It wasn't the idea to make a statement about transgender," explains choreographer Alain Platel. "It was just a human story, first of all." He's talking about Gardenia, the latest work from his company Les Ballets C de la B, which comes to the Brighton Festival on 11 May. Set in a transvestite cabaret, Gardenia stars a group of ageing performers, each with a story to tell.
The production's own story started when Vanessa Van Durme, an actress and writer who is also Belgium's first transsexual, saw the Dutch documentary Yo soy asi, which covered the last days of a Barcelona cabaret. "The artists who were working there were older people, 70 and over. I was intrigued by that," Van Durme explains. The film "followed the artists in their private lives. I was very touched." She turned those themes into the play Gardenia, created in collaboration with Platel and director Frank Van Laecke.
When she and Platel started work on the piece, he asked Van Durme how they would cast it. "I said, 'Give me one week'. I called old friends of mine, who I knew a long time ago, when they were young and beautiful – and now they're all old men! They came. When they were young, they were all in transvestite shows.
When she brought them to Platel, he had some doubts. "There was a slight moment of panic the first week," he remembers. "They had no experience of being on a professional stage – the only thing they knew was the cabaret stages they had performed on, sometimes 30, 40 years ago."
Collaboration and improvisation play a large part in Platel's work. Based in Ghent, Les Ballets C de la B has been a platform for many choreographers, including Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui as well as Platel himself. He describes his work as "a life-nourishing thing."
Even so, Platel wondered if he would find enough material. "Of course we were very curious to see men transformed into women – but once you have that image, then that's it! You cannot make an exciting performance of an hour and a half with that. Because of the intense way we worked together with the cast, little by little we gathered all sorts of information."
Though Van Durme appears in Gardenia, she has a different relationship to the material. "Transvestites are guys who like to dress up as a woman; that's it," she says. "In the daytime, they go to their office. For me, it was different. I was a guy who felt like a woman. Many years ago, I had my sex change – in 1975, I was only 27. I had no choice. It was a sex change, or being a very unhappy guy for the rest of my life. Now I'm a very happy woman, with a house and a cat and a man and everything." She has performed Look Mummy, I'm Dancing, her monologue about her life, in four languages across Europe and America.
Van Durme says she wasn't that interested in transvestism, though she admits to great admiration for Danny La Rue – his professionalism, his dresses. But she was intrigued by the cabaret in Yo soy asi. "Especially about the older people," she says.
With Gardenia, Van Durme explains, "I wanted to talk about getting older. Getting older is normal. And then we die!" she laughs. "Life is a bitch. But please, let us be older. Why not? What's wrong with it? Nothing. It's a play about getting older, with dignity. When they're dressed up as women, in the play, they become 18 years old again. At the beginning, you see very old men in suits. Then there they are, with their wigs and their dresses – oh, it's great. Great."
'Gardenia', Concert Hall, Brighton (01273 709709) 11 May; Sadler's Wells, London EC1 (0844 412 4300) 29 June to 2 July