Les Ballets C de la B
Sadler's Wells

Gardenia production photo

Belgium's first ever transsexual, Vanessa Van Durme, was so moved when she saw the Dutch documentary Yo soy así (2000), that she was compelled to explore the work further. The film follows the final days of a transvestite cabaret in Barcelona which was run by artists in their seventies. Van Durme had earlier worked with celebrated director of Les Ballets C de la B, Alain Platel, and she presented him with the idea of working on a theatrical interpretation of the work.

Co-directing with Frank Van Laecke, Platel and a team of aged transvestites, an actress and a young male dancer touchingly pay tribute to the men and women who spent their lives donning camp frocks, miming to gay anthems and entertaining the crowds in this shabby cabaret club. Standing tall in immaculate suits as the curtain rises, the nine bodies onstage seem defiant in their stance. Their searing eyes urge us to watch their stories. Van Durme struts to the front of the stage where a microphone awaits her gravelly rendition of Somewhere over the Rainbow.

You would be hard pressed to choose a more clichéd song to kick off with, but as Van Durme introduces us to the inhabitants of the cabaret, she begins to win us over and revel in these clichés. The majority of the performers are men aged between 55 and 65 who, thirty to forty years ago, trod the transvestite boards themselves. In addition we have actress Griet Debacker and a young man, Hendrik Lebon, constantly on the periphery.

The first sixty minutes are wistful meanderings through a thousand memories. The company roams the stage creating a living photo-album as they derobe to the 80's pop anthem Forever Young, freezing in various amusing positions. As each performer is introduced as their female alter ego it's impossible not to smile with them. Kurt Lefevre's subtle lighting design evokes a nostalgic tone, at one point perfectly illuminating a chorus of cigarette smoke - it is beautifully filmic throughout.

Following a hilarious mime/contemporary dance interpretation of Charles Aznavour's Comme ils disent in which the young man admits his homosexuality, the tone shifts to a darker mood. Lebon squats centre-stage sobbing into a microphone, pleading with Van Durme to console him. He's a lost and lonely young man who cannot see any light or beauty around him. He and Debacker engage in a violent and upsetting battle in which they fling each other around the stage, slapping faces and pounding each other's bodies onto the floorboards. It is overlong, and sits uneasily with the rest of the piece.

When the company of transvestites rejoins the stage for their final hurrah, it is a disappointment. Their costumes are joyously extravagant but Platel and Van Laecke present what seems like a repeat of the first half of the show. As the company boldly sings another round of Somewhere over the Rainbow I wondered if their dreams have come true now that they are back in their lipstick and gowns?

Running until 2nd July, 2011

Reviewer: Terry O'Donovan

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