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Gardenia – 10 years later at Sadler’s Wells

The dictionary definition of the much-used word ‘amaze’ is to “surprise (someone) greatly; fill with astonishment.” Les ballets C de la B’s production at Sadler’s Wells did that and I’ve spent the better part of a week trying to pinpoint exactly how or why. It’s not that the imagery, sounds or tropes were unfamiliar; quite the contrary. Not only did it open with a reverberating staticky recording of Judy Garland singing ‘Somewhere over the Rainbow’ but, more than recognise the tunes, I had an eerie sense of seeing it all someplace before but not in this order or form – like when a dream is suddenly called forth by a waking new interaction and one struggles to remember the impossible source of familiarity. Likewise, it feels a trivialisation of the theatrical grandeur and freshness of this performance to bandy about terms like ‘surreal’ because, whilst the show plucks on the personal and collective subconscious like its fiddle, it is not rooted in the quick-glance imagery of faceless figures or melting clocks that are the smallest denomination of cultural currency for a specific art movement inspired by and inspiring so much else – but also not the only way to talk about how imagery, iconography and identity affect our thoughts and feelings.

Gardenia - Credit Luk Monsaert
Gardenia – Credit Luk Monsaert.

Hosted by one of the UK’s premier dance theatres, Sadler’s Wells, I arrived with an expectation of a dance-heavy performance. It was in this same auditorium years ago where I first beheld the work of Matthew Bourne and become obsessed with the three-dimensional sculptural nature of the space created for the players. With our compere arriving on stage in a burgundy suit, collared shirt and necktie, with the face drabbed down with non-make-up make-up, we are introduced to similarly clad fellows (the endeavour of which is implied but not yet defined until it’s clarified when eulogy is paid to the dearly departed Lily-Fuck-Me-Silly, represented by a single pink sequin evening gown thrown over an otherwise empty chair). We have confirmed what we knew all along: we are somewhere in a drag show in which no one is dressed as a woman – a mostly male cast wear suits that hang joylessly on frames that suggest the mean age is somewhere in the 70s.

Except there is one player who clearly doesn’t conform. A cis-male danseur brimming with youth and musculature lurks initially in the shadows and unlike all the others is not introduced to the audience. We see little of him until we see him pose (gloriously) in a kind of crucified pieta across scaffolding from which swaths of dress-making fabric have rolled like an ocean whilst the rest of the cast busy themselves with stages of transformation at a makeup table upstage, appearing as new characters in their own right – each time neither incomplete nor complete for what is to come.

There is both a sense of suspense and obviousness in each moment’s imagery. What are the swatches of fabric for as they billow from height to floor like the river in Alvin Ailey’s Revelations? But of course, we know because the costume is everything. Will it drown us or be the magic carpet on which we fly? Strains of Puccini’s famous Madame Butterfly aria ‘Un Bel di, Vedremo’ or Alphaville’s ‘Forever Young’ located us in campy wistfulness.

Whirling through movement and sound and occasional narration from the compere (the only one who speaks) the staging is both simultaneously pacey and adagio. A melancholy pervades and the worst of queer jokes are relayed laughlessly from the mic every now and then. Lip syncing and canned applause feature but are deconstructed with another sound bed and there is no attempt to warm-up the audience conventionally – we are cast as witnesses not punters. This deconstructed drag show in reverse works every cliché of itself with a parade of icons emerging to the recorded applause for a moment: Liza Minnelli, Carol Channing, Norma Desmond. But to say there are moments of melancholy is not to say the piece is sad. The performers pick up energy as they transform – but perhaps not as conveniently as the audience might wish. It is riveting, uncomfortable, painful and beautiful.

In the midst of these emergent tableaux, the energy changes when the young danseur, takes centre stage, first with an extraordinary physical hand-gesture-aligned lip sync and then with a ballet solo of such breath-taking energy that the director’s power not to allow spontaneous applause (because this show never pauses where others would – presumably a deliberately discombobulating choice) frustrates and creates longing for the approval such efforts surely deserve. The quest for recognition and approval and the roles we play to get it fill my thoughts.

We then experience a stunt fight sequence between him and a cis-woman that is (deliberately) extended in length beyond comfort and, again, reminds us of how we think it should end because enough of what we recognise as familiar is there but we are given time to ask why do we expect this struggle to end in an embrace? What familiar conditioning of narratives has come to anticipate the outcome, and do we want it or simply expect it?

Co-producers NT Gent state they want to ‘question, motivate and rouse a diverse audience’. Their artistic leadership includes a sociologist as well as a dramaturg. Fellow producers, les ballets C de la B, explain ‘as a result of its unique mixture of artistic visions, it’s not easy to classify.’ They note, however, that a house style has emerged which is ‘popular, anarchic, eclectic and committed’– this is absolutely true.

Gardenia – 10 Years Later is not easy to classify and for that reason, it is amazing.

4 stars

Review by Mary Beer

Gardenia – 10 years later
Set design Paul Gallis
Costume design Marie ‘Costume’ Lauwers, Dorine Demuynck & Lutje Tamsin
Light Kurt Lefevre (design), Jan Mergaert & Bennert Vancottem
Sound Sam Serruys (design), Brecht Beuselinck & Jo Thielemans
Stage manager Wim Piqueur
Costumes realised by atelier NTGent led by An De Mol
Coiffures Claudine Grinwis Plaat Stultjes, Dian Vandecruys
Set realized by decoratelier NTGent
Photography Luk Monsaert
Production manager Valerie Desmet
Tour manager Katrien Van Gysegem
Set transport Maurice Van de Velde & Charles Meert
Trainee Jesse Vandamme
Production NTGent & les ballets C de la B

Directors Frank Van Laecke & Alain Platel
Music Steven Prengels
Based on a concept of Vanessa Van Durme
Created and performed by Vanessa Van Durme, Griet
Debacker, Andrea De Laet (†), Richard ‘Tootsie’
Dierick, Danilo Povolo, Gerrit Becker, Hendrik Lebon,
Dirk Van Vaerenbergh & Rudy Suwyns

17th November 2021


  • Mary Beer

    Mary graduated with a cum laude degree in Theatre from Columbia University’s Barnard College in New York City. In addition to directing and stage managing several productions off-Broadway, Mary was awarded the Helen Prince Memorial Prize in Dramatic Composition for her play Subway Fare whilst in New York. Relocating to London, Mary has worked in the creative sector, mostly in television broadcast and production, since 1998. Her creative and strategic abilities in TV promotion, marketing and design have been recognised with over 20 industry awards including several Global Promax Golds. She is a founder member of multiple creative industry and arts organisations and has frequently served as an advisor to the Edinburgh International TV Festival.

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