Vanessa Van Durme saw a documentary about the closing of a transvestite cabaret in Barcelona and was moved by the thought of those people, in their 70s and 80s, no longer having a place to perform and to meet. It was as if their lives had come to an end. She devised the concept for this work, taking the idea to Les Ballets C de la B directors Alain Platel and Frank Van Laecke, who asked her for help with casting. She recruited friends she had known from decades before, transvestites, transsexuals and female impersonators who had all given up performing as they grew older and had since found mundane jobs.
In 2010 the piece was originally created and performed by Vanessa Van Durme, Griet Debacker (described as the 'real' woman in the group), Timur Magomedgadzhiev, Andrea De Laet, Richard 'Tootsie' Dierick, Danilo Povolo, Gerrit Becker, Dirk Van Vaerenbergh, and Rudy Suwyns. Magomedgadzhiev has since been replaced by Hendrik Lebon in the role of the young male dancer.
A raked stage covered in parquetry, nine chairs and three microphones are the initial set for this piece. A group of mature people, and one young man, all dressed in business suits, mill around aimlessly, moving sluggishly as if in a combination of old age and arthritis. Van Durme takes a microphone and announces the closing of the Gardenia, introducing each of the performers in turn, giving each a sexually explicit life story. They seem lost, hopeless and grey; shadows of human beings, existing, surviving, but not living life.
They then slowly removed their suits, to the music of Ravel's Bolero, revealing floral dresses underneath, the beginning of a transformation. Already they seemed to be moving just a little more sprightly, and hints of smiles appeared as they froze into a series of poses as they changed. At each pose, Van Durme smiled widely, as though leading them and encouraging them to live again.
A structure appears, a clothes rack, along with a table around which they move the chairs. On the table are wigs and make-up and they gather around to get into their finery to complete the transformation. There are interludes, as one or another comes downstage for their moment in the spotlight, whilst the others look on or continue dressing. The age gradually appears to fall away from them as they move more freely, walk more erectly and look confident, sweeping around the stage and presenting parts of their shows.
They all pause to watch the young man (Hendrik Lebon) in his athletic dance but, in spite of his efforts, he is not accepted as one of them, and is rejected when her tries to get close to the woman, Griet Debacker, ending up with them fighting in a modern apache dance.
Throughout, the performances are sincere, filled with emotion and enlightening. The energy levels rise sharply as the transformations are complete and they begin to present their routines. The shadow figures have come back to life in all their splendour.
Although this is specifically about this small group of people and their particular situation, the closure of the Gardenia and the end of their careers, it is possible to relate to their dilemma on one level by imagining yourself deprived of the job or pastime that you love, no longer meeting regularly with your friends, working closely with them towards a common goal, and being reduced to living the rest of your life with nothing much to look forward to. Add to this the other layers of sexual identity, ageing, loss of your friends and support group, and more, then you start to build a picture of the suffering that the closing of the Gardenia really means.
There is plenty of comedy in this piece, but much that is poignant. It is entertaining, but educates. It also offers many insights and a lot to consider. It is fascinating to watch the physical and mental changes they undergo as the group take on their stage personae, but it is also fascinating that, instead of creating their own 'other self', several adopt somebody else's identity, such as Liza Minnelli, and Marilyn Monroe.
This work tells us a lot, but makes us aware that there is so much more worth knowing about these extraordinary people. There is so much more depth to their stories that we would love to hear and we certainly are left wanting more. It is an astounding piece, moving, absorbing and passionate.
Reviewed by Barry Lenny, Arts Editor, Glam Adelaide.
Venue: Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre, King William Road, Adelaide
Season: to Mon 5th March 2012
Duration: 105min (no interval)
Tickets: $30 to $79
Bookings: BASS 131 246, BASS outlets, or online