by Margaret Chrystall
THERE’S just something funny about the idea of hairy guys packing testosterone, bulging biceps and size 12s into pointe shoes and tutus to play ballerinas.
But as Raffaele Morra, veteran member of comedy ballet company the Trocks – Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo – points out: "We need to know ballet really well before we can make it funny – otherwise it becomes boring and cheap and we don’t want cheap, we want to be a sophisticated comedy ballet company."
Forty years ago New York male ballet dancers donned pointes to poke fun at favourite ballet clichés in an off Off Broadway show, now the Trocks is a beloved worldwide phenomenon.
The pieces being rotated on the current tour include the second act of Swan Lake, Don Quixote and two contemporary pieces Go For Barocca and Patterns In Space – one of which may be replaced by a pas de deux or "a surprise".
Raffaele aka Lariska Dumbchenko’s roles have included the Dying Swan solo, first performed by legendary Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova.
"It was my first leading female role. For Pavlova, it became this iconic solo and to perform it well you need to bring a lot of artistry – to really express yourself.
"The role was created in 1905, so it doesn’t belong to the romantic period of classical ballet – it is one of the choreographer’s Michael Fokine’s reconstructions of the classical romantic atmosphere, so the solo is not that old compared to a ballet such as Swan Lake.
"It was created because Pavlova had to dance it in an aristocratic living-room for a house party, so she had to do something that was technically impressive, but not difficult to stage in a small space.
"You have to follow the choreography on stage, but then it is up to you. And to be able to dance the Dying Swan, you are really lucky."
Raffaele – who also now teaches masterclasses – has been with the Trocks for nearly 15 years and says he now dances the part very differently from his early performances.
"But even that first time, you know it’s not just a character you’re playing, it’s personal."
Raffaele danced in Turin with Compagnia di Danza Teatro Nuovo de Torino before Trocks.
And though some of the younger dancers are joining now straight from training, Raffaele is glad he had a ballet career first.
"To make our performances funnier, we need to understand what we are parodying.
"We put onstage things that happen in rehearsal and even performances. In Trocks we have the freedom to laugh about those and that makes you relaxed onstage. We have the same technical ballet difficulties to dance — and take those very seriously — but if we fail, of course it’s not a problem," he laughed.
For Raffaele, putting on pointe shoes when he joined the Trocks wasn’t too much of a challenge.
He said: "Up to my generation, going en pointe was never considered for male dancers.
"Now luckily, the young generation of males get to train with the pointes – it is allowed, as finally teachers are realising that working en pointe for men as a training, not necessarily for wearing them in a show, is quite interesting.
"It’s good for your ankles, for strengthening your feet, so now they allow guys to wear pointe shoes.
"It means that a lot of guys coming to the company are ready to do pointe in three or four days – no problem!" laughs Raffaele.
"I was one of the last ones who came here and had never done it. They said to me when I arrived ‘Go up and try to do your best!’.
"I was lucky enough that I had a good ballet training so that I could actually do it in a short period of time, to quite a good level.
"And lately pointe shoes have developed quite a lot so your feet don’t suffer quite as much..."
But his experience with the Trocks has helped Raffaele develop a highly-developed comedy radar.
"The things that make people laugh changes enormously and depends on a lot of things," he said.
"The economic situation of the last five or six years means the kind of humour that appeals to people has changed.
"It either seems to have to be either very refined – or very slapstick. Either they will giggle or they don’t care about your technique at all and they just want to laugh!
"But when we go to Japan it is way different and I think humour is very difficult to understand, because of different societies, because of a lot of things!
"When you go to Italy, I think they tend to like a little more slapstick.
"Here, people are very refined in their tastes and we are tuning and refining our jokes a little bit.
"But we are doing a very fun show that’s quite entertaining – and I think laughter is welcome everywhere. And our show is successful everywhere it has been!"
Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo is at Eden Court’s Empire Theatre on Friday, October 23 at 7.30pm.