12 May 2009
Ballet ceases to be a high art when the princess and her maids are actually cross-dressers directing the audience's attention to the lower stratum of the body, an area that is invisible in the traditional view of classical ballet. This is what Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo did to classical ballet, but we must admit that such an approach is healthy and it liberates classical ballet from the confines of heavy traditions, which only draw classical ballet further away from the contemporary audience.
What concerns us most here is the parody of classical ballet. By using all male dancers, the group has destroyed the traditional view on the image of ballerinas. The graceful up-lifted movements and the elegant gestures of female ballerinas are replaced by the clumsy and rough actions of male dancers. Indeed, it is the all male dancers that attracts the audience in the first place. But that is not enough to keep the audience in the theatre because surprises can never last long. Thus it is the parody and mockery of the form of ballet and the content of classical repertoire that maintains the popularity of the group for more than three decades. However, parody and mockery cannot be achieved by any amateur lacking knowledge and techniques of the object imitated and exaggerated. If a performer intends to parody the dying swan, he must know what originally has been done, or he would lose his focus and only give us a dying swan that may be highly hilarious but lacking any artistic touch, meaning we laugh out loud and then forget it all.
The dying swan presented by Trockadero is different; it is a parody done successfully and at the same time a means to maintain the tradition of classical ballet while broadening the possible audience for classical ballet. The dying swan gives us the sense of death by exaggerating every single ballet movement and gesture. Though the hyperbolism creates a ridiculous aura on stage which is in contrast to the sense of death, this hyperbolism in fact transforms death into something light and funny, something we can positively look at and deal with. In Bakhtin's words, this hyperbolism makes us laugh and laughing helps us conquer the threat of death. Thus what is old is swept away and all we need do now is to welcome the newly borne (see Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, trans. Hélène Iswolsky, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984). This transformation of death into ridicule is achieved through the use of body, again, as observed by Bakhtin that the use of body, especially the lower stratum of body, is the characteristic of carnival nourished by the folklore (ibid.). In his view, such body has become a grotesque body that on one hand represents the suspension of the hierarchy and instiutions, and on the other hand brings in the celebration of a humanized and positive world (ibid.). The Trockadero dying swan is such a grotesque body: it derides the classical image of the dying swan. This classical image aims to bring the audience into a dark and destructive tragedy in which a beautiful and sublime feeling is generated. Such sublime feeling is created by dancer's endeavour to fight against the gravity (the higher the better, a traditional view on the beauty of ballet) but finally fail and lie motionlessly on stage. In order to show her gestures and movements beautifully, she has to follow all rules for representing the dying swan on stage. But here, our dying swan does not care about the rules and she does not bother to jump higher or to use her graceful hand to reach the invisible thing high in the air. All she wants to tell us is she is dying and she is afraid of losing her feather. Losing feather symbolizes death and thus she is also afraid of death. In original Swan Lake the dying swan does not lose any feather. Of course, losing feather could be done beautifully but for Les Ballets Trockadero it is used to ridicule the classical image of the dying swan. This new dying swan ignores all the rules and traditions of classical ballet, derides the classical image of the dying swan normally perceived as graceful and beautiful, and introduces the audience a new form of dying swan that is not only humanized and funny but helps us overcome the sense of death and the negative emotions.
Ballet is an artistic form that is all about supreme techniques. The dancers of Les Ballets Trockadero are not some amateurs doing funny clownish works. They actually are classical ballet dancers being trained properly. This is the reason why their parody of classical ballet is successful. They have known all the rules and traditions required for classical ballet, so when they are on stage parodying those big pieces, they are able to show us how ridiculous certain movements and gestures can be. Moreover, the power of male dancers in fact enhances the female balletic movements and gestures. When they jump, they jump higher. Though the weight of male dancers seems to cause problems when they are doing en pointe and spinning, when they actually do it, it is more powerful than female ballerinas. The energy released from the body of these male dancers are vivid, and such energy enhances the effect of the grotesque body. Indeed, seeing men in tutu is already grotesque enough, and when they start mocking the graceful gestures of ballerinas, it increases the power of parody. Besides, when they suddenly shows manly actions on stage, it just makes the whole scene ridiculous and absurd.
When things are done in a funny way, it is easier to attract audiences. We cannot deny that people do intend to see beautiful things, but in the meantime people also intend to see funny things. As described on their official website, their aim is to keep repertoires of classical ballet from dying out since many of them are not performed anymore. However, reviving pieces is problematic. If plainly giving these pieces again on stage would work, those big theatres and ballet companies would have done it now. We could argue here that the approach Les Ballets Trockadero adopts is correct concerning drawing the interest of the audience. Classical ballet has almost become a museum art because it can only attract the eyes of the connoisseurs. In the old days, due to the lack of entertainment forms, classical ballet could still maintain its popularity and the connection with the public. But now in a world of consumerism filled with varied kinds of entertainment forms, classical ballet finds its connoisseurs decreasing. Older generation dies while the new one only recognizes films and TV shows. In order to promote classical ballet, it is necessary to do something to attract new audiences. Some ballet connoisseurs may argue that their way of presenting classical ballet is actually harming the precious artistic heritage. Such would be the perfect representative of those crying out for "art for art's sake" and the "autonomous right of the arts". I agree that something must be retained, but I don't agree that we should just preserve arts as if they can be put in a museum. Art is about human life, especially those only happen on stage and require the participation of audience. Concerning Les Ballets Trockadero, something is retained, such as the choreography and the balletic techniques, but more is added to the tradition that makes classical ballet more interesting and close to the people. While the use of all male dancers is one that attracts the audience, the more important characteristic of this group is the use of parody in classical ballet. Thanks to these parodies, classical ballet ceases to be a high art reserved only for ballet connoisseurs. Now, a boy can also be a princess, and a prince doesn't need to be always brave and strong. Thanks to the hyperbolism and the grotesque use of body, classical ballet liberates itself from its own limits and dedicates itself to those who want to enjoy the beauty of the body.
Seeing the performance of Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo is like partaking in a carnival; the carnivalesque aura is generated by both the dancers' grotesque bodies and the participation of the audience.