Tutu: Dance in All Its Glory – 'There are two shows: the one you see on stage and the one going on backstage'

Tutu: Dance in All Its Glory – 'There are two shows: the one you see on stage and the one going on backstage'

credit: Michel Cavalca

Ten years after hit Fringe show Méli-Mélo II, Chicos Mambo is back with surreal and satirical dance extravaganza Tutu

Backstage at the Centre des Bords de Marne theatre on the outskirts of Paris, dancers Guillaume Queau and Julien Mercier have made a quick turnaround. Though still slightly sweaty, with the happy exhaustion of performers who have just played to a packed and delighted house, their jeans and hoodies are a far cry from the extravagant banquet of tulle, lace and lycra they were sporting only minutes ago. Vegetable headpieces came preceded by elephantine pantaloons, duck costumes were followed by leotards, flowing gowns, and some incongruously dull grey pyjamas – a costume favoured by contemporary dance troupes who take themselves a little more seriously than the Chicos Mambo. But if the variety of haberdashery the dancers don is vast, it is more than matched by the variety of dance styles they have mastered in order to perform the Chicos' latest show Tutu: Dance in All Its Glory.

This isn't the first time the company has wooed the Fringe with an all-male palette of different dance styles, mixing parody with homage. Back in 2007 they made a similarly colourful splash with Méli-Mélo II, a redux of the earlier Méli-Mélo. The Chicos formed in the 1990s in Barcelona, with French choreographer Philippe Lafeuille coming together with two dancers, one from Venezuela and the other Catalan. Though the lineup has changed over the decades, the demands on versatility have remained, and the current cast's backgrounds range from internships with the Bolshoi to conservatoire degrees to aerial acrobatic training. Lafeuille's CV is perhaps the most eclectic of all, having formerly danced for both Madonna and Rudolf Nureyev.

Ballet, jazz, and contemporary were techniques already familiar to the show's cast. Lafeuille also versed them in tango. 'And we learned to do pointe work during the creation of the show,' explains Mercier.

The pointe work section looks excruciating. Dancers, bent-backed, gurning, creep across the stage in block-toed pointe shoes of the kind usually worn by ballerinas, giving us a peek into a performer's feelings behind the serene mask they are obliged to present to the crowd.

'I still don't feel comfortable,' says Mercier, despite having danced the routine countless times. 'But even girls who wear them all the time don't feel comfortable.'

'It's OK for us,' adds Queau, 'we're only on them for a minute.'

This is a good point. The speed with which Tutu plays out has all the crowd-pleasing chutzpah of a dance showcase or comedy sketch show. Segments are short, vivid, punchy, with those bizarre and mischievous costumes all variations on the theme of the tutu. Some sections poke fun at performers' vanity, some at choreographers and their earnest visions. The culture behind various types of dance is in the pillory, but it's more of a tickling ridicule than a savage skewering, and often the surreal images are enough in themselves to provoke laughter. The dance of the cygnets from Swan Lake is performed by B-boys in tubby duck suits pointing and posturing. Later the boys in tutu nappies carouse to Stravinsky's Rite of Spring.

Though there are also passages of serious beauty – aerial silk work and graceful arm solos – what is clear is that above and beyond proficiency in many different styles, the key criterion for becoming a Chico Mambo is a sense of humour.

Tutu: Dance in All Its Glory – 'There are two shows: the one you see on stage and the one going on backstage'

credit: Michel Cavalca
'I think it's something which you either have, or you don't,' Queau says. 'When we did the audition, there were some dancers who were very good technically, but had no comic expression – and what Philippe is looking for is somebody who isn't embarrassed or shy to project that humour. It was really the personality he was looking for. You can't take yourself too seriously, you have to be generous.'

It's a generosity that can be especially hard for some when the object of the humour is contemporary dance. Some performers, according to Mercier, hold the form in such high esteem they are reluctant to laugh either at it or themselves. It's something he can sympathise with, 'because it's a lot of hard work and dance is very spiritual. Philippe wants to find a way to cut through this and be more funny and laugh about dance.'

Could Queau and Mercier ever then, having sent up companies who approach contemporary dance so earnestly, perform in one of those companies again in all sincerity? 'Yes,' says Queau, as if it is a preposterous question. 'For me, no,' says Mercier. 'Some companies are very good, and the work is very good. But when we do something ridiculous on stage, and then go to an audition and they ask us to do the same kind of thing we do here, only seriously – it's just so hard to be serious now.'

Despite references to Pina Bausch, Stravinsky and Swan Lake, there is definitely no need to be au fait with dance history to be in on the Chicos' jokes. And for the troupe it's fascinating to see which parts of the show different audiences respond to.

'When we're dressed as ducks doing Swan Lake,' says Queau, 'the kids don't make the connection – but they find the ducks funny. So if you get the joke, that's great – but if you don't get it, you can still enjoy it.'

Still there is one part of Tutu about which audiences can only speculate. 'We change character and costumes so fast,' says Mercier. 'There are two shows: the one you see on stage and the one going on backstage.'

TUTU: Dance in All Its Glory, Pleasance Courtyard, 5–28 Aug (not 9, 15, 22), 4pm, £11–£14.50 (£9.50–£13); Previews 2–4 Aug, £8.

TUTU: Dance in All Its Glory

  • 4 stars

Chicos Mambo in association with the Pleasance The show is performed by six dancers: The TUTU men, polymorphous artists who struggle with many different interpretations, faces and styles. They want to entirely feel the freedom and universality of dance. With them, laughter becomes poetic, theatre emerges on stage and…

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