Les ballets C de la B
June 30, 2011
Gaga ladies. Unless you are a devotee of drag icons from yesteryear, those who populate the stage at Sadler’s Wells might be a head trip. There are eight, although one is billed as a “real” woman—a transsexual actress named Vanessa Van Durme—and what they do seems at first completely trite. Here are Liza, Marlene, Carol, and Gloria, treated as blow-up effigies of femininity. Last names are discretionary in a demi monde where your impersonation is your whole identity. The usual business was afoot: ultra glam costumes, dirty jokes (“How do you get four queers to sit on one dining room chair? Turn it upside down.”), rouge thick enough for a baboon’s bottom, and lip synching to “Somehwere Over the Rainbow.” So far as content goes, Gardenia had almost none that wasn’t as worn out as a drag queen’s ________ (insert your own body part).
Our ladies were participating in a collaborative piece brought together by an avant-garde Belgian dance company, Les ballets C de la B, its name as obscure as it needs to be for street cred. As its source, Gardenia grew out of a film, Yo soi asi, abut the closing of a Barcelona transvestite cabaret that exposes the private lives of its aging queens. But drag is about the triumph of attitude over content. Here, the quintessence of cross-dressing is deconstructed stitch by stitch. The curtain goes up on eight respectable gentleman in suits, each around sixty or seventy. They jerkily begin to strike poses and hold them, in attitudes reminiscent of It Girl posters from the Twenties or a sweet young thing caught unawares in her unmentionalbes.
Slowly the drag world emerges as they strip down, revealing panties and sun dresses beneath their business suits. This disrobing happens with naughty moues and sly come hither glances, but also a complete absence of shame as flab, paunch, droop, and sag are revealed to our prying gaze—prying and averted by turns, actually. The famous hauteur of the transvestite superstar is on display. How are we to react? Some people laughed; others cringed. A small handful walked out; another handful snoozed at the crawling pace.
I think the most telling word for this slow-motion exhibitionism was “caring,” provided by a Paris critic when Gardenia was on tour. The company directors, Alain Platel and Frank Van Laecke, created something broadly humane having to do with faded beauty and the pathos of lives stripped bare. After the strip-tease preamble, we entered a biographical phase in which the real lives of these performers, who run the gamut from German and French to Spanish and South American, were sketched in, but obliquely. Some of this is mundane—applying wigs, feather boas, candy-apple lipstick. Some is lurid and shocking, as when a hunky young man who has been sitting around impassively watching the proceedings in a blue zoot suit erupts in a kind of dysfunctional Apache dance, throwing one of the drag queens around in acts of tenderness, seduction, pummeling abuse, and rage. I was amazed that his partner had enough strength for such a violent duet (I believe she was the transsexual) and touched by the suggestion that this was somebody’s—or everybody’s—real experience off stage.
The hunk did a frenetic solo that evolved from beefcake in a red bikini into a whimpering queen sobbing and writhing on the floor in a flowered shift. Both numbers were jerky and reckless in their movements, contrasting with the gliding dream pace of the opening half hour. The last third of Gardenia consisted of the eight ladies assuming full regalia to march down the red carpet, coming as close as aging men can get to nubile movie stars. The musical numbers were a melange of heartfelt memories (Marlene growling “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” in German), ghoulish caricature (Judly Garland, very worn and very gay, leading a sing-along of “Rainbow”), and snatches of contemporary mood painting.
I can’t think of anything more to say that would tip the scales in favor of empathy. Gardenia requires double vision, looking at drag and looking through it at the same time. Perhaps that’s always been the case, so I can understand how, for some, the show was a nullity, untalented has-beens embarrassing themselves on a stage that barely remembers their footprints. But these ghosts whispered to me of tragedy skirted through parody, and the fate of real women in Hollywood who beg for our love with so much vulnerability that they wind up demolished, like lambs who died of over-affection in a petting zoo.