Féstival TransAmériques’ mammoth headliner combined the signed-and-sealed talents of three international stage stars: Sylvie Guillem, rebel prodigy of classical ballet; Russell Maliphant, wonderboy of British contemporary dance; and Robert Lepage, revolutionary theatre director and one of Canada’s creative greats. Audiences flocked to Éonnagata like firework-revellers around a harbour. In the end, we got cool lights, flashy couture, but little magic.
The subject is colourful enough: the Chevalier d’Éon, 18th century French celebrity transvestite, swordsman and secret envoy of Louis XV. In this famously androgynous figure, Lepage saw an opportunity to evoke the onnagata of Japanese Kabuki theatre, male actors trained to play highly-stylized female roles. Fair enough, and the connection offered Éonnagata costume director, fashion bad boy Alexander McQueen, plenty of material for his sumptuous, cross-cultural designs: opulent, larger-than-life kimonos, translucent caged crinoline petticoats, and a giant pink folding fan standing in for a ruff collar.
Éonnagata is billed as a dance theatre piece, but it’s better off without that label. In fact, let’s strike ‘dance’ off the descriptive altogether, and footnote ‘theatre’ with ‘show and tell, edited live’. Éonnagata is linear storytelling chopped into short scenes by sliding black walls—fade out, fade in, plod, plod—alternating between cumbersome spoken passages about d’Éon’s life (delivered by the performers live or through voice-over) and artsy enactments of what was just explained.
Essentially this smacks of a Lepage pet project. He’s the one having fun play-fighting with staffs and roaming about in decadent period-wear and powdered wigs. To the credit of his team, the scenic design is visually stunning and masterfully-rendered, due in large part to the poetic lighting of Michael Hulls, who crafts ghostly, layered silhouettes and rotating, splintering sheets of light that seem to unmoor space.
But the artistic contributions of Guillem and Maliphant are entirely unclear. Here are two seriously gifted dance artists (and regular collaborators since 2003) with nothing of their own to do. We get a couple glimpses of Guillem’s ear-brushing développé à la seconde (a slow extension of the leg to the side)—and the angels sing from on high. But the rest of the time she is burdened by unwieldy props that distort the impeccable lines of her body. In her most substantial scene, she scribbles away furiously at a letter, with a quill in one hand and a wobbly scimitar in another. For the love of Terpsichore, let the girl use her legs! There are no instruments more swift and slicing.
Choreographer Maliphant’s hybrid movement style is known for its clarity and athletic elegance. There is nothing of his trademark idiom here. Most of Éonnagata’s physical action plays out in excruciatingly meek fight sequences, where the three go at it like Jedi nerds with glinting swords and wooden poles. Are there no other ways of duelling? Ones, perchance, that make use of the real talents of these performers? Other missed choreographic opportunities abound, most notably in the dénouement scene that has the three incarnations of d’Éon conjure each other around a mirror. The optical tricks are a fitting final expression of a character so intrinsically split that he is unable to bind to his own image. But imagination stops short, and what we get is a sober (and less perfect) rendering of the Marx Brothers’ mirror sequence in “Duck Soup.”
When the 90-minute biography ends, we still don’t know why the Chevalier d’Éon is important. If the central inquiry is into the fluidity of gender, its pleasure and its torment, Lepage in drag or Guillem telling about the sexless creatures of Plato’s Symposium (with Maliphant providing his arms and legs behind her) fails to add insight.
Éonnagata is a disappointing work from three artists with such enormous gifts. It inevitably recalls last January’s hot ticket, when French film star Juliette Binoche and British-Indian choreographer Akram Khan shared the stage. So this will not be the first or last time a supergroup fails to eclipse the ready-made fame of its members.
Éonnagata’s three-performance run ends tonight at Théâtre Maisonneuve, 8 pm. www.fta.qc.ca.