GARDENIA by les ballets C de la B as part of the Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival

GARDENIA by les ballets C de la B as part of the Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival

On a slightly raked stage, in symmetrical diagonal lines, stand eight figures in suits of grey. One of them slowly approaches the waiting microphone and it is then you notice the black patent high heeled shoes. This is the first clue that Alain Platel’s new production with Frank Van Laeckel for les ballets C de la B may not be, like life itself, all that it first appears to be.

In a sense, the beginning is the end and the end is a new beginning, for Gardenia is both a lament and a celebration. The final show of a transvestite and transsexual cabaret is being mourned and remembered in this fusion of theatre, music, cabaret and even dance. The notion of appearance, representation and indeed performance, informs this exuberant and emotional show as what lies beneath is literally being revealed..

For these men, life itself has been a performance, parallel and often secretive. A husky rendition of Over The Rainbow, an anthem for many closeted worlds, signals the final curtain. The confident swagger of those men with a purpose instantly evaporates and they crumple into assigned chairs on the stage.  But, it’s not for long. Flemish writer/actress Vanessa van Durme is the show’s creator and co-collaborator and is also their Madam, an irrepressible ringmaster in heels. She whips up a storm and soon there is, just one more show, to which we are invited to see behind the flamboyance and the sequins, the flaunting, the make-up and the bouffant wigs.
First we are treated to a sneak preview, combining the sauciness of those old-fashioned seaside postcards and the vulgarity of  music hall jokes. The poses are all caught as though in the eye of a camera; here a bared thigh and garter, there a flash of lacy underwear tantalisingly glimpsed beneath the suit jacket.  In the style of practised models and actors, they fake those ‘taken by surprise’ moments, coy and cocky by turn, playing to the lens as if it was to a packed theatre.

Platel, director of the Belgian les ballets C de la B, has always open to collaborating with those from within and without the world of dance and here he relies heavily on the gorgeously expressive talents of these veteran artistes of transvestite cabaret rather than an ensemble of modern dancers. He could not have been disappointed, for their comic timing, expressiveness and profound sense of theatre is both exhilarating and moving. We feel privileged to have spent some time with their real selves transformed in those exotic but completely inhabited creations; Shirley Nightingale, the Mysterious Birgitta, Fuckmesilly Lily, not forgetting in her turbaned nod to Sunset Boulevard, the vampish Vanessa Van Durme, all spectacularly costumed with  handbags ahoy.

But we are witness also to the darker side, personified by the presence of  a restless young man (dancer Hendrik Lebon), who wanders aimlessly and half dressed; an everyman  confused in all his identities, a victim perhaps of a marriage broken by that very confusion.  He is obsessed with beauty and in need of reassurance that he too is beautiful, imagining perhaps that this is a ticket to the certainty and sense of belonging he seeks. The Gardenia Club, is not yet, or perhaps never will be, the family unit it represents for the others.  In one of the only real dance sequence in the work, this anxiety unravels when a question to the Madam about his father leads to an awkward silence. Infused with rage and sexual frustration, he explodes into a wonderfully executed impassioned and even violent duet, as he seeks direction and tender reassurance.

No cabaret  is complete without music, so the songs  are carefully chosen for their ironic humour, poignancy  and yearning melodies. The anthems Forever Young, Where have all the Flowers Gone and a final rousing round of Over the Rainbow (Liza Minnelli on backing duty!) all play their role. Underlining the theatricality and humanity of this show, we applauded those who remained true to themselves. They did it their way.

Seona Mac RĂ©amoinn is a dance writer for numerous publications including The Irish Times, Sunday Times and Metro

  • Review
  • Theatre

Gardenia by les ballets C de la B

10-11 October, 2011

Produced by les ballets C de la B
In Gaiety Theatre

Directed by Alain Platel and Frank Van Laecke

Based on a concept by Vanessa Van Durme

Created and performed  by: Vanessa Van Durme, Griet Debacker, Hendrik Lebon, Andrea De Laet, Richard ‘Tootsie’ Dierick, Danilo Povolo, Gerrit Becker, Dirk Van Vaerenbergh, Rudy Suwyns