The full Monte

Brilliant dancers and satirists, or a posh drag act in tutus? Critics may argue, but they will all be at Sadler's Wells on Monday to see the all-male Ballet Trockadero de Monte Carlo. By Louise Levene. Photograph s by James Rexroad
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When founding director Peter Anastos left the Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, he apparently said, paraphrasing Alexander the Great, that "there was nothing more to parody". Maybe not, but 19 years later, the celebrated drag ballet company is still going strong and touring the world with its irresistible mix of low camp and high art. There were "sold out" signs last month outside the Joyce Theatre in New York, where they were performing, but even on a hot, Friday afternoon, the foyer was heaving with a long, orderly queue for returns.

Inside the theatre, the company was taking daily class on stage: big, muscled men, in grungy vests and tracksuit bottoms, working out to a solo piano - at first sight, pretty much like any ballet class, until you spot that at least two of them are in pink, satin pointe shoes. Suddenly, one is dashing off 32 fouettes, spinning through the punishing turns. As he slows to a stop, I notice that he's only got one shoe - these pretty pink slippers are torture for male feet.

The troupe of ballet satirists started in 1974 as an offshoot of the draggier Trockadero Gloxinia Ballet. The "de Monte Carlo" tag was an allusion to the various incarnations of the Ballets Russes in the Thirties. After the Trock's humble beginnings in out-of-the-way New York performance spaces, they came to the attention of Arlene Croce, the all-powerful arbiter of New York dance criticism, who praised them to the skies in the New Yorker in 1974. Today, the 16-strong company is performing or in rehearsal 35 weeks a year, travelling regularly to Russia, Europe and Japan. Many conventional dance companies envy their itinerary.

The key to their longevity is that the laughs they get are anchored in strong technique and detailed observations of orthodox ballet. "Audiences don't just want the jokes," says the company's general director, Eugene McDougle. "There has to be something more structural to the comedy, not just mugging and slapstick."

But the dance establishment is not entirely in favour. There are those who think the whole thing is a rather tacky mixture of ballet-bashing and cheap exploitation of an outdated homosexual stereotype. Tory Dobrin, their artistic director, admits that the company has met with a certain amount of resistance from the, er, straight ballet community: "They think we're a gay circus. The director of the San Francisco Ballet would not let us appear on the same stage at an Aids benefit."

Not everyone is this picky, though, and the Trocks' repertoire features choreography and coaching by well-respected names like Robert La Fosse and Elena Kunikova. It certainly doesn't trouble the box-office. For the past 15 years, they have been very big indeed in ballet-mad Japan, where young women develop long-standing crushes on individual performers; they send them gifts of flowers and kimonos, and buy their old pointe shoes. There now exists a 1,000-strong Japanese fan-club of women who began watching the Trocks in 1982 and are now coming back with their own daughters. Female impersonation is an altogether more honourable business in a country where Kabuki artists are honoured for their ability to dramatise both genders.

Class over, the dancers retreat to their dressing rooms to transform themselves into the ballerinas of yesteryear. Rashonn James is making a few last-minute adjustments to his size nines with a hair dryer. His hi-tech plastic and rubber pointe shoes can be heated and rendered malleable, then frozen for a retread. The business with his shoes finished, James applies his make-up. His slick, practised ritual is a homage to the women in his family: the lip-liner is a reminder of his aunts, the eye-liner recalls his sister. Next on is the wig, which he styles from scratch every night. (Beauty tip: "Soak the wig in fabric softener: it also smells very nice - April Fresh, Mountain Air, that kind of thing.")

At the next mirror sits Deon Allen (aka Colette Adae and Vassisdas Pinski), who is inspecting two freshly glued false eyelashes which lie in wait on the dressing table. He waves a cute little paper fan over them. A Japanese fan. I raise an eyebrow. Is it? Could it be? Yes. The fan is from a fan.

Although the make-up, wigs and tutus are immaculate, the male body hair is all there: this isn't the highbrow first cousin of some San Francisco floorshow. Besides, most of the dancers have both a male and a female character to play. In one corner of the dressing room, Damien Thibodeaux (aka Medulli Lobotomov/ Bertha Vinayshinsky) is back-combing his blond Russian page-boy. The sulphurous yellow rat's tails are a dig at Russian ballet's enduring love affair with the bottle-blonde look - the bottle that belongs under the sink.

