Review: Sylvie Guillem / Robert Lepage / Russell Maliphant in Eonnagata at Sadler's Wells

Performance: 26 Feb - 8 Mar 09
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Tuesday 3 March 2009

Sylvie Guillem 'Eonnagata' Photo: Eric Gautron

2 March 09

Eonnagata links the truncated family name of its subject, the Chevalier d‘Éon (more of whom later), with onnagata, a term for the stylized, cross-dressing representation of women by actors in the Kabuki technique. It’s a clever start.

British dance theatre has grown a new culture of quirky partnerships born of mutual admiration, a sort of Celebrity Come Dance With Me. We’ve had Sylvie Guillem and Akram Khan, who moved on to *in-i* with Juliette Binoche; Guillem has also enjoyed great success in her collaborations with Russell Maliphant, with whom she has now conjoined Robert Lepage, the Canadian dramatist and filmmaker. Add into this mix Alexander McQueen’s costumes, and this becomes a cultural A list rarely seen in dance theatre.

The history and myth of the Chevalier d‘Éon provides a rich palette for their collective artistry. A diplomat, spy and soldier who lived the last 33 years of his life as a woman, d‘Éon was one of the most celebrated figures of the 18th century (sixteen biographies and counting). Although declared a man after the post-mortem on his 82-year old cadaver, his gender was so uncertain during life that there was a period when the odds were quoted daily on the London Stock Exchange! This gender state between man and woman is the whole focus of Eonnagata, a project that has fascinated Lepage for the last 20 years.

Despite several previews, the 90-minute performance, mixing monologues and stylized episodes from the Chevalier’s off-the-wall career, still seemed at times like a work in progress. Unsurprisingly, the theatrical wizardry of Lepage allied to McQueen’s striking designs and Michael Hulls’ excellent lighting give the work a highly atmospheric beauty, reflected aurally in the Baroque soundscape (designed by long-time Lepage collaborator, Jean-Sébastien Côté). It all resonates in a permanent artistic glow which reflects the excellence of each contribution.

Guillem is stunning as the female side of d‘Éon, albeit with a strange bulge in her codpiece (‘a little extra something’ added by McQueen) and never more so than in her adagio solos, with her long, slender limbs taking an age to unravel. Lepage, who at 50+ has never danced before, is the surprise, never once looking out of place alongside Maliphant as the soldier d‘Éon. The strongest element of the narrative was the continual impact of surprise, integrated with the ongoing theme of body and gender: one of Guillem’s solos suddenly sprouts two extra arms; Maliphant appears from inside the kimono of a Kabuki styled “dancer”; and most effective of all is a duet where the two dancers are perfectly integrated with their mirror images, so that the top half of the male dances as one body with the lower half of the woman.

The monologues were helpful to explain the backdrop to d‘Éon’s extraordinary life and the gorgeous French accents of Guillem and Lepage were highly appropriate; only Maliphant seemed uncomfortable with the spoken text and his powerful, heroic persona is best kept silent. Also, some of the group sequences – particularly an early dance with three topless tables – seemed somehow disconnected. I also found the concluding post-mortem scene with its swinging lamp (perhaps to represent the gender balance of the surgical enquiry) to be too crude for all that had gone before.

We have to give credit to Sadler’s Wells for taking the risk as a producing house, rather than just a venue for other people’s work, and this is art that stands alongside a Peter Greenaway film or, unsurprisingly, any other Lepage venture, but for all its surprises and artistic profundity, Eonnagata never quite reaches the heights that we might expect from the sum total of its parts.

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