Do let me introduce to you, the fascinating Charles Genevieve Louis Auguste Andre Timothee d'Eon de Beaumont, otherwise known to his friends as quite simply, the Chevalier d'Eon. Here he is below fighting a nice duel. No no, not the chappy with the well-defined buns of steel, but the strapping lady with the satisfying ability to brandish an epee!
I feel like most stories of transvestite knights involve a girl playing the role of man, so as to cross the constraints of womanhood and so on and so forth. But this dashing young man reversed this traditional set up. Working for King Louis XV and his 'Secret du Roi', the Chevalier appears to be the first to have used his ability to blur the sexes as a tool in commiting acts of espionage. Indeed, the true nature of his sex has remained unclear, despite an inconclusive autopsy.
This tale of a knight who spent the first half of his life as a man, and the second as woman (with a pardon and a wardrobe provided for by the French court no less), captivated the imagination of Robert Lepage. When the ballet legend Sylvie Guillem approached him with her long-time collaborator Russell Maliphant, Lepage leaped at the chance to explore the confusing and ultimately tragic story of the Chevalier d'Eon in a piece of dance theatre for Sadler's Wells: Eonnagata.
As a visual medium for the story, the trio were inspired by Onnegata - a Kabuki style of male actors playing the part of women. The strong imagery of Japanese theatre and the French court of the 1750's combined into a rich source to plunder for the designer Alexander McQueen. Starting with flesh-coloured suits with subtle suggestive padding in certain places, McQueen built up the layers of the characters and story. Using feather light silks for otherwise stiff male tailoring and the backlit kimonos as part of the set, his costumes were inspired and as much a part of the performance as the dancers. Another essential contributor was the lighting designer Michael Hulls, whose ability to manipulate shadows was integral to the illusions and pace of the piece.
It has been a longing of mine to see Guillem in action, and finally I was exposed to her endless grace and strength. A more fitting dancer for the role surely does not exsist!
All in all, an insight into the weird and wonderful twists of history and, well, the human body.