New York's finest all male comedy ballet company show their class with various treatments of the Russian classics
A mad adventure that began almost 40 years ago in the meat-packing district of Manhattan famously blossomed into a unique, worldwide dance phenomenon, which has returned to Belfast after an absence of over a decade.
On that memorable night in September 1974, a fledgling company calling itself, with no false modesty, Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, performed to a packed audience of around 100 followers in a tiny loft theatre.
The applause nearly brought the roof down, and in that moment the founders knew that they had hit on something potentially huge, with their mischievously subversive parodies of traditional Russian ballet, in which all the roles are danced by men.
Nymphs and swans, sprites and satyrs, sylphs and princesses... none are beyond the daring of this troupe of phenomenally talented, classically-trained dancers, whose comedic style embellishes, exaggerates and puffs up the delicate, straight-faced artistic aesthetic of Russia's Imperial Ballet, when it was at the height of its brilliance at the turn of the 20th century.
Sacred cows quake at the approach of The Trocks. No legendary dancer, no revered choreographer, no cherished characterisation is safe from their beady gaze.
The fluttering cygnets of Swan Lake, the shimmying nymphs of the rarely performed Walpurghis Night, the heart-wrenching desperation of The Dying Swan take on a whole new focus when performed, en pointe, by muscular, made-up male dancers, intent on milking every poignant nuance, every tearful encounter, every seductive pass for ultimate comic effect.
An evening with The Trocks is a complete experience, aimed as much at fans of serious ballet as at the enormous numbers of camp followers the world over. And Belfast is no exception.
At the very sound of a heavily-accented, faux-Russian voice announcing the dancers' stage names – Marat Legupsky, Sonia Leftova, Ida Nevasayneva – a ripple of delighted recognition spreads around the auditorium, which builds to a crescendo by the time the final curtain comes down.
For a few brief seconds, the strains of Tchaikovsky's glorious score for Act II of Swan Lake transport us into comforting territory, an impression that is shattered the moment Lariska Dumbchenko's (Raffaele Morra) Odette, flies into view, her frothy white tutu set off a treat by sprouting chest hair and sinewy armpits.
Eyeballing the audience with a grimacing leer, while giving her hapless suitor Prince Siegfried (Trystan Merrick) a seriously bad time, the technical precision invested by Morra in Lev Ivanovich Ivanov's familiar choreography adds a completely new dimension to the elegant, fantastical ballet we thought we knew so well.
And as for the Little Swans... their neat, perfectly aligned sequences are almost swallowed up in acres of white net skirts, agonised faces and clumsy stumbles. Almost, but not quite, for here again the highly disciplined technique of these fine young dancers allows the beauty of the original to shine through all the craziness.
Yakatarina Verebosovich (Chase Johnsey) is a wow as a quite terrifying Odile, the evil-intentioned black swan, who is the nemesis of the virginal, tormented Odette. Swooningly partnered by Cuban dancer, Carlos Caballero Hopuy (Innnokenti Smoktumuchsky), she gives the full welly to all 32 dazzling entrechats at the climax of the gorgeous 'Black Swan Pas de Deux'.
Le Grand Pas de Quatre, conceived as an ensemble piece for the four greatest ballerinas of the romantic age, is awash with floaty pink chiffon, enormously overdone false eyelashes and shameless jostling for centre stage.
Walpurghis Night, meanwhile, is a colourful, uber-camp little piece, raked out from the Bolshoi's back catalogue and featuring the heavyweight grace of Olga Supphozova (Robert Carter) as the alpha-female Bacchante.
This treatment of its central theme of a bacchanalian rave is less about dramatic narrative or broad comedy than about loads of wickedly-raunchy cavorting to the sweet sounds of Charles Gounod's original score.
But the abiding image, as featured on the programme cover, is of the company ballet master, Paul Ghiselin's (Ida Nevasayneva) signature The Dying Swan. As Ghiselin ages, the swan becomes more scrawny, more pathetic yet, sadly, more comical, shedding feathers like a clapped-out sofa while gazing balefully at its own fate.
In a breathtakingly irreverent gesture, its beaky profile bears striking resemblance to that of the iconic ballerina Anna Pavlova, another game old bird, who was widely thought to have continued on until well past her sell-by date.
Expressive, graceful, hilarious, flamboyant, but ever-respectful of the tradition which spawned their success, The Trocks pay tribute not only to the enduring appeal of the great ballets but to the strength of the best art to survive being stretched, shaken, stirred and sent-up to such outrageous lengths.
Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo runs in the Grand Opera House, Belfast until February 27.