The performers of Gardenia aren't quite playing themselves. The latest work from Les Ballets C de la B is danced by a cast of retired transvestites, men returning to the stage after years away. They change from suits into wigs and sequins, building up to a stylised stage act. Yet very few of these characters emerge as distinct personalities. There's a Liza Minnelli, a white-gowned Hollywood blonde, but they're all blurred into the same melancholy-cabaret type.
Gardenia was inspired by a documentary about the closing of a transvestite cabaret in Barcelona. The idea came from actress Vanessa van Durme, Belgium's first transsexual, who also performs a leading role. C de la B founder Alain Platel, with director Frank van Laecke, focus on the process of transformation, with repeated onstage costume changes.
The show opens with the cast in male suits. Van Durme welcomes the audience to the Gardenia's last show, holds a minute's silence and introduces her colleagues. Her patter is cheerfully lewd: heads of state wanted this character's knickers, a German performer, during the war, "resisted everything except the Russian army".
To Ravel's Bolero, the performers undress, revealing colourful patterned frocks under their drab suits. They'll freeze in held poses, matter of fact at first, but increasingly theatrical as they shake out their skirts.
Van Durme works her poses, drawing laughs from the audience; the others are much more neutral. Most C de la B works are nakedly confessional, dancers describing or acting out their needs and neuroses. With Gardenia, Platel and Van Laecke simply put these characters on stage, with the baggage of their real history. Most remain blank.
Even the numbers are distanced. Soloists mime or sing along to Steven Prengels's music, a remix of pop, show tunes and classical music. The final number brings everyone on stage to "Over the Rainbow", played against a ticking clock.
The dancers move as if in slow motion, not quite there. It's a performance about a performance. Playing a version of their own lives, they're detached from individuality.
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