Phillipe Lafeuille’s Chicos Mambo bring out the comic side of ballet in Tutu

Philippe Lafeuille is sitting in a stylish Parisian brasserie making funny noises into my recording device. “You see,” he says with a smile, “I can’t be serious, I’m always a clown.”

Which isn’t strictly true. When it comes to his love of dance and his passion for making it accessible to all, Lafeuille is deadly serious. But, having watched his company Chicos Mambo perform its latest show Tutu the night before, it’s clear Lafeuille knows how to bring home the laughs.

Soon to arrive in Edinburgh, Tutu is a tongue-in-cheek look at the world of dance. Six male dancers take an affectionate dig at ballet, contemporary dance, ballroom, gymnastics and more, through a serious of comedic sketches. Which means if you want to be part of the Chicos Mambo team, not only do you need excellent dance training but also a healthy sense of humour.

“Their technique is the base,” explains Lafeuille. “But when I’m looking for dancers I also want different body types and for them to come from different dance backgrounds. For me, though, the most important thing is the personality, they need to be able to laugh at themselves. Because some dancers can’t – they say ‘oh no, I can’t be in your show, I can’t make fun of classical ballet!’”

Most of the Tutu sketches will be recognisable by all: the famous Pas de Quatre from Swan Lake, where four dancers link arms, only this time danced by waddling ducks; leg-flicking tango dancers (top half male, bottom half female); the famous Time of My Life lift from Dirty Dancing.

Then, for those in the know, there are references to the dramatic style of German choreographer Pina Bausch, the sometimes serious nature of contemporary dance, and specific classical ballets. But even if you don’t get the intended joke, Lafeuille injects each routine with enough wit to give even dance newcomers a laugh.

“When I started this company it was because I wanted to create shows that are fun for an audience,” says Lafeuille. “Dance can sometimes be very serious, and we wanted to just give it a twist, to wink at the audience and say relax, we can laugh at this.

“For people who know about ballet there are references they will recognise, like the Dying Swan or music such as Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. But I think Tutu can speak to everybody because it’s more about the general pictures of classical ballet, modern dance, dance on TV, gymnastics. Humour has helped me open up dance to another audience which doesn’t know about it.”

Lafeuille himself enjoyed a broad performance career before starting Chicos Mambo. He recalls with joy the day he came home to find a message on his answerphone requesting his presence at the Cannes Film Festival to dance with Madonna. Then speaks with sadness about performing on French television with Rudolf Nureyev, when the great dancer was declining near the end of his career.

Lafeuille quickly learned to adapt to any situation, and that’s exactly what he demands of his dancers. As he says: “They have to be dancers, actors, clowns – one minute they’re playing men, the next women. There are only six of them and they have to play a lot of characters. Some people ask me after the show, ‘how many dancers are there?’. They can’t believe there’s only six.”

Watching the show, it’s easy to see the confusion. So many costume changes, so many entrances and exits. One moment they’re breakdancing to Swan Lake, the next dancing beautifully en pointe.

Meeting the dancers backstage after the show, they look tired but happy. “We change character and costumes very fast,” agrees dancer Julien Mercier. “So we’re very tired at the end.” Then he adds with a laugh, “really, there are two shows – the one you see on stage and the one going on backstage.”

WORDS Kelly Apter     

PHOTO Michael Cavalca

WHERE & WHEN

Tutu: Dance in All Its Glory, Pleasance Grand, 2-28 August (not 9, 15, 22), 4pm, from £8

Tel: 0131 556 6550

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