Gardenia ~ les ballets C de la B (Alain Platel / Frank Van Laecke)

Following a successful European tour, the critically acclaimed Gardenia by leading contemporary dance collective, les ballets C de la B comes to Sadler’s Wells for a limited run.

Inspired by the penetrating film Yo soy así, in which the closing of a transvestite cabaret in Barcelona reveals the private lives of an extraordinary group of aging artists,Gardenia is a collaboration between transvestite actressVanessa Van Durme, directors Alain Platel and Frank Van Laecke, and composer Steven Prengels.

“One of the most influential dance theatre companies in the world”
“An endlessly extravagant work that inspires, shocks and delights”

In the most intimate of tales, this unique show goes deep into the turbulent lives of nine people; seven older individuals navigating the zone between masculine and feminine, and a younger man and ‘real’ woman. Each carries their own intriguing story, sometimes poignant, sometimes hilarious. Based on the real experiences of the cast, Gardenia indulges the human instinct for voyeurism in a visual show that harmonises dance, song and the arresting contemporary music of Steven Prengels.

Directors  Alain Platel & Frank Van Laecke

Based on a concept by Vanessa Van Durme  Griet Debacker  Hendrik Lebon  Andrea De Laet  Richard “Tootsie” Dierick  Danilo Povolo  Gerrit Becker  Dirk Van Vaerenbergh  Rudy Suwyns
Music  Steven Prengels
Sound Design  Sam Serruys
this was a show about presence.

at the start, a sloped stage, chairs framing its sides and back, microphones hunched down to two of these, a third microphone tall and straight and ready in the diva’s position downstage centre.  the nine performers are before us already, standing suited, still and straight before us, and from the first moments they are compelling and electric and alive and completely present.  just as is Steven Prengels’ corporeal sound  – absolutely being ‘the tenth character … a composition with sounds … that lifts it to a higher plane’.

Vanessa Van Durne quoted in the programme notes:

‘The cast of Gardenia does not have to play [roles]; they just have to be one the stage.  Their presence is overwhelming … They do nothing; they just have to be there.  They do things in the show, of course, but not in role.’

in fact the only sense of obvious play acting is when they deliberately overact their aged frailties in a heightened polarity to the gorgeous vibrant nightclub performers they will transform into before us.

there is so much space for us to experience this show.  not only is nothing rushed, the many repetitions used choreographically and musically add a meditative depth that works as a mesmeric cross-current with the magnetic quality brought by the performers pulling us in to find them rather than either trying to dazzle us with their spectacularity or to reaching out across to us any cliche’d need for our affirmation.  they are there.  they are complete and alive and entirely in their own skins.  rather than any sniff of pathos or tragedy, they seem to bring us a charged poise, each performer with their own rhythms and different lifeforce: they inhabit and own this space just as they inhabit and own the bodies they variously pose and strut and drape with tailored suits, floral summer frocks and riotously overdrawn costumes.  they place themselves.  and they are completely contained.  and this effect is compounded by the sound which keeps bringing us the voices of ghost ‘stars’ famous for their need for audience adoration: we hear both Judy and Liza, and Norma Desmond too, looped over the incessancy of Bolero and cut through with a slow lethargic dutch drone of “Ja. Ja. Ja. Nein. Nein. Nein,” a potently ineluctable form of ‘whatever’ repeated until it has imprinted so well into our hearing that we are so much more aware of and interested in the people in front of us than we are in any evocation of these supposedly brighter shinier starrier alter egos, whether in their ghost or their parody forms.  standing, sitting or walking the performers are compelling: existing in a form of both heightened realisation and absolute ease.  even when i lose interest in the histrionics of the beautiful boy i am pulled to watch and try to really see Vanessa Van Durne’s Madam character, stiff-backed and glacial in her Gloria Swanson turban and sunglasses and wrung out of her attempts to give comfort to the inconsolable boy – “Life is a journey. There are some unforgettable moments. And a lot more forgettable ones” – into a silent stillness that vibrates with hidden unknowable private memories.

another wonderful interplay between the sound and the performances is the display of collage: the multifarious and diverse fragments of sound/movement/embodiment masterly stitched together to create a new something that seems to simultaneously
expose and hide another different substance at its heart.  this is perhaps one of things transvestite cabaret is famous for: hiding the pain through the gaudiest glorification of it.  but whereas i would expect a transvestite show to deliver me with an easily digestible form of heartache, the exhibition of their pain always trumping easily my sufferings, this show gave me instead a most convincing and enthralling sense of real strength.

a great audience experience because it pulled me through into a widened world and shot me with a jolt of renewed possibility.  it showed me an array of ways of being comfortable in your own skin that were nevertheless completely absent of any arrogance or complacency or caustic.  some words i’ve been recently reading by Steven Feld about ‘the primacy of sound as a modality of knowing and being in the world’ could be extended to describe this show:

‘…these distinct and shared ways of being human, … [the] possibilities for and realisations of authority, understanding, reflexivity, compassion and identity.’

30th June 2011