The British have a soft spot for the Trocks. This is their third visit in as many years, and their crafty blend of low camp and high art seems to have struck a special chord. They don't so much mock the art of classical dance as celebrate its foibles. Their version of Swan Lake's Act II goes down just as well with those who've never "seen it properly" as with ballet buffs who can appreciate in-jokes about Prince Siegfried's friend Benno, a role so superfluous that he here resorts to being a royal coat-stand.
Newcomers may enjoy the opening announcements in a cod-Russian accent that "Mikhail Mypantsarov vill be replaced by Igor Slowpokin ... Ida Nevasayneva vill be partnered by Igor Teupleze" and so on, but this wears thin on a second or third hearing. Happily, the dance gags - even those in Swan Lake, which London has seen on each of the Trocks' visits - are at least 50 per cent new: the turkey-necked strut of Fernando Medina-Gallego's gorgeous Odette; the he's-so-cute simper when Siegfried launches their pas de deux; the heart-stopping whump as he miscalculates a lift and upends her like a wheelbarrow. And reader, I confess: I laughed again when Benno stepped in imaginary swan poop, when the corps de ballet keeled over, when the fourth cygnet's head nodded the wrong way. Call me a soft touch, but I was not alone.
A good deal of the comedy is cooked up from physical incongruity, not least the vision of a 12-stone man with underarm hair balancing on one square inch of blocked satin. A variety of body shapes is drawn into focus too, a comment on the rigid sameyness of most classical troupes. One ballerina has no neck, another has a Cyrano nose. There's a leggy black beauty whose pointes are at least size 12, and one who wears glasses throughout the pink tulle finale of Paquita's Wedding.
If the format strikes fans as familiar, this is clearly meant. The company always includes a classical "white act" and a big technical number. The three-minute "Dying Swan" is a staple too, but one whose comic details vary with different castings. On Thursday, Maya Thickenthigha (aka Mark Rudzitis) bourreed into view, moulting pillow-loads of swansdown from a tutu you could easily believe had been in use since 1905. She then appeared to suffer a series of geriatric problems, first with her knees, then with a seizure in her right arm, which finally spread to her throat and finished her off.
The subtler humour comes from dissecting different dance styles. Yes Virginia, Another Piano Ballet uses Chopin mazurkas for a series of wistful duets and trios. It's a satire on the American ballets of the 1960s which sought to show classical dancers as dreamy folk engaged in everyday relationships. But it also takes a dig at the folksy steps and gestures of the choreography which Chopin seems to inspire: the hands on hips, slapped thighs and coy daisy-chain dances of supposed Polish dance. When one female is sent sprawling over the piano lid, for a moment the genteel game is up.
The most impressive thing about the Trocks' Cross Currents, a piece of Merce Cunningham from 1964, is that the great old man actually gave it his blessing. Three unisex figures in unisex unitards and hippy wigs spin and hop about with a dourness surpassed only by the two onstage musicians, who overlay a wibbly electronic tape by John Cage with "live music": rustling sweet wrappers in front of a microphone, operating electric shavers, etc. Thursday's audience found this a hoot. Little did most of them know that the Trocks had pretty well played it straight.
After 25 years of laughing at and with ballet, the company now delivers fewer gags and more real dance. Where once it sufficed to see men remain upright in pointe shoes, there's now an expectation of proper technique. And while most of these boys drop points on the finer details of style, the sheer joyous attack of their dancing is second to none. Where is the female soloist who can deliver 32 fouettes topped off with a triple tour en l'air? The energy is inspiring; the comedy is a tonic. All in all, the Trocks are good medicine.
Peacock Theatre, WC2 (0171 863 8222) to 25 SeptemberReuse content