Man in the Mirror

Duels and Dualities Take Precedence in Cal Performance Show 'Eonnagata'

Erick Labbe/Courtesy

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For his Fall 2009 Collection, Alexander McQueen's models circled an industrial trash heap on a catwalk of shattered glass, their lips absurdly swollen and stained a ghastly crimson. McQueen's shows and pieces always had a flair of spectacle, yet they were never orchestrated at the cost of thoughtfulness or simply for the sake of being provocative. His body of work challenged conventions of the human form and of beauty. Yet it seemed that his pieces sometimes stood dormant, hanging on rail-thin models who staggered in torturous heels that were structurally striking but so difficult to walk in that he was routinely accused of misogyny.

"Eonnagata," a dance-theater fusion costumed by the designer and staged days before the anniversary of his death, is the perfect coda to the career of one of the greatest fashion visionaries of our time: These are the bodies that were meant to fill McQueen's masterpieces, and this is the way they were meant to move.

Though not explicitly a McQueen tribute piece, the production conveys the spirit that pervaded his work. It explores fascinating dualities with a dark playfulness - mainly those between the sexes, but also between ancient eastern and western traditions, the past and future, identity and ambiguity.

Presented by Cal Performances and performed by Ex Machina, "Eonnagata" delves into the history of 18th century cross-dressing spy Chevalier d'Eon and makes diplomatic intrigue so sensual that WikiLeaks and its scandals are positively tame in comparison.

D'Eon transitions seamlessly from male to female, and so it is fitting that the role is alternately played by Sylvie Guillem, director Robert Lepage and choreographer Russell Maliphant. "Eonnagata" stages the precarious interactions of the spy and is cut into sequences of monologue and dance, ranging from onnagata (a kabuki form in which men pose as women) to classical ballet.

Sylvie Guillem's movements are wonderfully fluid and assured. Her body is so expertly sculpted as to be androgynous. Her moves defy perceived limits of the human form as she transitions from the vernacular to classical ballet, from kabuki movements to martial arts. This versatility also reflects upon the spy, who perfectly navigates gender poles.

In one scene, Guillem and her counterpart writhe in front of a series of mirrors, so that we see an enchanting symmetry between man and woman and the optical illusion that they are one body. In another, Russell Maliphant (who looks like a more limber Lord Voldemort) emerges from the folds of what had been a rotating gigantic bunraku doll. He controls and dances with the structure until his next sequence, in which he joins Guillem in sexually charged ballet. These erotic scenes are juxtaposed with those of martial arts fighting and more playful synchronized dances that use wooden tables as frames, balance beams, and stages.

Occasionally, there are monologue interludes that sketch the historical background of the dance sequences. These moments of (for example) letters read between d'Eon and Louis XV, are witty and not too esoteric. The country of Russia is notably sexualized as a "she," and we chuckle when the spy is told to "Man up!"

Yet this transition from spoken word to dance can be jarring because of the odd interplay between more abstract dances and more literal anecdotal monologues, and vice versa. This sometimes comes at the cost of cohesion, but it is easy to just enjoy the vignettes and then fall back into the moments of dance.

At times, the dancer's movements don't perfectly sync up with the percussive soundtrack of the production, and this can be distracting, especially amid the electronic clangs of waving Japanese swords. But perhaps d'Eon had troubles manipulating his voice too.

In terms of costumes, McQueen interprets 18th century staples like the farthingale, frock coat and even kimonos, by drawing clear allusions to the silhouettes that pervaded his past collections. Mainly, these changes are shown through his fixation on absurdly exaggerated hips and billowing fabrics that flare outward from the loins, designs that resonate with the production's gender themes.

The show's imperial-red satin capes and impeccably tailored coats nod to McQueen's Fall 2008 Collection, the billowy cap sleeves to his Spring 2009 Collection, the Japanese costumes to his couture work with Givenchy.

The most striking pieces of the show are the skin-colored body suits of the dancers, which have artfully placed lines that draw the eye to the genitals, perhaps inspired by McQueen's morbid fascination with the skeleton. The designer interprets the farthingale as an elastically moving form always at the whim of the dancer's body: a woven skirt at one moment, a second later snapping back into what resembles a structured birdcage. The costume itself becomes a performer.

With these costumes as aids, the dancers must wordlessly convey which sex they are embodying in a particular scene, which is fascinating to behold. "Eonnagata" is truly transcendent because it manages to express its themes of gender perception subtly - through dance, dancer, dialogue, and costume - and unfolds into a tribute to the visions of Mr. McQueen himself.


See David's sculpted body at [email protected]

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