Tag: Kabuki

(S)He’s a S/He

Onnagata” is a Japanese term used in kabuki theatre that refers to a male performer who would play the female role in a work. In the upcoming Eonnagata, a production created by theatre master Robert Lepage along with dancer Sylvie Guillem and choreographer Russell Maliphant, it becomes a metaphor for the exploration of gender, identity and finding one’s place in the world. Lepage uses the 18th century figure of Charles De Beaumont, who worked in the court of Louis XV a a diplomat and spy. Beaumont, known as the Chevalier d’Eon, was a skilled swordsman, and would don female clothing for his spy missions. At the time of Louis’s death in 1774, he was living in exile in London, but was allowed back to France three years later, where he lived as a woman. Even after his (her?) death in 1810, d’Eon’s gender remained a source of debate, though post mortems confirmed Beaumont was anatomically male – not that genitals can or ever should be a pre-determining factor in terms of individual leaning toward frocks over trousers. Why?

The sense of playfulness and provocation that figured so much in d’Eon’s life seems to have seeped into Eonnnagata, with Lepage blending his keen sense of grand theatricality with Maliphant’s muscular choreography and Guillem’s beautiful dance stylings. The 90-minute piece was produced in 2009 at Sadler’s Wells in London and runs here in Toronto for a quick two-night-run starting tomorrow at the newly-refurbished Sony Centre.

At a recent press conference, Lepage sat like an excited parent, with an elegant Guillem and a serious-looking Maliphant both couched to his right, and the director of Sadler’s Wells to his left. Between snatches of French (pour les journalistes Quebecois) and plenty of smiles, Lepage explained the whys and wherefores of choosing Beaumont as the subject of exploration. His answers were long but fascinating, showing a complete passion for the subject matter as well as its presentation. The Chevalier was “a playful character “, a quality that, one realizes, could just as easily apply to the international theatre artist himself. adding that Beaumont’s life “(has) things to say about …our own lives and energies” as well as “how you deal with the idea of identity, not just gender or sexuality” -but the issue of nationality.

The idea of drawing a base identity from gender is one that’s always fascinated me. How does genitalia dictate life choices? Why should it (they)? Professional choices? Sexual choices? Codes of conduct? Codes of behaviour? Even now, three hundred-plus years after d’Eon has passed, we’re still grappling with this notion, even as we both embrace and revile those who might question the strict rules that govern our ideas around what men and women “should” and “should not” do/ look like / react / choose / play / entertain / act in the world (see last post re: female aggression). I can’t help but think of Patti Smith yowling out “Gloria and posing on the cover of Horses, and the accusations of her being gay that floated around. Similarly, I can recall when Annie Lennox donned a brush cut and a suit for the “Sweet Dreams” video back in the early 80s, with the same (stupid/unfair/ignorant) comment being made about her (and me, because I was a huge fan & wound up emulating my heroine by wearing men’s suits for a time, and yes, eventually chopped my hair off too). Nowadays, Antony Hegarty confronts the construct of gender  as rumours about Gaga being a hermaphrodite and good-grief-is-James-Franco-gay?!-isms float about. Despite refreshing attitudes in some quarters, I can’t help but smirk: we just have to label, define, know… don’t we? Arrgh.

Charles de Beaumont, or d’Eon as he was called, didn’t think anyone had to know. He did just as s/he pleased, living a stuffed-full life filled with adventure, tragedy, and more than its fair share of political intrigue. He moved between France and England throughout his/her life, and negotiated important historic/political moments (including handing Canada over to England, natch). A sense of self-assured fluidity  pervaded everything the Chevalier touched. Such uncommon magic finds its modern equivalent in an artist like Lepage, who, French-Canadian, gay, internationally-sought, multi-lingual, multi-disciplined, and perpetually costumed (he wears wigs after a childhood case of alopecia), has that same embrace of transformation and changeability. His sizable body of work has taken him between continents and cultures for over three decades; from Canada to the U.S. to Europe to the Far East and back, the Quebec-based Lepage is a man in demand. He’s recently directed opera – the Metropolitan Opera Company’s production of Wagner’s massive Ring cycle (Das Rheingold opened the Met’s season earlier this autumn), the COC’s The Nightingale -and created lauded works like the sprawling, nine-hour Lipsynch (part of last year’s Luminato Festival) as well as The Andersen Project (recently produced by the Canadian Stage Company), among many, many more. I’ve always loved the sense of imagination that is so strikingly present in all of his work; you may not come out of a Lepage production completely soothed, but you will certainly come out stimulated, your eyes full of intriguing images, your head swimming with words, your heart bursting with the moving energy of live performance.

