known dance works and making fun of old-time Ballets Russes mannerisms. No more. The same old gags are still in play—the pratfalls, the collisions, the sneaky acts of sabotage, the blindingly blond wigs of the danseurs nobles, the molting feathers of the Dying Swan. But the level of dancing is now so high that we’re less and less inclined to laugh and more and more likely to ponder the ambiguities of a male dancer who can actually be convincing as Odette, Giselle, Paquita. Robert Carter (nom de ballerina: Olga Supphozova) is not only technically brilliant—Fonteyn and Makarova would have coughed up fortunes for his/her fouettés—but commands a musicality and port de bras that are deeply womanly. He makes jokes because they’re in the choreography, but in no way is he a joke.

Carter is a highly developed artist, but his colleagues are hardly slouches. He may be the central girl in Paquita, but the five guys who perform the other Petipa variations (or their variations of the variations) all have the technique, the control, the style. And no wonder—they’ve been coached in Paquita by one of our leading authorities on the Russian classical style, Elena Kunikova. The dancers obviously devour (and respect) her knowledge. They may be funny, but they’re deadly serious about what they do.

Another Russian expert, Yelena Tchernychova, has staged the Trocks’ new Giselle (Act II) very efficiently. The dancing is strong throughout, and some of the jokes come off—Albrecht (Albert here) gleefully joining Giselle in her coffin; all that business with the lilies!—but Giselle isn’t really parody material. It’s the quintessential ballet of the Romantic period, and the Romantic style doesn’t easily lend itself to spoofing. So one finds oneself less interested in the Trocks’ take on this great work and more interested in how well the dancers are handling their roles. The Trocks’ Paquita, their Esmeralda, their Don Quixote tell us something about those ballets. Their Giselle tells us more about men as Wilis.

Of all the Trockadero works, the most famous (and rightly so) is Peter Anastos’ Go for Barocco, his brilliant parody of Balanchine’s great Concerto Barocco. But is it a parody? Perhaps an homage? Even a reinterpretation? Certainly, it’s not a carbon copy. The obligatory jokes are there, all right, but so is a deep understanding and appreciation of Balanchine’s genius. Even if you’d never seen the original, you could infer its greatness from what Anastos has done with—or to?it. What’s so remarkable is that with the passing of years, the dancing has grown so much more Balanchinian. That’s why today it seems less like a gag-filled romp and more like a real Balanchine performance gone wonderfully wrong.

Apart from the obvious charm and wit of what they do, the Trocks have two immense advantages. One is the rock-solid coaching they’re given, allowing them to be convincingly cuckoo in so many different styles. (This is why I go on hoping they’ll take on Ailey. Where is Peter Anastos now that we need him?) Second is the obvious love of dancing that the whole company displays. No disaffected corps members here, no superannuated principals. The Trocks love what they do every bit as much as we do.

 

AS IT HAPPENS, 1974—the year the Trocks were born—was also the year that Balanchine created his version of Coppélia, the most important lighthearted ballet of the 19th century, which tells the story of the high-spirited Swanilda and Frantz, her young suitor with a roving eye. Working with his onetime unofficial wife Alexandra Danilova, the most famous Swanilda of her time, Balanchine sharpened the action, deepened the character of the deluded Dr. Coppélius, who creates life-size mechanical dolls and falls in love with one of them, and put together an entirely new third-act wedding divertissement featuring, among other things, a troop of 24 little girls, all in pink and, by definition, all adorable.

Coppélia, with its great score by Léo Delibes, premiered in Paris in 1870, just months before the Emperor Louis-Napoléon made the fatal mistake of declaring war on Prussia. The ballet was an instant success, but the various versions we know descend less from the original by Arthur St. Léon than from Petipa’s reworking of it in 1884. You could fairly say that with Giselle, Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty, Coppélia is one of the four cornerstones of 19th-century ballet.

No doubt one of the reasons Balanchine chose to recreate it when he did—apart from its obvious box-office appeal—was that in Patricia McBride he had the perfect Swanilda, her piquant charm matched by her superb technique. City Ballet has been looking for satisfactory replacements ever since. (This is not the only McBride ballet of which this is true.)

This season there are three young Swanildas, two of them making debuts, and we can stop worrying: Even without Ashley Bouder, a natural for the part who’s out with an injury, the role is covered in depth, which means that the ballet is viable. I haven’t yet seen Megan Fairchild (a year or two ago she was promising but somewhat clenched and artificial; all reports of her current performance are glowing), but blond, lovely Sterling Hyltin was utterly appealing—she’s all coltish and radiant enthusiasm. She needs a little more focus, but she’s a dancer who works her way into roles.

Hyltin’s Frantz, Gonzalo Garcia, is not really the Frantz type; he’s not buoyant and carefree enough. Why don’t we have Benjamin Millepied in this role? He’s the closest thing the company has to Helgi Tomasson, Balanchine’s original. No complaints, though, about the other Frantz I saw: Andrew Veyette, in the best extended performance I’ve seen him give. It’s been clear from the start that he has the most potential of all the younger guys, but his talent has seemed somewhat blocked: His classical technique needs polish, and he’s needed to assert a stage presence. His Frantz was a total success—believable as a lovable swain whom the take-charge Swanilda can settle down with (and rein in)—and he’s dancing with a new confidence and energy, as if he’s decided that he really is going to be a star.

As for his Swanilda, Tiler Peck was ravishing. She has the deep musicality essential to the witty phrasing her solos demand. She’s delicate, assured and appealing, and she’s beginning to dance full-out, to take the stage. She could use more command in the big classical pas de deux, but what she did was enchanting. And in the second act, when she pretends to be the doll Coppélia, and taunts Dr. Coppélius with her willfulness and wildness, she was flawless—the Spanish solo and the Scottish solo revealing her dance intelligence and musical imagination. Peck is a born Swanilda. A keeper.

Robert LaFosse gave his amusing comical interpretation of  Coppélius, all fussy until he becomes pathetic. In a debut performance, Adam Hendrickson came closer to the undercurrents that Balanchine drew from Shaun O’Brien. Hendrickson’s Coppélius is deeply in love with his creation, the doll, and closer to tragic than to pathetic when he’s forced to realize the delusion he’s in the grip of: that he can steal Frantz’s soul to bring Coppélia to life. Hendrickson could go further in suggesting the implied malevolence of this fantasy, yet he’s mustn’t go too far: This is a romantic comedy, after all. Meanwhile, he’s made a remarkable start.

Finally, Sunday’s performance was superbly conducted by David LaMarche. Delibes’ wonderful music was vivified and clarified; it’s a long time since it sounded this good at City Ballet.

rgottlieb@observer.com