Guys en pointe frolic in frocks in grand diva style

by Ken Kawashima

Watching a bunch of grown men wearing tutus and pancake makeup parodying some of ballet’s most cherished classics, such as “The Dying Swan” and “The Nutcracker Suite,” may not sound like everybody’s bag. But the wildly hilarious Les Ballets Grandiva, an all-male comedy ballet troupe based in New York, delivers the goods with the right combo of technical virtuosity and slapstick comedy — hairy armpits and all.

While the genre of male comedy ballet has existed since the early ’70s — largely thanks to the critical acclaim of the off-Broadway group Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo — the huge popularity of Grandiva in Japan is unrivaled. Last year, the troupe’s 60-stop tour of Japan was seen by more than 90,000 fans, with Tokyo alone drawing 20,000. Now, the 21-member dance outfit, founded by artistic director and dancer Victor Trevino in 1996, is back for a three-month tour that sweeps from Hokkaido to Okinawa and plays the Kanto area June 27-July 4. The 58-stop “Divalympics” tour, which marks the company’s eighth visit to Japan, will culminate in a two-night engagement at Tokyo’s Shinjuku Bunka Center on Aug. 7 and 8.

“I had worked in male comedy ballet before for many years, but I felt a lot of ground had been left unexplored,” Trevino said in an e-mail interview during the Kyushu leg of the tour last week. “I thought the field was a bit one-dimensional and I wanted to expand the boundaries.”

One of the ways he strives to achieve this is by working with the comedy on various levels. While more novice fans may revel at the outlandish costumes and onstage acrobatics, Trevino tries to incorporate more obscure ballet references to entertain the aficionado as well. He loves to sample and add comical twists, for example, to well-known works such as “Jewels” and “Stars and Stripes,” choreographed by the late George Balanchine. One of the new additions to the Grandiva repertoire, “Lady with the Tutti Frutti Hat,” is a musical salute to the ’40s Brazilian starlet Carmen Miranda, featuring Trevino sporting a massive fruit-bowl hat.

What gives these spoofs their sparkle, however, is the group’s ability to pair the pranks with an even dosage of drama. In “Fatango,” an old and portly woman (played by Allen Dennis) tries to seduce her equally beefy lover (George Callahan) in a clumsy, yet charming pas de deux in the living room. The Piazzolla-scored tango, which plays up the couples’ desperate attempts to reignite the lost passion of their youth, is both funny and somewhat sad.

“It’s kind of weird when you’ve been training all your life, and all of a sudden you find yourself dancing with this man,” Callahan said, joking backstage in Tokyo last month. “But the truth is, so many dancers are dying to join us. They know we get constant work, we tour all over the world, and have some of the best dancers as well.”

Callahan, who was the principal dancer for the Eglevsky Ballet of New York, is one of the company’s longtime stars, in equally hot demand during the off seasons. Another diva vet is Bart De Block who used to be the principal dancer for the Berlin State Opera Ballet and performed with Russia’s Kirov Ballet prior to joining the crew in 1997. Even Grandiva’s ballet master Paul Boos, a former guest teacher at the Royal Ballet in London and the Mussorgsky Theater Ballet in St. Petersburg, was once a disciple of Balanchine himself.

It’s this competitive work environment that prompted Tetsushi Segawa, Grandiva’s first Japanese member, to knock on the company’s doors two years ago. The 25-year-old Hyogo Prefecture native, who placed second in the 57th All Japan Ballet Competition in Tokyo, was studying at New York’s Joffrey Ballet School on a scholarship when he turned down an offer from the New Jersey Ballet company to audition for Grandiva instead. And while slipping into a pair of toe shoes and a white frock was hardly the dance career he envisioned as a child, it’s the sheer challenge of keeping up with the virtuosity of his new dance-mates that keeps him en pointe today.

“When I first tried standing on my toe shoes, I felt like crying because the pain was so great,” Segawa said, showing several scars on his feet. “In Grandiva, all the dancers are male, so it’s like the energy and excitement is constantly at peak level.”

His fans seem to agree. Not unlike the recent kabuki boom among Japanese women, the majority of Grandiva’s fan base in Japan is comprised of young females in their 20s and 30s. “Grandiva moves me in a way that only [kabuki actor] Bando Tamasaburo can,” writes one college student on her Web site. “It’s the whole allure of watching men in makeup impersonating women.”

Yumie Takahashi, a female fan in her early 30s, loves the show’s artistic content. “They parody the classics, but it wouldn’t work without the proper skills,” she says. “Some of the dancers even possess an energy that I find outshines the best [female] ballerinas.”

But while Segawa should no doubt be expecting a heroine’s welcome when Grandiva plays his hometown of Himeji in Hyogo Prefecture for a one-night performance tonight at Himeji-shi Bunka Center, the dancer shyly admits his former dance instructor isn’t particularly happy about Segawa’s new job. After all, he says, he had been trained as a child to always strive for the role of prince.

“But maybe it’s just the Kansai [west Japan] comedian in me,” says Segawa. “Sometimes I find it much more satisfying to get a laugh out of the crowd than just dance around and look cool.”