Performing isn’t something Lepage has done a lot of recently. With Eonnagata, he’s returning to the stage, attempting to get away from the yoke of verbal expression he feels has dominated his work. “When I started my work twenty, thirty-some years ago, I was much more physical than verbal, but in time I became way too talkative. Blahblahblah. A lot of physical explorations (were) pushed aside. (Eonnagata) was a good opportunity for me to shut up! I do speak a little bit, but it was good to go back to something I wasn’t necessarily trained. It’s more organic.” I think he hit the nail on the head on why I’ve returned to drawing and painting. There’ something much more raw and primal about movement, pure sound, pure light, and pure… experience.

Russell Maliphant echoed Lepage’s sense of liberation in terms of working on something outside his area of expertise. “Sometimes those things demand something of you, “he explained, “something you haven’t practiced before, and it’s a new challenge as a performer. I haven’t worked with props before, and there’s a variety of props in this. I haven’t done any singing before. I haven’t spoken onstage for twenty-something years, so in all those things, they’re very… challenging and interesting to go to as a performer. They demand you go to a place you wouldn’t go to if you were working in your comfort zone. That’s inspiring.”

Sylvie, looking like a Parisienne version of Anna Wintour sans the sunglasses and frowning, agreed with this sentiment. She was interested in what she called the “theatrical” possibilities inherent in combining the life of a fascinating figure with Japanese theatrical tradition; that sense of exploration extended to the costumes in the show, done by the late, great Alexander McQueen. “I didn’t know (him),” she said wistfully, “but I knew his work, and I could see his crazy poetic imagination. I felt he was the right kind of person to do it.”

Over the course of their first meeting with the British designer, the team introduced the project and their vision of integrating dance, music, and live performance with kabuki theatre. By the second meeting, Guillem say “he understood completely what it was, but he said one thing: ‘If I do it, I want my costumes to be part of the show. I don’t want to be just dressing, I want to be part of the story, part of what you do, part of the character and who he is.'”

Commenting on the finished product, Sylvie’s delicate features lit up. “(McQueen) had poetry, refinement… it’s just what we needed.” If only he had lived to see it!, I wanted to shriek. There’s something about the fluidity of d’Eon’s life, his easy movement between the world of the high court and the streets, his courting of controversy, his dedication to living his life according to his own mores and the price he paid for his choices that I suspect the British designer liked. This, combined with the strong poetic theatricality of three supreme artists like LePage, Guillem, and Maliphant, and … well, McQueen would (does) fit right in. And yet, his untimely end implies he never gave a thought to any kind of legacy. Again, there’s a parallel with Lepage.

“I’ve never considered myself a master,” he said carefully. “I’ve always been very thirsty for learning new things. Certainly this experience with amazing artists is part of my learning process, I’m not somebody who looks back at the past too much… I’m always interested in what’s the next challenge,where I can go, what can push me off track to find a new path. If there’s no putting yourself in danger, it’s not worth it.”

Bravo. Brava? Whatever.

With The Greatest of Ease

I love the Chapiteau. Ce n’est pas une surprise. Cirque Du Soleil‘s latest joyous creation, OVO, is now on in Toronto. Though I had seen Cirque before in large arenas, I hadn’t experienced it in the “Grand Chapiteau.” And so a friend (who had never seen a Cirque show) and I toodled off to the Eastern Portlands at Toronto’s waterfront. It was an evening of enchantment, delight, and absolute, unabashed play.

Neither photos nor words really capture the magic of a Cirque show fully. Even though I’d been given the finger-wagging “No pictures, please!” notice from Chapiteau staff, I wanted to turn my camera not toward the performers, but onto my fellow attendees -eyes agog, mouths dropped open, in awe. Any way you cut it, the drama within a Cirque show is in-built by virtue of the fact that they are performing dangerous, heady feats and often rely on little to protect their falls. There is also a noticeably strong thread of community -family, really -between performers. One relies on the other, another on someone else, and so on -like a set of dominoes. Both in the limelight and behind-the-scenes, the Cirque is only as strong as its team.

There are a number of particularly affecting moments in OVO. I liked the couple doing the ‘rope/cloth’ (banquine) routine; they seem to share genuine chemistry, and the comparison I heard at intermission (to Zumanity, Cirque’s sexy Vegas show) is entirely apt. The way they swung around the performance area, his arms wrapped around hers, both of them supported only by two pieces of luxurious cloth, was a deeply entrancing visual. Such moments aren’t merely wondrous in a physical sense; they’re meditative in a spiritual one. Equally, the gold-clad trapeze men, looking like airborne centurions –but, with the insect theme of OVO, they were probably bees or maybe wasps -provided the same mix of wonder at physicality and awe at the abilities of the physical and artistic worlds colliding to produce something inspired by… insects. Wow. The trapezists flew back and forth between stations, landing on one another’ shoulders, and then disembarking and falling, arms aloft, into the netting below them, their swift graceful decent a sure dance with gravity, time and space. Breathtaking.

