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Sylvie Guillem, Robert Lepage and Russell Maliphant

by Ana Abad-Carles

March 2, 2009 -- Sadler's Wells Theatre, London

“Eonnagata” was conceived as a collaboration by three well known and respected artists, Sylvie Guillem, Robert Lepage and Russell Maliphant. Added to these three names  are those of Michael Hulls as Lighting Designer and Alexander McQueen as Costume Designer.

The work attempts to give a glimpse into the life of Charles de Beaumont, a career diplomat, soldier and spy who lived in the 18th century and who transgressed his time by spending much of his career dressed as a woman. From this narrative, the artists involved tried to shape “Eonnagata” to look into the issues of gender and how it may define or constrict a person’s identity.

The result is a series of tableaux vivants in which the character, represented in each scene by Guillem, Maliphant and/or Lepage, presents different aspects of his/her personality and gender.

It is difficult to say that “Eonnagata” is not a good piece. It certainly has beautiful moments and it somehow got this writer’s attention. However, in the end, it does not succeed in either telling the story of this character or in exploring gender issues.

A highly theatrical piece, “Eonnagata” takes the visual imagery investigated and pursued by artists in the sixties and seventies -- like Lindsay Kemp or Maurice Béjart -- but, unfortunately, does not manage to add anything new to it. So though there are visually many moments of great beauty and magic on stage, the artists at work seem unable to take them either forward, thus making them relevant or new to today’s audiences, or simply to give them the depth that can make the audience engage on some kind of psychological level.

The piece seems very much a work in progress in which none of the artists has really compromised much artistic vision in order to attain a final product.

Guillem was absolutely beautiful, but her dancing was not too far away from what we already know she can achieve. In fact, her dancing was not too far away from the choreography Béjart did for her at the beginning of her career, so I was left wondering what new territory she had explored since those early days. True, her artistry and dramatic power have certainly matured since those days, but London audiences already knew that from her triumphant days dancing MacMillan’s heroines.

Russell Maliphant’s choreography did not really add anything new to a vocabulary that is starting to cry out for new ideas in the contemporary world. His use of martial arts and Asian aesthetics, though highly powerful, did not manage to make these relevant to his dance vocabulary because they failed to be fully integrated in it. Japanese theatre, drum dances… they are appealing and they are powerful in their own right, but after forty years of choreographers and theatre directors using them for these very reasons, one would expect to see them more fully integrated and “contemporary” in a way.

As for Lepage, his presence on stage was magnificent. He held my attention in each one of his movements. His theatrical ideas were beautifully developed, but as his with other colleagues, he also seemed unable to compromise his work and thus failed in making it deep and relevant.

They say “too many cooks spoil the broth” and maybe this is the final thought on this piece. Maybe an outsider, a director, somebody with a strong vision should have been brought in so that “Eonnagata” would have achieved some narrative cohesion or depth. As it was presented, it simply failed to do this and fell flat somewhere in the middle.

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