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Alain Platel, Frank Van Laecke, and Vanessa Van Durme's "Gardenia." Luk Monsaert photo courtesy Sadler's Wells.

Copyright 2011 Josephine Leask

LONDON -- "Gardenia," Alain Platel and Ballets C de la B's collaboration with director Frank Van Laecke and transvestite actress Vanessa Van Durme, seen this summer at Sadler's Wells Theatre, is a dignified cabaret which reunites a group of retired cross-dressing and transsexual performers in their swan song. Under the vampy Van Durme's leadership the cabaret artists, most of whom are between the ages of 50 and 70, meander sedately through erotic postures, sing nostalgic songs, tell lewd jokes and offer tasty, autobiographical anecdotes. However faded they might seem physically, they more than make up for it in spirit, inhabiting the stage with as much ease as they would their own sitting room. "Gardenia" is both moving and serene in its smudging of the boundaries between male and female.

In her deep, gin-soaked voice, Van Durme introduces the members of her cast, at this point all dressed as men in suits. She defines each by his or her idiosyncratic sexual accomplishments, for example, "Here's Lilly, Fuck-Me-Silly." It's comically tragic to think about their wild sexual exploits when we see their fatigued, resigned expressions as they line up before us. At this point and throughout the show I see glimmers of Pina Bauch's "Kontakthof" -- in the absurd confessionals, the arrangement of repetitive walks performed in unison, and the juxtaposition of hilarity and calamity.

After they've taken up their stage positions, the performers undress in a sedate strip-tease, pausing frequently as if to pose for an imaginary camera. Next, to the steady build of Ravel's "Bolero," they don wigs, apply make-up and step into frocks which transform them into the female icons they are so happy to embody: Lisa Minnelli, Judy Garland, and Marilyn Monroe to name a few. It's exacting to see their misshapen bodies no longer endowed with sex appeal and definition slowly metamorphose into these performers. From blundering old men they segue into glamorous old women, casually making a mockery of gender divides and crashing ever so gently through society's taboos.

The eclectic musical mix by Steven Prengels blends instantly recognizable extracts from popular musicals, commercial pop, and opera, such as "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" and an aria from Verdi's "La Traviata," into a cliched melange which is irritatingly over-the-top but occasionally effective. One of my favorite moments occurs when Jay Z's version of Alphaville's "Forever Young" coincides with the very moment that the cabaret artists have stripped down to their underwear, proudly revealing their sagging flesh, droopy boobs and skinny legs. The association with Jay Z's macho, rapping voice as a symbol of potent youth jars with the knackered charms of these mature divas.

There are two interlopers in the group of elder male transvestite cabaret veterans, one a midddle-aged 'real' woman, Griet Debacker, the other a young male dancer, Timur Magomedgadzhiev, who provides the only pure 'dance' element in "Gardenia." Debacker plays the angelic care-giver for the physically fragile artists and assumes a nurturing, 'behind-the-scenes' role. However, when she is in the limelight passionately singing the Mexican love song "Cucurrucucu Paloma" and enacting her violent, athletic duet with Magomedgadzhiev, Debacker enforces the gender mayhem further as she continuously plays between the identities of sweet feminine housewife and controlling butch dyke.

Magomedgadzhiev's presence is somewhat more ambiguous. He assumes the part of the virile sex symbol, flushed with youth, his every movement oozing with narcissism. For his big dance solo, he weaves around the others, making fun of them but ultimately revealing that his perfect technique, leaps and pirouettes are tainted by gratuitous, stilted gestures. It becomes clear through his attention-seeking gestures and their reluctant reception by the group that he is the outsider. Debacker comes to his rescue as he lies weeping on the stage, lonely and insecure. Van Durme, dressed like Norma Desmond from "Sunset Boulevard," complete with glamorous turban and shades, watches Magomedgadzhiev's emotional outpourings, remote and frozen. From this point on, the charismatic Van Durme gradually retreats from her extroverted role as MC, even as her costumes become increasingly more fabulous. Magomedgadzhiev and Debacker cavort in an arduous display of desperate clutches, aggressive lifts, kicks and tumbles which limps on way too long. This is where Platel and Laecke seem to lose the plot. There's no development, no substance in the thrashing around, only monotony. I long for the transvestites to return and entertain me with more stories about their extraordinary, glittering pasts. I want to revel in the beauty of their faded camp. They do reappear but only momentarily, in a final chorus line like a rainbow across the stage.

While the directors of "Gardenia" counter the cliches of the transvestite cabaret artists by presenting alternative, less comfortable truths that are deeply touching, the power of their message is inconsistent and patchy.

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