Mon vrai métier, c’est la nuit: ‘Gardenia’ combines splendour and tristesse

Sometimes casting is everything. That’s one thing you realize, as Gardenia unfolds. In a way, directors Alain Platel en Frank Van Laecke couldn’t go wrong, with this new performance for Les ballets C de la B, which premiered at NTGent (Belgium). That bunch of older transvestites is just too great to look at. Throw in some beautiful scenes and you have a performance that surely will be a hit on the festival circuit. Even if it does go wrong, at some moments.

How to come up with a performance that will fit the more popular summer festivals ánd the highbrow events, such as Avignon? That was one of the concerns of directors Platel and Van Laecke. Well, they succeeded quite beautifully in linking the more popular with the more serious: by throwing in Forever young (Alphaville/Jay Z), Je vais à Rio (Claude François), Cucurrucucu paloma (Caetano Veloso), Comme ils disent (Charles Aznavour) and even Ravel’s Bolero, and by putting pinches of Pina Bausch and Christoph Marthaler in there as well, for instance.

But let’s get back to the beginning. Gardenia is inspired by Yo soy asi, a movie about a transvestite cabaret that has to close its doors.The idea of this performance was brought to both directors by actress (and transsexual) Vanessa Van Durme. She had already worked with Platel on Allemaal indiaan and with Van Laecke for Kijk mama, ik dans. For Gardenia she has assembled a truly remarkable cast of six other older transvestites and transsexuals. The two directors have put a ‘young guy’ and a ‘real woman’ on stage as well, to create some tension. With that first scene they capture your attention immediately: all the actors just stand there, as ‘men’ in suits, facing the audience, and Vanessa holds a speech, commemorating their cabaret, Gardenia, that is closing its doors after 40 years. She asks the audience to stand up – and yes, everybody does so – to remember the performers that have already left this life.

And then a beautiful succession of scenes and tableaux follows. There’s a wonderful mix of melancholy, tristesse, beauty and humour, culminating in that Bolero, during which the performers gradually put on more make up and clothes and become real drag queens.  But there’s only a limited amount of variations on the same theme a director can come up with, and when Platel and Van Laecke do feel that as well, Gardenia goes wrong.

All of a sudden that younger boy is put center stage and you get three slow scenes that take all the flow out of this performance. During one of those scenes, Van Durme (in drag) is just sitting on a chair. Whatever that boy is saying or doing, you feel your eyes straying in her direction. Once again: casting is everything. Just by being there she gets your attention, while that younger man is really trying and fails. Platel and Van Laecke felt they needed this younger character to make Gardenia more layered, universal and interesting. I’m not so sure of that.

‘I want everybody to come and see this performance’, Van Durme stated in an interview. ‘It has nothing to do with transsexuality, but everything with charisma. I want it to be royal.’ Therein lies some of the greatness of Gardenia: it’s a show that provides you with enough voyeuristic delight (isn’t it all about that, with transvestites?) without becoming too banal or cheap.

More info here, tour schedule here. You’ll find the YouTube trailer here.

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