Isn’t it great when clever humor reveals the absurdity of gender norms? Like when Ellen DeGeneres quipped, “I think they should have a Barbie with a buzz cut.” For over 40 years, Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo have satirized the tired clichés of gender and sexuality through (and in) dance. These men aren’t just dancing en pointe because it’s funny. They dance on the critical point where gender becomes a farce. The Trocks are performing at the Joyce Theater in New York through New Year’s Eve. Hybridizing drag and ballet for a delightfully subversive evening.
The Trocks resurrect a somewhat arcane term and concept — En Travesti — to describe their work. There was a twisted time in Europe when it was considered indecent for a woman to appear on stage. So men played women en travesti. This form of misogyny carried on until the late 17th century in England, and even into the early 19th century in the Papal States. Recent books have shown how en travesti scenes functioned as queer winks to the audience. Everyone knew it was two men flirting with one another. So when a man twirls with a drag ballerina, we get a glimpse of a subtext that once bubbled under the surface of early modern European performance.
In a nod to the drag tradition, each dancer in the Trocks takes on a stage name. The program’s fake bios bring on some chuckles by satirizing Russian ballerinas. For example:
MARIA PARANOVA’S (Dancer) remarkable life story — only now coming to light after 19 dark years in near hopeless conviction that she was Mamie Eisenhower — will never fully be told. The discovery of her true identity (at a Republican fundraiser in Chicago) brought her to the attention of the Trockadero, where she is slowly recovering her technical powers.
Maria Paranova’s solo as a feather shedding swan is a highlight. It’s a playful take-down of the immaculately pure woman as the white swan. Shedding feathers across the otherwise black stage creates a stunning visual effect, and alludes to how fake this image is.
The Trocks’ New York stint offers two diverse stylistic programs on alternating nights (program A and Program B). Program A is a hilarious romp through different styles of costume and dance history. The group’s take on Swan Lake roasts the classic Russian ballet with flair, while Patterns in Space mocks the tropes of modern dance. Napoli Pas de Six, being performed for the first time in New York, plays on a traditional story, set in Naples, in which a girl falls for a fisherman. Finally, Raymonda’s Wedding has fun with folksy Hungarian costume camp. Program B starkly contrasts the morbid and the fluffy. Giselle is for horror fans, satirizing themes of death and vampires. Paquita overindulges in the ornate, frilly ballet style typical of late-19th century Saint Petersburg.
The Trocks are spectacularly accessible for newcomers to dance. For those more familiar with the nuances (aka snobs), every piece is a parody overflowing with inside jokes about the history of dance.
When these ballerinas jump, so much gender bending gets activated. The leaps cause their highly developed leg and arm muscles to flex more apparently. Adam’s apples come into sharp relief as their necks stretch and tilt. And, most salaciously, sometimes a bulge appears for a moment if the inverting tutu catches the wind in just the wrong way. The jumps break the illusion for a moment, reminding us how much the impression of femininity is an optical illusion, a stage trick.
Feminists debate whether drag denigrates women or empowers them by revealing femininity as a socially constructed ruse. It’s a legitimate critique that some drag queens cross the line by cracking cruel jokes about women. They sink to a low level, becoming mouthpieces for the misogynistic edges of the gay community. Expressing shared queer desires by insulting women is no better than straight men affirming their identities by teasing gays. However, it’s neither fair to reduce all feminists to bra burners, nor right to judge the entire drag spectrum by its own most offensive fringes. Many performers, like the Trocks, steer clear of inflammatory humor, allowing us to laugh in good conscience at gender-bending as a performance.
Zsa Zsa Gabor died over the weekend. She became a camp icon for ridiculing the limited roles of women during her time with wry, self-deprecating humor. Like the Trocks, she offered a comic parody of tradition. The drag queen Alaska Thunderfuck 5000 was talking about herself, but could just as easily have been speaking for the Trocks or Gabor when she mused: “We don’t mock anything innate about femininity, but some of the trappings that come alongside.”