WILLIAMSTOWN -- The Dying Swan walks across the stage on pointe, waving her arms, white feathers falling like autumn leaves from her tutu as she dances. She realizes she is molting and tries to cover herself with her hands. She slips on fallen feathers, puts her hands to her chest as if stricken, and falls to floor in exaggerated death throes. Getting up, clasping her hands in prayer, she loses the spotlight and struts after it. She scoops up feathers, trying to put them on again.
This is not ballet as it is usually performed. The dancer, Ida Nevasayneva, is a member of the all-male ballet company Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo.
Despite the pratfalls and gags, this dance company, founded in the 1970s. is very serious about classic ballet in the Ballet Russe tradition.
Tory Dobrin, artistic director and former dancer, said the company's founding had a lot to do with the times in which it came about -- the 1960s and 1970s.
"The last real movement that I can think [of] was the Stonewall riots, the gays and lesbians movement. New York was very interesting back then, and for a lot of reasons. There were a lot of different kinds of theater going on, and it was really, really, really crazy. There was a lot of exploration of drag theater -- the most well-known one was Charles Ludlam from the Ridiculous Theatrical Company. He did pretty campy productions of historical dramas, where he would play the heroine, such as Camille or Maria Callas or Cleopatra. He would do it as a character, but not necessarily impersonating a female -- he was finding the qualities of the character. He was a small, burly kind of guy -- no way in the world would you have thought this guy was a woman."
A dance student with the Ludlam's company, Larry Ray, spun off his own dance company and performed occasionally at La Mama in East Village, Dobrin said. A couple of dancers in Ray's company wanted to develop a style that parodied dance styles and had jokes in the choreography and explored gender issues. They broke away from Larry Ray's company, and Les Ballet Trockadero de Monte Carlo was born.
"They were trying to organize a company as an homage to the old Ballet Russe companies [of the early 20th century], and one of these was the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. So the guys ... attached that name as an homage," Dobrin said.
The "Trockadero" was handed down from Ludlam's Ridiculous Theater Company to Ray's Company, and then to the current company.
Ballet companies in the early 20th century "made up all these crazy, faux Russian names, because back then you had to change your name if you wanted to be considered a professional dancer," Dobrin said. "Even if you were American, you had to change your name."
He befriended a ballerina, in her 70s when they met, who was a dance teacher in New York -- Nina Stroganova. She was Danish. At dinner one night with a famous choreographer, they were talking about what name she should use, and she was eating beef stroganoff -- and he changed her name to Straganova.
"We change our dancers' names, and we give them these ridiculous Russian names. ... It's all an homage to the history of ballet in America and around the world in the ‘30s and ‘40s. We portray ourselves as a dusty touring Russian ballet company," said Dobrin, also known as dancer Margaret Lowin-Octayne.
Although an all-male company dancing in drag, Les Ballet Trockadero de Monte Carlo runs just like any other dance company, Dobrin said, and has the same challenges any dance company has. New dancers have to adjust to the pointe work, which most male dancers are not familiar with, and it takes time to adjust to the kind sensibility that the Trocks, as they are affectionately known, have developed.
Dobrin equated dancing a female role, as a man, to Steffi Graff and Andrew Agassi playing tennis. When they practice, they do the same practice strokes, and they get on the court, and they play tennis. They're trying to use all the abilities they have: strokes, serving, backhand, forehand.
"The only difference is that Steffi Graff has a lot more beauty and finesse attached to what she's doing, and Agassi is hitting the ball much, much harder than she is. He has more power -- and that's basically the difference," Dobrin said. "We're not going for the finesse of what a female ballet dancer does, because that would be impossible. We're too big; that's not what we do. We go for the male attack in these costumes and pointe shoes."
"They are not learning female roles," he said. "They are learning a role that a female normally does. If you're doing ‘Swan Lake,' you're not doing a female ‘Swan Lake,' you're doing Odette. You learn the steps, and then you try to create the character."
The comic moments come from wherever the company can get them -- accidents on stage that have been incorporated instantly to the performance; things done in rehearsal that the dancers thought were funny.
"It's a really fun show, and the dancers are good. What's not to like? It's my motto," he said. "It's also fun because we have a lot of people laughing in the auditorium, and when you have the whole theater full of people laughing, and the dancers are having a good time on stage, it's a good vibe for sure."
If you go ...
What: Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo
When: 8 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 27
Where: The ‘62 Center for Theatre and Dance MainStage, 1000 Main St., Williamstown.
Admission: $10/$3 students. Box office today, 1 to 5 p.m., or (413) 597-2425.
Information: 62center. williams.edu