The CD player is belting out an upbeat version of ‘Yes, my darling daughter’ as dozens of feet wake up to a series of rapid, arched-instep stretches. To the front, to the back, to the side. Change to the other leg – and st-r-e-t-ch those feet in preparation for an hour or more of exercises that would make most folk’s muscles wince at the prospect, let alone the actual practice.
A voice rises over the jaunty music. ‘Not so agitated, not so forced – remember: a ballerina is some-one who always stays calm, poised. Refine, always refine…’ The voice belongs to Laura Mas, one of the occasional guest teachers who don’t merely put the Trocks through their paces, but who help to put the new boys on pointe and to discover their ‘inner ballerina’. Ah yes – ‘new boys’. Because, as fans will already know (and adore), Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo is an all-male company whose forte is full-on tutus’n’tiaras classical ballet. And though they do serve up some hilarious spoofs of familiar works – with Swan Lake a prime candidate for getting the bird, as it were – the Trocks are rightly famous for the sheer elan and serious artistry of their balletic technique and pointework.
One look at the feet now being encased in the toe-shoes – those satin pumps with little toe-blocks for balancing on pointe – and you can’t help but notice the battle-scars… Bruised toe-nails. Old blisters. New plasters. All despite the wee protective pads of fleece or cotton sock-lettes that the dancers slip over their toes beforehand.
Mas’s running commentary, however, seems to lift thoughts – and bodies – beyond any threshold of aches and pain. ‘What can be ‘got away with’ on demi-pointe won’t work on pointe,’ she reminds them before launching into moves that will challenge balance, placement and – crucial to the look of every ballerina – the right body line. Head to toe, and from fingertip to fingertip, this is where style and identity are forged. For some, the line has an implicit langour – almost a sensual, cat-like quality as limbs extend and stretch into an atitude. Others – well words like ‘crisp’ or ‘dainty’, perhaps ‘pert and coquettish’ spring to mind as the same steps, the same phrase is delivered just as accurately, but with a different ‘accent’. It’s this element of character and individuality that is a hallmark of a fully fledged Trock.
Mas will later speak, with unvarnished enthusiasm, about watching this process of ‘assuming identity’ evolve in Trocks’ classes. ‘The jumps all come easier to them, because that’s what male dancers focus on a lot in their training. So even when they put on pointe-shoes, they still have those good muscles – strong backs, developed thighs – to give them height when they jump. What they have to discover is how to do those jumps as a ballerina – and that means introducing a delicacy, a grace, that is not about showing off brute force! I’ll say to them that a good ballerina always has elegance – even if heaven, hell or everything between is falling on her head, there still has to be calm at her centre. And that, I think, really does begin in the feet. Once – and pointe-work relies on this – they are more aware of their feet, their toes, the whole lower leg, it improves their whole technique. The feet are, absolutely, the foundation. Then, they can start to engage the mind!’
Mas explains that her sojourn as a guest teacher came about because one of her former pupils – Fernando Medina Gallego – is a member of the company. And she’ll admit that when she first started giving company class, she wasn’t entirely sure what she’d find – or what might be expected of her. ‘I mean – do you teach them like women? Pretend they’re not men? It’s serious – you’re there to help them with ballerina technique. The humour they do for themselves, but you are in the studio to teach proper pointe-work, give corrections and good guidance. And of course, I arrive – and I fell totally in love with the Trocks. Why? Two things, I think. They teach me about the roles we all play in life. And how we choose to present ourselves. Masculinity, femininity – these are roles we learn, roles we play, roles we sometimes wish we could change, perhaps. On-stage, the Trocks play both roles – and it’s hugely entertaining but also, I think, liberating for audiences. The other thing I love about them is what they bring to classical ballet. Ballerinas today aren’t truly actors. They are amazing technicians, some of them. But they don’t act like the legendary names – the Fonteyns, the great Russian stars – did when they danced the big narrative ballets. These guys are actors. They have temperament as well as technique. And when they go on-stage, they show it.’
Mind you, none of this vouchsafed acclaim gets in the way of Mas’s rigorous approach during class. The CD player changes tune, discarded, sweat-soaked leggings and hoodies are piling up in the corners of a room than now feels like a cross between a sauna and a pressure-cooker. ‘Shoulders DOWN – that’s it. Don’t drop the head… hold it, hold it – keep the leg high, high. Keep the position. That’s it – that’s ‘ballerina’. Well done.’