It's a long way from a cramped second-floor loft in lower Manhattan to the splendors of the Kennedy Center Opera House with a full orchestra.

But that's what has happened to Les Ballets Trockadaro de Monte Carlo, a troupe that began as kind of a joke - men in tutus! - Diaghliev in drag! - which grew to be quite an accomplished ballet company, without ever losing its sense of fun.

In its remarkable Kennedy Center debut Tuesday for a two night stand, the 43 year old group showed it's not easy for men to dance on pointe, or spin or leap or bring to life the classic ballets of the past in all of the necessary wigs and makeup and costumes -- enough to parody them. Harder still is to inject just the right amount of humor.

But the company, under the direction of Tony Dobrin, who was once a dancer in the company as well, has done just that.

An arched eyebrow, a little shove and a trip on stage can go a long way, and the Trocks parse these things out much less often than one would expect. To parody classic ballets - some of which are carefully restored from the 19th century -- the real work goes into replicating the kind of solid ballet work that they aim to gently poke.

The yucks begin in the evening's program book, where the array of fake Russian dance names include Ida Nevasayneva, Collette Adae and Helen Highwaters, among others.

Get further chuckles in their bio backstories. One is said to have risen to in "Night of 1,000 Tsars" and "has a repertoire [that] encompasses nearly all the work she appears in." Another "still thinks that 'prima donna' means any song recorded before 'Like a Virgin.'" And so on.

We are told at the beginning of the evening that "in the tradition of Russian Ballet, there will be changes in the program," understandably the no show is named Natasha Notgoodinov.

Enough change has happened socially in America that men in tutus is not expected to bring amusement on its own. Rather, it is the array of subtle moves, the prince in "Swan Lake" who steps in avian droppings; a waitress at the outdoor cafe in "Don Quixote" who absently eats an apple (and late a banana) awaiting her next dance. An empty spotlight awaits, then begins searching for the "Dying Swan" to finally enter, dropping features from a badly molting costume. And yes, someone collapses trying to accommodate a difficult lift.

It's perfectly executed slapstick that builds on characters each dancer creates on stage, showing jealousy among them, constant one one-upmanship and sheer ego. The Marx Brothers spent "A Night at the Opera," but if they had a night at the ballet, it might have been like this.

Still, one shouldn't underestimate just what the troupe is technically accomplishing - it's akin to creating a new kind of ballet, infusing the grace and beauty of female dance with a kind of strength and power it might not have had before. No longer waifs, these ballerinas seem to be able to spin without stopping.

It's great ballet for the family, and while the company is 100 percent gay, Dobrin says, there are no gay storylines in the classic operas. (There are other changes though, as the program notes that Sancho Panza and the title character do not appear in their excerpt of "Don Quixote" "due to economic reasons").

Instead, Dobrin says the works are infused with "the gay sensibility," in the sassy attitude, performing drag and over-the-top performances that he likens to Yiddish Theatre.

Standouts opening night included Philip Martin-Nelson as Odette in "Swan Lake," Long Zou and Laslo Major in "Le Corsaiare Pas De Dux," Alberto Pretto as a dotty "Esmeralda," and Duane Gosa (as Helen Highwaters) doing that moltin, Dying Swan.

George Daugherty, the music director who conducted the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, shows that he knows a little something about conjuring humor from classics, having co-created two versions of "Bugs Bunny at the Symphony" in addition to his other work. But then again, Bugs was another guy who could rock a tutu for comic effect.

Les Ballets Trocadero de Monte Carlo repeat their program at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St NW, Washington, D.C., Wednesday, March 22 at 7:30 p.m. 202-467-4600 or online.

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From This Author Roger Catlin

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