Ballet: Just. Not. Funny.

The Trocks are back in New York - and with any luck will stay there for some time. Certainly their London season was a notable low point of my autumn dance-going. Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, the all-male ballet travesty troupe, are critically adored and loved by spectators, I know, but they're a joke that leaves my funny bone relentlessly untickled.

The party line is that the trannies in tutus are threefold marvellous because they're fabulous dancers, steeped in ballet lore and wickedly subversive. To which the monkey replies: (a) yeah, they're ok. But they're still big-thighed blokes in tutus; (b) they truly are, and their bunhead geekery is by far their most endearing quality, with semi-parodic excavations of lost repertory and faded ballet manners; and (c) they are so not. Prima ballerina catfights are old news, and their slapstick shtick is grim. But most problematic, to me, is that the Trocks are in thrall to the dubious ideals of classical ballet. Rather than address the singularly fraught version of femininity on which so much of the art depends, these boys all want to be the prettiest girl at the prom, and the joke becomes a snigger at how some people are excluded from paradise.

Admittedly, the monkey's yearning for a hardcore queer feminist take on ballet doesn't suggest that he's the best judge of what makes for comedy gold. But to me, the reputation of the Trocks only confirms that, packed with virtues though they may otherwise be, ballet people have absolutely no sense of humour. Not a ribbon-trailing shred. What they have instead is a simulacrum of humour - they construct something that sounds like comedy (funny Russian names and diva squeals!), looks like comedy (it's a guy - in a dress! And he's falling over!), maybe even smells like comedy, but is a prissy substitute for heartfelt laughter.

The monkey is often a misery, it's true. Don't get me started on the desperate physical stunts directors pull to persuade us that classic bawdy humour is actually funny. Have you ever - ever - seen anyone in real life do that pumping-pelvis thing Shakespearean clowns are often forced to do? They must teach it alongside fencing and how to toss your ringlets in some special drama class at RADA. And yet, though the monkey cringes, audiences often titter along gamely as soon as an actor starts whomping his crotch back and forth. (The reverse is also occasionally true - when a craggy rake strolled onto the stage in the acerbic Restoration comedy The Wives Excuse, having left his latest conquest sleeping, he unwound what we supposed was a hair from between his teeth, and one member of the audience released a startlingly filthy chuckle. How mortified was I when it emerged that chuckle was mine.)

And Coppélia. Come on, how is that funny? Tiny-minded villagers gang up on an old man who is, yes, gnarled and secretive, but also the one inhabitant with horizons bigger than market day and marrying the miller's son. So what if he creates a mechanical doll? It's not as if he's going to get intelligent interaction from any of his neighbours. Winsome Swanhilda and her boyfriend Franz are a minx and an oaf whose marriage will be a mutual torment relieved only by adultery and the opportunity to lead a lynch mob, you mark my words.

Most dance, and classical ballet in particular, makes an unholy compact with a slim, dewily youthful ideal of grace. But much stage comedy involves the way the body blunders in to disrupt our plans - the vanity of human wishes painted in tones of lust and hunger, sloth and stench. I'm generalising unfairly, clearly - but I wonder if ballet dancers, whittled slender and disciplined from tot-hood, can ever inhabit a comedy that depends on frail wills or bumptious bodily functions.

Is the monkey just a spoilsport? Does dance ever make you laugh (in a good way)? Go on, tell me I'm wrong...

December 22, 2008 11:25 AM | | Comments (2) |


Short but sweet, Robert. Or, actually, short but taunting, as we see precious little of Paul Taylor's work here in Britain. Javier de Frutos, who until his abrupt departure this autumn, was the transforming director of Pheonix Dance, had planned to revive 3 Epitaphs in 2009, so I'm miserable that we've lost the chance to see it. Make me feel properly envious, Robert, and tell me what I'm missing.

As I confessed in the post, I was generalising. But I have often been vexed by ballet's ingratiating attempts to raise a snicker. Modern dance wears its wit more sharply - Taylor, yes, not to mention Mark Morris, Matthew Bourne and Lea Anderson. Merce Cunningham and Trisha Brown are often strange but spry. And Ashton's ballets can of course be wonderfully wry and whimsical. Any more favourites?

You might try seeing Paul Taylor's "3 Epithets" before even beginning to discuss humor in dance.

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This page contains a single entry by Performance Monkey published on December 22, 2008 11:25 AM.

Let nothing you dismay was the previous entry in this blog.

Pinter's London: no man's land is the next entry in this blog.

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