Another piece I was lucky enough to see in Paris was Eonnagata, a collaborative dance/dramatic work by Robert Lepage, Sylvie Guillem, and Russell Maliphant, at the Théatre des Champs-Elysées.
Now, I say lucky because I will happily see anything with Sylvie Guillem, of the world’s best legs and worst haircut, although much of the work she’s devoted the post-classical stage of her career to puzzles me somewhat, including this one. Eonnogata concerns the 18th-century diplomat and spy, the Chevalier d’Eon, a famous cross-dresser and possible sufferer of Kallimann syndrome, which prevents the body from developing past puberty. The –“agata” bit came from “Onnagata,” male kabuki dancers trained to perform female roles. Robert Lepage is a noted Quebecois author and director of opera and theatre. He is also 54 years old, thick-waisted, sluggish and I can only assume has bollocks like a woodland caribou. The piece opens on him slashing at the air with a sword, lagging behind the crashing sounds which I suppose were designed to supplement the ferocity lacking in his presence, just as the choppy lighting effects almost mask the phlegmatism of his movements. Maybe he figured that what the greatest dancer of her generation and icon of French sexiness needed was to top off her career by sharing the stage with a pudgy, aging Canadian opera director. The piece proceeded to alternate between superficially realized Japonesque posturing and Rococo embellishments to a lot of incomprehensible storytelling.
I thought at first that I was witnessing something truly bizarre and was pleased that the days of having to go all the way to Paris to see something so outré were not over. Just trying to make sense of what was going on and why the worlds of the French transvestite and the Japanese drag artists were presented together, as if their combination offered something more than the obvious parallel, kept me engaged throughout the entire 90 minutes. But it turned out to be the usual gender-identity stuff. I felt I was watching what happens when people are powerful and successful enough to indulge their fetishes on a grand scale, that Guillem had the usual westerner’s cursory fondness for eastern kitsch, and that Lepage wanted to get to wear kimonos and lace bonnets onstage.
It’s not that it was unpleasant, although I didn’t exactly enjoy it. Eonnagata makes me wonder why she’s focused her formidable talents on works that don’t show them off particularly well. I have seen her a few times since she visited San Francisco in the late ‘80’s with La Bayadère and made the audience gasp as she caressed her own ear with her calf. She has since abandoned the classical repertoire for the modern. I can understand her wishing to discard relics like Bayadère, which didn’t really do her physique or extraordinary skills justice either—those works were originally created for dancers of much lesser abilities, whose training in no way matches the training of dancers today. It’s unlikely that Marius Petipa would have ever even seen a dancer with the kind of arches, extension, and jumps that the average corps dancer today has, and Guillem looks like a being from a superior alien race even amongst today’s most gifted dancers. While an artist like her can make those ballets look as alive and interesting as they ever will, watching her (on youtube, since her rejection of the genre includes refusing to release the films made of her in those roles commercially, and the only clips one can find are from people who managed to videotape the productions when they were broadcast) one wishes she would just break out of the tutu and abandon all the silent film hammery. Neither does the classical repertoire allow a dancer to remain in the game for as long as she has, and probably will—pointe-work is for younger bodies. So it makes sense that she would have left that genre for something more diverse, modern, and challenging to her, and better suited to her cold and slightly threatening stage presence than the blushing virgins and heartsick peasant girls that populate classical ballet. But I’ve found that what you get when you see a Guillem piece these days—and it is always a Guillem piece if Guillem is in it, regardless of what stocky clay-foot she’s using as furniture at the moment—is a little bit of Guillem and a lot of disappointing other stuff.
Her latest partner is the respected dancer and choreographer Russell Maliphant. More studied dance aficionados than I hold him in high esteem, but I do not see what they see, and I can’t help but think that Guillem has not only advanced his career by miles, but also elevated his art from the pedestrian and forgettable to the stratospheric by allowing him to attach himself to her. Of course I feel the same way about the great Joan Baez lending her divine voice and phrasing to an entire album of songs written by that smug twerp she dated in the early sixties, so take my opinion with a grain of salt if you want. As far as modern choreographers go, Maliphant’s work is fine, although I’m not sure it will place him in the pantheon of greats like Bausch, Tharpe, Ailey, Bejart, Cunningham, or Boris Eiffman. Maliphant is not to the world of choreography what Guillem is to the world of dance. And as a dancer, well, he’s short and has a big head and short limbs, like an unusually graceful rugby player. Some admire the athletic recklessness of his style, and fair enough, although when I’ve seen him he has seemed self-contained to a fault, and I wished he really would give off a sense of that athletic recklessness which is often touted as a perfect contrast to Guillem’s smooth exactitude. But again, he’s not to the world of dance what she is to the world of dance. He’s a very accomplished and very capable British dancer and she is the French alien with the unthinkable legs and criminal feet, in her time the most highly paid ballerina in the world, the press’s “Mademoiselle Non,” the Monstre Sacré who dismissed Paris Opera Ballet and its director—Rudolph Nureyev—as too provincial for her ambitions. I find the contrast between them painful to watch, and I want to console him afterwards. Imagine how I felt when both Maliphant and Guillem left the stage to Mr. Lepage.
Basically, I just don’t see what she gets out of the collaboration. More troubling, I don’t see what her audiences gets out of it, either.
I’m including some footage of Guillem at work, hopefully to show that the merits of her dancing are not merely gymnastic. The extreme arch of her feet, her shocking extension, the sense that she can perform even rapid movements smoothly and gracefully (where lesser dancers seem to have to choose between rapidity and grace)—all serve an expressive purpose, an artistic one beyond merely showing off. When the lines of the body can create a visual illusion that they go on farther than they do (and this, I think ,is the sought after effect of the physical elements considered virtues in ballet, which Sylvie Guillem possesses in spades—the fluid arch of the back and the leg stretched to hyperextension rising to a crest in the arch of the foot), the effect is both thrilling and strangely moving. It’s not just a matter of gawking at someone who can literally kick herself in the face. Dance, like verse drama, is a heightened portrayal of ourselves. In verse drama, we speak better than we really do in order to convey truths that paltry realism can’t carry. Shakespeare tells the truth about us more clearly than our own stammering, clunky inarticulateness ever could. It’s not “realistic” in that we can’t just yammer on and come out with the St. Crispin’s Day speech. But it’s real, as anyone who’s read or heard the speech and felt his throat clench and eyes well up knows. In dance, we need to see the body be more than it is in real life—longer, more graceful, more taut, more expansive, more able to move beyond itself—to perceive what it has to say. Buried in our natural oafishness is the ability to speak through our bodies, to say I am afraid, I am proud, I am sad, I am happy, I am horny, I love you, I want to kill. Dance, at its best, reminds us of that, because when a dancer is conveying these experiences we experience them along with her. And what do we go to the theatre for if not to be moved?