Festival Review: Gardenia
Gardenia is overwhelming in its quietness and subtlety. This isn’t a show of outrageous chorus numbers; instead it gently carries its audience across 105 minutes of beauty. Every step feels so carefully placed, so deliberate, as if our performers are taking us by the hands and leading us through this world.
It is the last night of a drag club, the Gardenia Cabaret, and as soon as the audience is asked to stand for a moment’s silence for a member of the Cabaret lost, the cast has us in their hands. This simple task of uniting an audience not through spectacle, not through humour, but through uncomplicated reverence binds us collectively in the space, and you can feel the audience trained, uncompromisingly, on the cast.
The stage, wooden tiles on a steep rake, opens to eight suited figures: we see them first as old men, wearied by the world. They are introduced to us one by one, transgender women who were once drag stars, admired by many men. After they take their bow they shuffle across the space, sensible office shoes scuffing across the floor to Steven Prengels’ emotive music, which constantly drives and changes through the piece, incorporating snatches of movie soundtracks, classical compositions, and popular music.
The younger Griet de Backer laughs as she tries to send the rest of the cast into the right chair. Young man Hendrik Lebon seems more endlessly confused than anyone, as he has taken on the physicality of a man three times his age: shoulders hunched, knees bent, slippers sliding across the floor. But even in his confusion, Lebon smiles and plays with de Backer.
After they are seated and settled, they are again on the move. Punctuated in humorous tableaus, off come the office shoes, the belts and ties. Off come the brown, traditionally structured pants, jackets and shirts, and revealed are colours, patterns, and different flowing cuts of dresses. The further these new outfits are revealed, the greater the joy on the women’s faces. It feels like this sequence of changing and freezing is enough to sustain through the whole production.
But the joy breaks, and back on goes the suits.
Dance is an art form expressed through physicality. We typically understand this through dancers’ bodies being highly trained and specialised instruments: years of training to sculpt bodies which are powerful and expressive beyond daily confines. It is an art form which pushes its artists to physical limits to express story, emotion, power.
These performers do not have these bodies. Six older transsexuals and transvestites (the cast one down due to illness, absence so well covered it would have been unnoticeable if not announced), one young man, and one (as the program refers her) ‘real woman’; the young man is the only trained dancer. This isn’t a cast of daring physical feats, of long extensions, of clear lines. Much of choreographed movement is simple and delivered with eagerness and joy. Their bodies aren’t trained, but they are endlessly expressive.
Through Gardenia these women sing us songs; we see a beautifully performed and overly earnest chorography danced by Lebon until we see and hear of the insecurity in our young man; we listen to the advice of Vanessa ven Durme; we hear jokes about queers; we see these women undertake the transformation to much greater heights; we watch breathless as Lebon and de Backler physically fight and scramble across the stage. As much of the show gently carries the audience from one sequence to the next, this sequence too gently develops, moments of tender intimacy slowly dissolving into an intimacy of a completely different beast.
Paul Gallis’ set is of patterned wooden tiles on a steep rake ascending to the black cyclorama. Upstage, the cast bring in a make-up and wigs table and some scaffolding. In the final scene the cyclorama turns to red and the stage is adorned with a red carpet.
Under the white lights directors Alain Platel and Frank van Laecke use their cast, simple set, and transformative costumes to form wonderful visual imagery: from the opening tableaus, through to a cast standing in cigarette smoke upstage, waifs and curls of smoke gently twisting their way up into the flies.
Gardenia is a production of absolute precision. Not through the precision we understand of dance, of perfect alignment, of effortless physicality, but through precision of emotion and of image: of the practical image of the staging, and of the image and the way we navigate gender.
It becomes a strangely overwhelmingly emotional experience, watching these women dress in heels, wigs, make-up and dresses so we see them the way they want to be seen. The last night of the Gardenia Cabaret is a sad event, yet it goes out not with a whimper, but with a bold and beautiful bang.