Eonnagata, Sadler's Wells, London

Philosophy and fans, but no fun
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The Independent Culture

On paper, the life of the Chevalier d'Éon is stupendous: he was an 18th-century diplomat, swordsman, cross-dresser and spy. This new show about his life was conceived and performed by the starry team of ballerina Sylvie Guillem, director Robert Lepage and choreographer Russell Maliphant. Perhaps there was too much concept? Eonnagata is earnest and muted.

The performance draws on the onnegata technique of Japanese Kabuki theatre, in which men play female roles. Guillem, Lepage and Maliphant slide in and out of costumes, wielding fans like they were swords. The costumes, by fashion designer Alexander McQueen, mix 18th-century French and traditional Japanese styles.

We first see Guillem, dressed in carnival red silk, telling us a story from Plato about the origins of sexuality. The story – with its four-legged, cartwheeling early humans – is comic, but provides few laughs. This show is more about philosophical musing than action.

An oversized, gauzy kimono hangs at the back of the stage, gorgeously backlit by Michael Hulls. First Maliphant and then Guillem stand up inside it. As he slips away, the male silhouette becomes female, the Chevalier's gender changing under his clothes. The pole supporting the kimono becomes Guillem's sword.

This is one Eonnagata's most elegant scenes, its symbolism arising from a central image. There's a lot of such solemnly underlined symbolism. The dance and movement sequences are rarely dramatic. Instead, they tend to comment on Eonnagata's themes: androgyny, identity, mirroring. It can be beautiful, but it is a static experience.

Eonnagata can impress. Maliphant and Guillem dance with cool ease, stretching out long limbs or winding through poses. Lepage, the non-dancer on stage, moves with cool assurance. The staging is always fluent. Tables are tipped up, losing their tops, to become frames. Guillem and Maliphant dance a duet across a waist-high mirror: a real reflection for the lower body, a stylised version for the head and torso.

When we hear the Chevalier's own voice, it's muffled. Guillem's longer speeches lack variety and pace, sometimes becoming hard to follow, flattening the Chevalier's anger and energy. The letters suggest a touchy, dashing, rebellious character, but he is repeatedly presented as a victim.

There's little swagger or showmanship to the Chevalier. Similarly, the androgyny prompts theorising about the divided self. There's little ambiguity, and almost no sense of the Chevalier's sexuality. Nobody seems to be having much fun.

Throughout Eonnagata, the hero's successes are deliberately framed by tales of failure and rejection. Comedy is mournful; rebellion is doomed. Guillem, Maliphant and Lepage dwell on the limits placed on their hero, not the way he tried to transcend them.

To 8 March (0844 412 4300)

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