Thursday, 26 February 2009

Signifying Nothing - premier of Maliphant's Eonnagata, 26 Feb 09

As Sylvie Guillem swept onto the stage of Sadler's Wells last night enclouded in a billowing crimson opera gown designed by Alexander Mcqueen, expectations were as high as any I've felt in the theatre. Yet here was one of ballet's great stars, a woman whose body of sprung steel enables a technique of dizzying virtuosity doing the one thing she should never do in front of an audience, she opened her mouth and... spoke. Guillem's halting English and rococco words concerning an obscure French hermaphrodite, Chevalier d'Eon, punctured our expectations as swiftly as a harpoon through a Zepellin. We never recovered from the blow.

This interminable performance of stilted set pieces, stop-start ideas and willful obscurantism gave off the stale air of an enclosed rehearsal studio where ideas were smothered at birth like unloved babes. What on earth were they all thinking? The 'dream team' of Lepage, Maliphant and Guillem became less than the sum of their parts as if their collective talents pooled became de-oxygenated sludge. Yes, the sight of Guillem using the heel of sword to write a table-top letter was pleasingly eye-catching in a cartoonish way and lighting director, Michael Hulls can be relied upon to create mesmerising lighting effects in which, in this work the performers ambled through rather than danced. And Lepage's simple 'tables as prop' concept was ingenious, as these everyday objects became doors, hiding spaces, walls, a stage, mirror or boat by their easy inversions and stackings.

But McQueen's costumes were the only real stars on last night's stage. The tricky balancing between historical reference and allowing dancers to move easily has tripped up many a ballet costumerier with far more experience than this catwalk king. Yet his crinolines, kimonos, tulled capes and skirted gilets floated and scooped the air with a pleasing lightness sadly brought swiftly back to earth by the stultifying ponderousness in the rest of the production.