The evening's performance, in front of a 450-seat house, opens with a thickly accented apology over the PA: "In accordance with the traditions of Russian ballet [pronounced `bal-yette'], there vill be changes." This is followed by a series of silly Russian names from the programme notes which ensure that the house is already giggling appreciatively before the curtain goes up. By the time they have finished with "Swan Lake", many people around me are crying with laughter. The Trocks' Swan Lake typifies the company's approach to ballet parody. Some of the material works at the very lowest level - dancers get out of breath, Odette upstages everybody, swans fall on their arse - but this would only be funny for about five minutes. The reason the pastiche can sustain a whole evening is that it depends upon inside knowledge, and even this slightly hysterical audience is laughing loudest at the cleverest gags: the Soviet-style swan on wheels that glides uncertainly across the painted backdrop; Odette's anxious wait in the wings until Siegfried's applause has died down; and the knowing pastiche of the classical mime sequences, in which the old-style pantomime is spliced with everyday shrugs and rude gestures.

And then there is the dancing. When they were last in London 10 years ago, we marvelled at their technique, but the company is now stronger.You're never really quite sure how good they are because your mind remains clouded by astonishment that men - even lean, young men like these - could force their bodies onto the tips of their toes at all. But watching them hop on point or triple pirouette, seeing those long, long feet machine-stitch their way across the stage in a never-ending pas de bourree, and surprise gives way to pure admiration.

Sometimes mere technique takes a back seat to a more subtle comedy of manners. Ida Nevasayneva's "Dying Swan" is a delicious send-up of the false modesty of the prima ballerina. Her swansdown costume sheds feathers throughout the performance, and, finally, the old bird, spavined by age and disease, keels over to tumultuous applause. The grande dame then feigns amazement at the bravas and bouquets as she drags her curtain calls out to three times the length of the ballet itself.

At 43, Tory Dobrin, is the company's oldest ballerina, and he draws his inspiration from the likes of Kolpakova, Plisetskaya and Sizova: "It works best when you parody the grand divas of yesteryear," he says, "but a lot of the guys don't know who these people are." His aim is to conjure "the old glamour of ballet as it once was". The chief target is the high Russian style: "English style is really hard to parody because it's not so extreme."

Yet his own alter ego is Margaret Lowin-Octeyn DBE, whom the programme notes remind us has long been a pillar of Stonehenge Ballet. This sly allusion to the length of Margot Fonteyn's career is unmissable, but you can only get so far with a straight Fonteyn parody: "My character is based on Fonteyn in terms of the schooling, but Fonteyn was very beautiful, very classical, very graceful, and that isn't really very funny, so I pattern my character on Margaret Thatcher."

Dobrin pines for the days when the prima ballerina was one of society's professional beauties. Large fees and rich admirers guaranteed a stylish wardrobe of gowns and furs and a jewel case to match, and he mourns the passing of the ballet diva routinely decked out by Cartier and Cardin: "Viviana Durante and Sylvie Guillem are beautiful dancers - but they don't wear the clothes."

The Trocks' grand finale is led by Fifi Barkova - "a ballerina nonpareil, whose pungency is indisputable" - partnered by Roland Deaulin, "the Mrs Siddons of male dancing", who typifies the over-ripe danseur: all manner and no talent. Their pas de deux is followed by a string of variations from the soloists, including Rashonn James's Helen Highwaters, "the prune Danish of Russian Ballet", loosely based on the Italian-born Viviana Durante. Rashonn covets the Royal Ballet star's attack and precision whilst lampooning her habit of opening and closing her wide smile to take deep gulps of air - "catching flies and eating toast".

To dance with the Trocks, you can't just troll around in a tutu and hope that people will laugh. You have to be a dancer and be funny, and that means close study, daily class and an orthopaedic consultant on the payroll. Watching these men parody classical ballet, I'm reminded of watching Darcey Bussell unfold her long legs in large, lovely developpes. It is this exaggerated scale that is part of the Trocks' charm. Yes, of course, it's ludicrous when a man does it, but it is still wonderful to see all those traditionally feminine gestures amplified and somehow celebrated by longer, stronger limbs.

The dancers' clear-sighted affection typifies the entire company's attitude to straight ballet. They know all of ballet's ridiculous little ways, its vanities and pretensions, but their lives are still utterly devoted to it, and that isn't satire: it's love

The Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo will perform at Sadler's Wells, at the Peacock Theatre, from 15-28 September. Tickets pounds 7.50-pounds 25 (0171- 314 8800)