Against four beautiful panels bearing scenes of the Spanish countryside created by Marie Maresca and Fanny Gautreau, French choreographer, dancer and singer François Chaignaud takes to the stage as the Doncella Guerrera. An archetypal figure of a young woman disguised as a soldier, Chaignaud’s face is almost completely obscured by a helmet, his slight figure dwarfed by a pair of baggy pants. Encircled by four musicians – Jean-Baptiste Henry on bandoneon, François Joubert-Caillet on viola da gamba, Daniel Zapico on baroque guitar and theorbo, and Pere Olivé on percussion – Chaignaud embodies the young woman’s simultaneous uncertainty and determination with precise, whirling movements, underpinned by Spanish music of the 16th and 17th centuries.

François Chaignaud in Romances Inciertos, Un Autre Orlando

He sings as well, moving from head voice right down to blackest, most cavernous chest voice as he takes on and discards a variety of identities, chief among them an androgynous evocation of San Miguel and an Andalusian Roma woman by the name of Tarara, disappointed in love. Bathed in Anthony Merlaud’s washes of golden and blue light, the overall effect is both meditative and absorbing.

Inspired by Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, the beguiling story of an English courtier who assumes a variety of gender identities over the course of four centuries, Romances Inciertos, Un Autre Orlando comes to Carriageworks as part of Sydney Festival. Chaignaud and his artistic partner Nino Laisné have devised a witty, conceptually driven work in response to Woolf’s tale, steeped in Spanish culture and an interest in the metamorphoses of the body.

While the Doncella Guerrera is a more contained, interior personality onstage, Chaignaud’s San Miguel appears as a powerful, almost elemental force. Garbed in a voluminous, canary yellow skirt, he demonstrates exceptional physical control on a pair of stilts, engaging in a series of daring twirls and kicks. This feat of athleticism eventually gives way to a depletion of the Saint’s powers, with Chaignaud languishing in the arms of two of the musicians, the lines of his arms and neck communicating tension and distress.

Miked, Chaignaud’s vocals are more recessive than a listener might appreciate, and his singing is not always of the same standard as his dancing. However, the emotional impact ultimately outweighs these misgivings, and the physical exertion betrayed by his gasps for breath are cannily incorporated into the drama of the piece.

The finale of the piece sees Chaignaud emerge as the haughty, troubled Tarara. Dressed in long skirts and shawl, finished off with a pair of spike heels, he walks through the audience to reach the stage, assuming a stillness suddenly fractured by a frenetic flamenco. Both seductive and distancing, Chaignaud soon peels away the skirt to reveal a pair of high-waisted trousers, which introduces a vocabulary of movement that celebrates this more streamlined body. Sinuous and athletic, it was a perfect punctuation mark for a work exploring the ambiguities and fluidities of gender and the body.

Romances Inciertos, Un Autre Orlando is at Carriageworks until January 26


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