Review – Eonnagata (remount) – Sylvie Guillem, Robert LePage, and Russell Maliphant at Sadler’s Wells


Last winter I spent a frustrating two weeks clicking F5 over and over again, hoping that a pair of tickets would be released for Eonnagata. I had read about this strange story – based on the the Chevalier d’Éon, a French swordsman and spy who was rumored to be both male and female (and pretending to be the other) at different points in hir life – way back in November, but found the concept rather too vague to commit to what with pantos and Nutcrackers occupying my attention; but as the first reviews (and more detail) came out, I became rather frantic to see the show – Japanese ballerina transexual samurai kung fu dance show! It was like every cultural thing I am interested in all rolled into one, and it was desperately, desperately sold out. Fortunately, they announced a second production of the show, and as it seemed to not quite hit perfection (per a critic whose opinions I value highly), I crossed my fingers that while I wouldn’t be able to see the premiere, I might be able to see an improved version of the original without the trouble of the pesky first viewing polluting me. (Really, I was just trying hard to grasp at straws about not getting those tickets.) It was a long wait until the June showtime rolled around, and last night was the great unveiling. WOOO!

Now that I’ve finally seen it, I’ll summarize the evening as “like Guillermo del Toro directing a gender-fluid, Japanese Dangerous Liasons, with fight scenes by Yuen Woo Ping.” It’s not so much a dance show as a production with movement that is just as much about costumes, lighting, and music as anything else. In fact, the dancing was rather thin. Ms. Guillem did do some great things in which her lifted legs looked like extra swords; but it was more as a part of creating a spectacle than dance. I didn’t mind, really. I was hypnotized by the gauzy kimono floating around the performers and hovering behind the creamy scrim (for a sort of human shadow puppet scene), by the strange Lincoln-log pannier skirts, by the stripey fencing pants and knee-high white boots (or stockings), by the dancers slipping across tables, duetting with mirrors (and then with each other) … I was amazed by the way they melded into each other and then were themselves again (especially when a man crawled into the shadow kimono and emerged a woman). Yeah, sure, we weren’t really sticking to the correct culture, but I was completely happy with the use of Chinese/Japanese martial arts weapons and clothing alongside 17th/18th century articles – it looked great and that was good enough for me.

And the lighting design! It helped the performers slip into and out of shadows, it let them end a scene in one spot on the stage gracefully as another “thought” started somewhere else … but my favorite bit was when all three performers were doing staff fighting in little bands of light which changed shape as their staves (or were they swords?) hit the floor – it was like something out of The Matrix or even a video game. It was, in a word, gorgeous.

Was the performance just perfect? Well, no. Russell Maliphant had a horrible clunky moment in which his microphone kept picking up the sound of his clothing dragging across it, and most of the spoken bits seemed completely superfluous and a drag on the evening. The bit where Ms. Guillem was reading letters from the Chevalier’s mother actually made me long for the end to come at last; I was getting tired. And, in the end, I’m afraid it overstayed its welcome. While I was with it for at least sixty minutes, I think around seventy its energy started to flag – and I slid downhill with it.

But, in the end, who cares how historically accurate it was or how much of a dance piece it was, it was a treat for the eyes and engaging and well worth burning a sunny evening indoors. Who knows, maybe it’s in the summer that the best theatre really happens, because that’s when only the most devoted can be convinced to spend their time this way. Overall, it was a very good evening and I’m pleased as punch that I finally got to see it.

(This review is for a performance on June 23rd, 2009. Eonnagata continues through June 27th.)

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