Eye dance: Eonnagata and the heroics of being seen

Russell Maliphant and Sylvie Guillem in Eonnagata
Erick Labbe

Consider the need to be seen. The dance world is consumed by this challenge. Dancers repeatedly put ourselves in situations where we have optimal visibility via auditions, performances, and even day-to-day classes. Choreographers market themselves to be presented through grants and venues. But is this need, this desire to interest and engage and ultimately compel people to watch us, heroic, or simply pathetic? Suppose for a second not the plight of a common dancer trying to be seen, but of a very high profile dancer or choreographer, who for better or worse is seen, has been seen, and who people clamor to see. Would the work err more toward heroic because it is practically their duty to be seen?

On February 9-10, Cal Performances presented Eonnagata, a dance-theater work created and performed by Sylvie Guillem, Russell Maliphant, and Robert Lepage. Dancers everywhere are familiar with legendary French ballerina Guillem, and her focus of-late on the contemporary realm has turned many a classicist onto different kinds of dance. French-Canadian Lepage is a playwright, actor, film director, and stage director known for his versatility in nearly every form of theater craft. Maliphant is a British choreographer noted for merging ballet with contact improvisation, yoga, and martial arts. Together, with lighting designed by Michael Hulls, and costumes designed by the celebrated Alexander McQueen, they collaborated to create Eonnagata, a fusion of Japanese Kabuki theater, martial arts, and contemporary dance chronicling the life of Charles de Beaumont, Chevalier d’ Éon, a French diplomat and spy of the 17th century known for cross-dressing tendencies that eventually led to his gender being completely obscured.

While I enjoyed Eonnagata tremendously, for me the larger question beyond whether or not the piece was likeable was what the piece aimed to accomplish artistically. Eonnagata sought to ignite a discussion on gender while also capturing the essence of a truly eccentric life. Engaging in that particular work allowed Guillem, Lepage and Maliphant to send a message through their high profile status that this was the kind of work important to them. Is that where dance bridges from pathetic to heroic, when the point is no longer simply to be seen but to actually say something as well?

The high status of the artists involved in Eonnagata lent an air of legitimacy to the work and an abundance of resources were made available to them that they might not have enjoyed if they were under the popular radar. However, when I ask myself if Eonnagata would still have been heroic, or for that matter even worthwhile, had they not been superstars, the answer is a resounding yes. So it is not the product or the acclaim but the endeavor itself that is heroic.

But back to the need to be seen: if a dance is not seen is it still worthwhile? There’s a part of me that says yes. Had Guillem, Maliphant, and Lepage come together in a studio every day for a year and never shown anyone results, the effort would still have been a valid endeavor, seeing as most artistic processes don’t use all of the choreography generated in the final performance product. But at the same time, there is a sense of responsibility, especially for dance celebrities, to share their art because they can reach a larger audience and thus expose dance to people who might not otherwise seek it out. Perhaps with certain status one goes from needing to be seen to being obligated to be seen.

As a dancer, I feel an immense need to be seen. However, it is not just a narcissistic hope for admiration, but also a hope that I may articulate something meaningful. After all, I still need to see dance as well.

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