Saturday 31 March 2018

Rebels on Pointe: an affectionate tribute to Les Ballets Trockadero de Montecarlo

Chase Johnsey and Giovanni Goffredo, as Yekaterina Verbosovich and Sergey Legupski, in Paquita. © Dave Morgan
Chase Johnsey and Giovanni Goffredo, as Yekaterina Verbosovich and Sergey Legupski, in Paquita.
© Dave Morgan
In February 2017, the Dancing Times Award for Best Male Dancer at the 2016 National Dance Awards at the Lilian Bayliss Studio at Sadlers' Wells Theatre went to the American dancer Chase Johnsey. What was unusual about the award was that Johnsey dances with Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo and his winning performance was as his alter-ego Yekaterina Verbosovich dancing the female role in the classic pas-de-deux from Petipa's Paquita. Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo (usually known simply as The Trocks) were also nominated for Best Company in the same awards.

The company recently celebrated its 40th anniversary, and an affectionate film tribute Rebels on Pointe was shown at the BFI Flare LGBT film festival at BFI Southbank (we caught it on 30 March 2018). Directed by Bobbi Jo Hart, the film followed the company for a period of three years, intercutting modern footage with archive material, as well as some spectacular dance sequences.

For those that don't know them The Trocks dance a largely classical repertoire, with some modern ballets, but use men in the female roles. The combination of men in tutus on point, technically brilliant dancing and high comedy is the company's trademark.

The company's present director, Tory Dobrin, joined the group in 1980 and his narration in the film filled in much of the company's present and past. The film takes a light, affectionate tone but it became clear that the company is about much more than high camp. Johnsey's achievement masks the traditional difficulty that male dancers have had in dancing on point (when Dobrin started there were only two teachers in New York who would accept him in their classes), not to mention the difficulty of both coming out to parents about sexuality, and about dancing on stage on point in a tutu.

This was brought out as the film followed four of the present cohort of dancers, two long-time members and two relative newcomers, meeting husbands (the company has three married couples in it) and parents. Cuban Carlos Hopuy was trained by his Cuban ballet dancer mother but was too short for the Cuban National Ballet, the film caught his mother's first ever sight of him dancing (after a four-year wait to get a visa) and when asked about Hopuy's performance as the ballerina in Paquite, she commented that it was like watching herself dancing. All the four dancers followed in the film had similar, but different stories to tell, emphasising that The Trocks always was and still is a haven for those that do not quite fit in else where.

There were interviews with distinguished older dancers and choreographers who work with company, and also a pair of dance critics, Gia Kourlas of The New York Times, and Mary Brennan of the Herald, Scotland who were able to put the group's dancing into context, the combination of humour and technical ability. This was also brought out by James Whiteside of American Ballet Theater, who was able to appreciate the jokes and the combination of high art and camp which requires rehearsal and physical strength to lift a 150lb man into the air in an 'effortless' lift.

The group was founded in 1974 as a subversive ensemble in the wake of Stonewall, and their combination of men in frocks and high seriousness (you have to understand and be able to perform something properly before making fun of it) remains a potent symbol. Now, as the film made clear, the group's performances make an excellent introduction to dance for children, but in the early days, children were never allowed. Such is the change in attitudes which the film documented.

A charming and affectionate portrait, which did not omit the problems inherent in the group and in the social politics involved, not to mention the backwash of history...

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