IN THIS WORLD, where there is a growing pall of homophobic legislation in a whole clutch of countries, it is a breath of fresh air to see drag pushed all the way out in the spotlight. New York-based Men in Tutus brings some frissons of lewdness, a healthy dollop of clowning and a truckload of incredible balletic skill, sophistication and physical stamina onto South African stages, for just a few days.
Constructed around the earnestness and solemnity of ballet protocol in the face of great and oft performed classics by the ilk of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Albert Adams and Camille Saint-Saëns, the performances are speckled with ballet jokes and jokes of social nicety, as they feature the broad choreographic strokes of the original works. But the dancers are all men: and when you see the size of the legs and the feet and the shoulders and the arms, you giggle and guffaw at the sense of anachronism, but while your mouth is open and laughing, it unconsciously takes the shape of a “wow”: regardless of their gender or sex, these performers know their stuff and defy gravity all the way as they skirt around choreographic imperatives with cheekiness.
And it’s a strange thing: there are moments in this work where you yearn for the vulgar skankiness that the South African revue The Doo Bee Boobies, under the able performative skills of the ilk of Mark Hawkins, Tony Bentel and Robert Whitehead, to name a few, brought to the stage some years ago. It was within the folds of this fabulously spoofed work that South African audiences got to see an interpretation of Camille Saint-Saëns’s the Dying Swan (choreographed by Mikhail Fontine), by Bentel, with a costume hilariously shedding feathers. In Men in Tutus, Victor Trevino (aka Nina Minimaximova) does the honours.
Which brings you possibly to the most well known sequence in balletic drag ever: the pas de quatre in the second act of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. Cleverly placed after the show’s interval, this is ultimately, the work you’ve come to see in this show: the rest is largely just tulle and muscle and over-the-top displays. The performers in this precise and earnest piece are completely lovely, and the jokes are contained, but again, in your mind’s eye and heart, you’re remembering the essay in unhealthy dancers with a little too much around the belly and a little too much life under the belt that Hawkins and Whitehead presented.
The show is delightful, but without a strong curatorial hand it tends toward being soporific and repetitive. The first half contains famous extracts from well-respected ballets such as Le Corsaire and a parody of JS Bach and George Ballanchine in the work Go for Barocco. The second half offers a snatch of Swan Lake, which remains cursorily focused on the story’s lines, with the completely astonishing Carlos Garcia (aka Imelda Hardtoes) in the role of Odette.
Overall, there are several spotlight jokes and the audience applauds on cue. They’re funny the first time. When you see two unbelievably enormous dancers with too much lipstick and too heavy lashings of eye lashes vying for the audience’s applause with alarming ferocity, it’s hilarious. It’s even funny the second time. And the third. But after seventeen or so displays of fierce sisterly comeuppance on stage, you find the edges of your laugh beginning to tire.
Either way, it’s a joy to see drag pushed all the way out with such a sense of physical excellence, physical humour, dedicated clowning and sheer prowess, but there’s a missing no-holds-barred quality to it all.
- Men in Tutus is presented by Les Ballets Eloelle. It is performed by Alexandre Alguero Alejos (Tamara Chilirojo), Walter Battistini (Mariana Moroarless), Ivan Felix (Lucia Mascara), Carlos Garcia (Imelda Hardtoes), Jimmy Lumba (Stella R Bella), Victor Maguad (Misty Wonderland), Jonathan Mendez (Palomina Carrera), Joel Morris (Darcy Mussell), Eugene “Yugi” Obille (Wendy Wailing), Ian Ocampo, Shaughn Neil Pegoraro (Natalia Aussiepova), Joseph Phillips, Tetsushi Segawa (Sue Tsu), Wataru Tokue (Hana Kawaiit) and Victor Trevino (Nina Minimaximova) at Teatro, Montecasino complex in Fourways until April 14; and at Artscape Opera House, Cape Town, April 18-21.