Sylvie Guillem in Japan: Eonnagata

Sylvie Guillem was in Japan over a month ago for her Hope Japan tour. Over three weeks of sold-out performances across the nation, including stops in Fukushima and Iwate, two of the most devastated areas from last year’s tragedy.  She ended the tour with one of her newest works, Eonnagata, her collaboration with choreographer Russell Maliphant and Robert Lepage (re-edited since its London premiere).

Japan-based guest blogger Kris Kosaka attended one of Eonnagata’s last performances in Tokyo. She also had the opportunity to catch up with Maliphant backstage:

Japanese aesthetics mark the transient: the wabi-sabi in burnished pottery, cherry blossoms and their evanescent bloom, poetry compressed to 17 syllables. Japanese history honors as well humanity’s ephemeral greatness, what eminent Japan scholar Ivan Morris called “the nobility of failure”.  The fragile, often foolish flicker-flash of triumph amongst travesty can be seen in such heroes as Minamoto Yoshitsune or Saigo Takamori.  Add another champion to this Japanese bathos: the tragic Chevalier Charles d’Éon.

No matter that he was an 18th century French spy. Eonnagata, the theatrical masterpiece staged (for perhaps the last time?) 20 November in Tokyo, beautifully articulates the transitory beauty of this thing called man – or woman – any where, any time, any place.

Robert Lepage, Sylvie Guillem, and Russell Maliphant’s original creation premiered two years ago to mixed reaction. Three artists at the top of their respective fields, tackling history, philosophy, Japanese culture and sexual ambiguity, in a work that stirred the arts world and defied categorization – inevitably, tendrils of skepticism creeped across most reviews. For the audience of U-Port Hall in Tokyo, however, those last doubts dissolved. The final version of Eonnagata captures a detailed moment in time that will long be savored in memory. It gives voice to the story of one human caught in political and personal ambiguity, reinventing herself/recalculating himself to survive a turbulent era. It also sings the tale of three artists, redefining their roles, refiguring boundaries and reshaping what it means to create.

Literally with song. Both Maliphant and Guillem trill boldly onstage, just one of the many ways the artists challenged themselves with the work. As Maliphant explained after the performance in Tokyo: “Robert used to say the lines as a speech and a new scene came in and I was going to speak them when Robert suddenly asked, ‘Can you sing?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know – I’ll have a go’”. This willingness to alter his own limits epitomizes what all three performers embraced. Lepage, the director, moves with a dancer’s grace, alternating between dignity and comic verve. He perfectly syncs with the experts Maliphant and Guillem in an early scene as they impishly glide across three tables, pausing to play a game of chance, sliding and skating across time and identity as three generations of d’Éon.

Russell Maliphant and Robert Lepage in Eonnagata Photo: Kiyonori Hasegawa / NBS ©

Guillem’s stage voice resounds with historical authority one moment as she leads the audience through the Chevalier’s history and bursts into saucy song the next with “Madame Guillotine”, skipping insolently with her basket full of heads. One early criticism of the work derided the lack of levity, but the reshaped Eonnagata is full of such blithe balance to the dark. In another changed scene, Guillem’s early monologue on Plato’s three genders morphs into a tongue in cheek lecture from a towering, smiling Bunraku puppet, an ironic blend of East and West to perfectly frame humanity’s ambiguous achievements. Maliphant, the choreographer, dramatically gives voice to d’Éon’s uncertainty, wryly ponders sexuality in song and later acts as the ringmaster of wagstaffery before a comic pas de deux with Lepage.

Each artist, of course, excels at his or her chosen vocation. Lepage tightened the storyline to strike d’Éon’s contradictions amid the swirl of revolutionary France. Guillem’s ever fluid body pours through space, across mirrors and advancing shadows with an elegant masculinity. Maliphant’s choreography flows throughout the work, incorporating movement both subtle and bold. The costumes, designed by the late Alexander McQueen, transform to art themselves, wood and paper petticoats, military jackets tenderly curved. A white kimono, backlit in shadows, restyles itself with Guillem’s movements into a dragoon’s cape, a straitjacket, a shroud, and back to fluttering, fragile beauty. Michael Hull, again consciously experimenting with light and shadow, conjures everything from shoji screens on the floor to the shifting skim of suri-ashi, a sliding step used in many Japanese movements from Noh and Kabuki to Sumo and various martial arts.

