Magazine: Ouch! Toe Shoes Hurt!

Ballet Hommes Fatals

Ballet with a wink: the men of Ballet Hommes Fatals find out — the hard way — The Truth about toe shoes and tutu’s.

That’s what the all-male dance troupe Ballet Hommes Fatals is finding out as they prepare for their Feb 28 premiere. (And yes, they are rehearsing the ‘dying swan.’)

It says something about a dancer’s versatility: One minute you can see him in the studio confidently, gracefully lifting a ballerina. That’s under the watchful eye of British guest choreographer Michael Corder (rehearsing the Czech National Ballet’s upcoming The Snow Queen).

And the next minute, that same male dancer can fold his long legs under him on a couch and chat – and laugh – about the pain of dancing in man-sized toe shoes (for his upcoming roles as a ballerina, in the new all-male Ballet Hommes Fatals (BHF).

But that’s what principal dancer Michal Štípa does – elegantly, with warmth and enthusiasm. He settles into the plush couch next to BHF co-founder Jana Malisová, and together they cheerily complete each other’s answers to Opus Osm’s questions, in a mixture of Czech and English.

Michal Štípa

Michal Štípa

“I’m very excited that this [travesti troupe] is actually going to happen,” he enthuses. Ballet Hommes Fatals was cast by dancers who are all colleagues at the Czech National Ballet, rather than by open audition, so, “I’m glad we’re together. It’s good to be with friends, it’s a very good atmosphere,” he says. It can be assumed that they also all share the same sense of humor – and adventure.

A Receptive Audience

After all, Ballet Hommes Fatal, s r.o. is the first all-male ballet company not only in Prague but the whole Czech Republic, according to Jana Malisová. She’s also the owner of the Art in Motion agency, which among many other things, organizes the International Contemporary Dance Workshop in Prague each summer.

She clutches the permanent props of a typical project manager, a mobile phone and a wad of keys, and explains, “The idea came after the National Ballet’s performance last April of Miniatures. That’s the gala to give young National Ballet dancers a chance to choreograph and dance their own works. At that performance, about five male dancers performed a short piece from La Bayadere – with lots of humor – and the audience loved it.”

En Travesti is Not a Travesty In English, travesty or a travesty show can refer to males performing as females in an over-exaggerated style; travesty also means to show something in a false or unjust way (“Lady Gaga Oscars performance a travesty, says Stephen Sondheim”). But travesti or en travesti is the centuries-long tradition of boys and men taking female roles in dance, opera, and theatre, for serious or comic effect. It dates back to the days when it was ‘improper’ for females to appear on stage.

After the performance, the dancers kind of looked at each other and said, “Why not?” They were game for doing more performances of top-quality choreography and dance, with subtle-to-comedic touches of humor.

So Ballet Hommes Fatal took its first steps towards its own stage, with Michal Štípa as the artistic director and Jana Malisová as the project manager. Choreographers / dancers are Mathias Deneux, Benjamin Husson, and Guido Sarno, with dancers Karel Audy, Veacelav Burlac, Domenico di Cristo, Federico Ievoli, Giovanni Rotolo, and Jiří Waňka completing the international cast.

New Roles, in More Ways than One

“I’m a dancer,” Michal Štípa nods, “and Jana (Malisová) does all the administrative work.” So one of his biggest shocks came not with the headache of spreadsheets, but with the searing pain of those nasty toe shoes.

“I already knew the theory of dance en pointe,” he says. “But dancing on your toes is really difficult.” He admits that before he tried on his first pair, it was easy to criticize the toe work of his National Ballet partner, principal dancer Nikola Marová. “In rehearsal, I’d say, ‘Oh, Nikola, you did that bad,’ and ‘You should have …blah blah blah.’ But now I feel it’s not easy.”

Across the couch cushions, he stretches out his legs wrapped in insulated leg warmers like a skier’s, and taps his left foot: that arch is not quite as correct as the one in his right. “When I dance on demi-pointe it’s fine,” he says. But dancing en pointe exercises different muscles. “I have pain everywhere!” he chuckles, running his hands across the length of both legs.

Watch Michal Štípa describe the amazing requirements to prepare the hundreds of toe shoes needed for one show:

“My ankles aren’t as stable, I don’t have strong ankles like a girl does – they’ve already been dancing en pointe in school for seven or eight years – and we have two months [to practice]! I have to concentrate on what I’m doing. It could be dangerous,” he says, alluding to every dancer’s biggest fear, injury. He’s been dancing on his toes for several weeks now, and yesterday afternoon’s rehearsal ran until 10 pm, Jana Malisová says.

On the other hand, the Brno born-and-trained dancer says he can feel that dancing en pointe has helped strengthen his ability as a professional male dancer, thanks to all those rehearsal pirouettes as a woman.

The Trouble with Tutus

For a travesti performance, the joke has to be in the choreography, not in cheap material for the costumes, the partners say. Therefore, the costumes must be similar quality for their male Odettes and Kitris as they would be for the Swan Lake or Don Quixote danced on the traditional stage. With that in mind, they hired costume designer Roman Šolc [Romeo and Juliet, Czech National Ballet, and many others].

Ballet Hommes Fatals

The full company, in costume, prepping for their Feb 28, 2016 premiere

To attain the correct upper-body proportions without looking artless or cheap, the men dancing women’s roles wear an elastic leotard with fluffy decorations across the top. “We are big girls, so we have some flowers or diamonds there,” Michal Štípa explains.

Still, costumes present some uniquely new challenges. “I can’t see my legs underneath the tutu!” is Mr Štípa’s first example. He adds, glancing down, that for a man, “it is … uh … a little bit different” there, he laughs.

Also, once he’s under the glaring spotlight, he worries how he’ll see, under the thick, heavy false eyelashes he will wear.

And in a tutu, he “feels naked,” he admits.

See what he means, in this video excerpt:

Dancing for Laughs

The two-hour program for the Feb 28 premiere and the repeat performance scheduled this spring consists of a variation on the Swan Lake story, followed by the suites from other classics, Sleeping Beauty, Raymonda, Giselle, and Don Quixote.

For their 40-minute version of Swan Lake, Karel Audy (180 cm/5′ 11”) dances the Prince role to Michal Štípa’s (188 cm/6’2”) Odette. “My partner is Karel Audy, and he is smaller – I think everybody is smaller than me – but if I stay on pointe shoes and I’m 20-25-30 cm (about 1′) taller and I do some pirouette, it’s very, very hard for him” to support the taller dancer. “For example, we do some lifts, but not exactly like a full lift,” he says.

However, in the BHF presentation of Don Quixote, Kitri (Mathias Deneux) and Basilio (Benjamin Husson) do the traditional lifts. “Mathias is tiny, so it works,” Jana Malisová explains. But even so, “this is more like fun.” Kitri dances a tango, and there are lots of jokes throughout, some with the props.

“The performance is focused first on art, and second on fun,” according to Jana Malisová. “The point is, it’s kind of funny.” Yes, but “We want to do like art, to be professional,” Michal Štípa emphasizes. “We must find some good balance.”

Watch Michal Štípa and Jana Malisová explain their goals for Ballet Hommes Fatals:

“We hope people will come and enjoy it,” co-founders Malisová and Štípa say. “And for everyone to be healthy. This is important, especially for the dancers,” Michal Štípa adds.

Ballet Hommes Fatals’ premiere performance is Feb 28 at Divadlo Hybernia. Further performances are scheduled for April and May 2016.

– Mary Matz, Opus Osm editor

Photo Credits: All, Ballet Hommes Fatals except of Michal Štípa. Videos: Miroslav Setnička

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