Equally affecting were the myriad of tumblers, who, dressed in ridged chartreuse costumes –again, looking like determined little bugs -bounced in a kind of organized chaos against a pseudo-rock-face, their timing at once rhythmic and chaotic. Brazilian director Deborah Colker smoothly blends these moments of inspired chaos with loud, pulsating electronica sounds, counterbalancing every frenetic routine with a slower, more contemplative one. The quiet poetry of a figure wrapped in a kind of nylon, placed vertically and stretching swaying and shimmying, before emerging from her cocoon to become a butterfly, was simple, classy, and deeply moving. OVO embraces the poetic marriage between the worlds of humans and insects, transferring the physical mechanics of each into a wider exploration about the nature of natural connection. Yes, there’s a lot going on beneath the surface (just as there is in the world of insects), but without being too heady, I can also tell you: OVO is a boatload of fun.

Just as dramatic (and fun) to behold as the other bugged-out creatures was the Spider character, who re-defines the idea of ‘high wire’ entirely. With his Mad Max-esque costume and dramatic makeup recalling Japanese kabuki, he retained an air of theatricality even as he stepped, balanced, and carefully picked his way across a very small, very loose wire (called a “slack wire” in circus terms). During the performance, I actually heard him let out a howl of triumph as his eyes widened like saucers, and his chest came puffing out upon completing his ride across the wire on nary but a tiny unicycle (successfully). Hands clapped together and he glared out at the assembled crow triumphantly; it was so dramatic, I wanted to vault out of my seat then and there with applause. That’s the fantastic thing about such acts within a Cirque show: performers don’t just go through the motions, and then bow politely. No way. They inhabit their roles -and the physical movements that go with those roles -utterly, to the letter, or in OVO‘s case, antenna. Limbs, faces, heads, feet and fingers -all are stretched, leaning, flicking, swirling in accordance with the performers’ buggy counterparts, elevating OVO to the realm of the theatrical. While audiences might be conscious of the show’s pretend-factor, they’re nevertheless moved by its execution.

But I have to say, on a personal note, I also loved -love -the clowning that happens in Cirque shows. OVO confirmed my adoration, using a cute story of thwarted-then-successful affection (Newcomer Boy Bug likes Neighbourhood Girl Bug; misunderstandings ensure before a happy communion). The clowns, as per the commedia dell’arte tradition that so influences Cirque’s work, gently and amusingly interacted with one another before mining the audience for inspiration. This, in turn, lead to inspiring play within the audience itself. The OVO clowns reminded me, in their pratfalls, voiced effects (which took the place of dialogue) and grand gesturing, of the importance of embracing the playful side of life, that play doesn’t just happen under the Grand Chapiteau.

And maybe that’s the point of OVO, and on a larger scale, the mission of Cirque Du Soleil itself. It’s as if the clowns, tumblers, and the entire cast are there to remind us, that for every piece of darkness we come across in life, there exists its equal, shining and rife with possibility –and it’s right inside us. We may not be able to do the tricks and tumbles of the performers, but we can allow ourselves to be transported to the world of OVO, and thus, engage our imaginations –and hearts –in the process. Outside the protective canvas walls of the Chapiteau, there’s certainly misery aplenty; inside, however, there is simply… play. Insect play, human play, musical play, physical play. Play takes you out of yourself, and to quote an old song, “take the world in a love embrace.” Sure it’s corny –but it’s needed more than ever for what’s bugging us. Play is there -here –if you want it. Merci, Cirque.

Cirque Du Soleil photos by Benoit Fontaine.

Cell Sell Cell

I attended the opening of the new Rick Miller show Hardsell Thursday night. Still not sure what to make of it, really -there are a lot of ideas around selling and advertising, and what that means to not just the wider society that created the selling culture, but to culture as well. Aren’t performers -of any ilk -essentially trying to “sell” you something, tangible and otherwise? I’ll be interviewing Rick Miller next week (Friday morning, in fact), so maybe I’ll get some answers, or at least ideas, about how the show came to be.

Hardsell is another collaboration between Miller and Daniel Brooks. The pair previously worked together on the alt mega-hit Bigger Than Jesus (which a former editor of mine called “a ninety minute religious rant with TVs” -he also added that he liked it, natch). Like “Jesus” and Roberts’ other hit, Machomer, Hardsell mixes improv, Pirandello-esque meta-theatre, sharp observations, role-playing, nods at past conventions, and Miller’s own awesome gift of mimicry. In the show, he accurately imitates (vocally) a wide range of folks, including Morgan Freeman, James Brown, and Richard Dawkins, as well as perform a clever riff as a German marketing expert.

Mainly, though, he plays Arnie, the supposed mirror-twin of Miller himself, a bitter, washed-up entertainer tossing out proclamations, observations, cynicisms, witticisms, fantasies and hard-to-soft pitches. With his clown-like makeup and slick white suite with shocking-red satin lining, Miller gave a nod to the many mimes, clowns, and stylized performers within the cultural spectrum –Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp, the Joker, Kabuki performer, Mexican wrestler, Godot’s tramps, and even… Tom Wolfe.

And yet, this is the main reference that came to my mind:

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