The inclusion of Japan actually started with the choreography: “The sword was first,” Maliphant explains,  “because Éon was a great swordsman. We tried, choreographically, to work with traditional fencing. But those movements are not particularly about flow, and I am more interested in flow and form, and this –”  Maliphant pauses to physically express the staccato stab of fencing — “seemed kind of limited.” Nosing around in the basement of Lepage’s Ex Machina workshop, the trio discovered a costume trove of Japan, from old kimono to a Japanese sword. Maliphant remembers: “the sword itself is a beautiful thing, an object on its own – the curve is fantastic. The movement relied on flow instead of the minute stabs (of fencing), and that took us on to drums and fans. It took us on a broader journey towards Japan and Japanese culture — of course, the female impersonation in kabuki as well, but there just seemed to be a lot of elements in Japan we could relate to, and gave us a better understanding of d’Éon’s story that was helpful.”

Sylvie Guillem and Russell Maliphant in Eonnagata Photo: Kiyonori Hasegawa / NBS ©

Telling Éon’s story – and making it somehow universal – was a challenge the three diminished by expanding their own capabilities on stage and in the studio. Maliphant admits, “It was disconcerting in some ways, because I thought ‘I don’t know how we can create with all these details, because I don’t understand them yet…’ I think consequently some of that felt like… we got to the first performance, but we had not finished digesting quite a bit of the information. But we often had four or five months between some of the blocks of performances, so we had time to come back to it and to reshape.” The entire artistic process of Eonnagata, then, celebrates the fluid adaptability of humanity. It is echoed in d’Éon’s ambiguous tale, the spy who transmuted gender, the woman who was also a man.

Maliphant concludes: “All of the  elements were so hard – just to study the drum is a lifetime, the staff (from aikido) is a lifetime, to sing or to dance – they are all lifetime studies.  There’s so much in it, it was beyond challenging.”  He pauses. “I will be sad to see it stop – as an area to challenge myself, because it is so broad, it challenges in a different way than I would necessarily be in work that I make as a performer for myself.  I have not done anyone else’s work in probably 20 years. So to do it where I am asked to sing or work with a stick or taiko drums  or fans or as the feminine – it was all quite challenging and I will miss that.  But we’ll see if I will bring it into something else.”

The haunting final scene: Lepage, as d’Éon, wearily walks towards the welcoming autopsy table.  The light swings across the shadows. Guillem and Maliphant frame the body, peel layers of deceit – but nothing is confirmed, in motion nor speech. Perhaps we know history’s conclusion, but the truth remains silent. Ichi go ichi e, the Japanese would say, literally, “one time, one meeting”, to express a celebration of fleeting life or transitory meetings – in the Noh theatre, in the martial arts dojo – and in the efforts of three artists who connect momentarily on stage with Eonnagata.

About the Author

Kris writes from Hokkaido, Japan where she recently moved after 15 years on the main island, mostly in the small town of Kamakura. She writes frequently for Japan Times, and teaches Japanese history and literature at an international school.

Kris writes from Hokkaido, Japan where she recently moved after 15 years on the main island, mostly in the small town of Kamakura. She writes frequently for Japan Times, and teaches Japanese history and literature at an international school.


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  • December 10, 2011



    Thank you for this wonderful review of “Eonnagata”. I am really pleased that the Japanese audience appreciated this marvellous show with three magnificent artists. I saw “Eonnagata” for the first time when it was presented at “Les Nuits de Fourvière” in Lyon, France in 2009 and I was totally captivated by it. Then I had the chance to see it twice (in its completed version) in 2011 when it was presented at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées in Paris. I found it disturbing to hear so many dissenting voices from spectator and critics at the time: “Oh this is not a dance spectcale so we do not like it and Sylvie barely da,ces in it”. Actually, it is neither pure dancing, neither purely theatrical, its magic comes from combining various artistic forms, plus kabuki, plus dancing, video and the result is utterly memorable.
    I think people in France and in England as well were primarily dissapointed because they went to see Sylvie Guillem dancing, this is only what interested them. And this was an ensemble work, although Guillem’s touch of genius is clearly visible, as is Lepage’s and Maliphant’s artistry as well.
    After I watched “Eonnagata” I found myself in Milan at the end of January 2011 savouring every moment of Guillem’s incomparable “Manon” when she reprised her signature role at La Scala. Un unforgettable evening. And I could clearly feel that there was something in her movement, the way she occupied space and light which reminded me of “Eonnagata”. This is what is so wonderful about Guillem as well. Whether she dances classical ballet or contemporary works, she always adds something to what you have seen her do before whether that be jher Manon, Juliet, Giselle, Swan Lake, Forsythe or Mats Ek, or Lepage. She infuses the lyricism from her classical work into her contemporary dance, that beautiful musicality and fluidity of movement to her contemporary work and the dynamic quality of her contemporary dancing to her classical work. Eveything she does is a continuity. Utterly beautiful, intelligent and original. A true, genius, a most unusual and true artist.