Eonnagata @ Sadler’s Wells, London

Eonnagata is the sort of work that sends the arts world swooning, promising to be a high culture multimedia extravaganza, bringing together prima ballerina Sylvie Guillem, eclectic yet poetic choreographer (and long-time collaborator of Guillem) Russell Maliphant and theatre maker and performer Robert Lepage.

Dressed by Alexander McQueen. It’s basically a high brow version of a musical supergroup.
On one level, Eonnagata is the story of Chevalier d’on, an 18th century French soldier, spy and cross-dresser who had intrigued Lepage for 20 years.On another, there is the motif of three, as described by Guillem at the beginning of the piece: man, woman and one that is both; the sun, the earth and a combination of the two components, the moon; dance, theatre and one that encompasses both; and of course, Guillem, Maliphant and Lepage. It is certainly brave of Lepage to dance and move alongside Maliphant and particularly Guillem, widely regarded as one of the greatest ballerinas of our generation.

Lepage was also fascinated by the concept of the onnagata, the male actor trained to perform as female in Japanese Kabuki theatre, seeing the parallel between this and the life of the Chevalier D’on, who spent half of his life dressed as a man and the other as woman. What further interested the three performers was the fact that, rather than being considered one or the other, the Chevalier was really a combination of both male and female. All three play the Chevalier, sometimes swapping roles very cleverly within the piece to further blur the gender boundary, and are all dancer, actor and speaker in equal parts.

Swords and long sticks are used throughout the piece, reminding the audience of the French story as well as the ancient Japanese art. However, there were a few prop issues a stick that slipped out of place when being lifted; a thrown sword that was missed and had to be subsequently picked up; a spotlight that failed to catch up with a moving lantern. But admittedly, this is only the fourth show of a world premier, still considered by Sadler’s Wells as a ‘preview’ performance, so there will certainly be improvements.

There are several breathtaking scenes in the piece, in particular a very Japanese-inspired section where Maliphant slowly and eerily crawls out from within a kimono-clad Japanese doll, which then later transforms into a beautiful solo sequence performed in the shadow by Guillem in a white kimono.

Although fun to begin with, certain sections dragged on, such as the light-hearted circus-style fight between Maliphant and Lepage with swords and hoops. And even though Guillem remains eternally watchable, Eonnagata does not showcase her dance abilities enough, with the priority seemingly placed in other art forms, which is a darn shame.

The ending is presumably a visual representation of the Chevalier’s autopsy, which revealed him to be a man when those around him thought he was a woman, having been ordered by Louis XVI to wear a dress at all times. Reportedly, it was only when they discovered he had balls that they realised the Chevalier was a ‘he’ with such a ludicrously silly real life ending, the reasonably sombre ending of Eonnagata felt out of place.

There are some very good things about Eonnagata: the lighting design is fantastic, using blocks, bars, colours and spotlights to enhance the atmosphere. And McQueen’s costumes are simply exquisite. It is certainly a feast for the eyes.

But just like any supergroup, Eonnagata looks better on paper than in reality. The plot is compelling, the people involved are leaders in their field, the combination of art forms exciting. And yet, with so many creative minds at hand, the finished product is never quite as good as you’d hoped.

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