In retrospect, Christine and the Queens’ show should have begun with the draw of a thick, red curtain.
Instead, the show started in front of a beautiful canopy backdrop depicting a green valley between mountains, ominous grey smoke lingering overhead. This imagery would later drop to the ground — slowly and gracefully — to reveal the tumultuous ocean waves of the backdrop hanging behind it and then a black nothingness after that cloth fell, too.
During the concert’s first moments, in front of the valley, Christine and the Queens’ backup dancers gathered and then crouched down, waiting for their leader’s arrival.
Christine and the Queens — the solo project of French pop artist Héloïse Letissier — is on the brink of mainstream success in the U.S., a feat Letissier’s already begun to accomplish in Europe. Her ass has been slapped by Madonna, she was one of Time magazine’s 2016 Next Generation Leaders and her latest album, the September-released Chris, received widespread critical praise. And when Letissier performed Friday at Oakland Fox Theater to a packed crowd — one that was by majority white and by majority queer-presenting — fans received the show before them in a magnetic reverie as they danced to the electric beat.
In the moments before Letissier’s performance, members of the crowd speculated the number of songs that would be performed entirely in French — after all, Christine and the Queens’ 2014 debut Chaleur Humaine was a French-language album, which was then reimagined for English-speaking audiences as 2015’s Christine and the Queens. Chris itself features two sides, one in majority-French and another in majority-English. Most audience guesses were underestimates — Lettisier’s frequent dips into her native tongue provided delicious, fast-paced moments of delirious excitement.
Letissier sauntered on stage as “Chris,” her newest, hypermasculine persona, greeting her androgynous backup dancers with the opening bars of Chris’ album-opener, “Comme si,” as they engaged in a dance battle that rivaled “West Side Story.” The exaggerated, hands-on-hips motions and cocky swagger of Letissier’s and her dancers’ interactions weren’t new to anyone familiar with the choreographies employed in the best of Christine and the Queens’ music videos: always fast-paced, inventive and entire performances in and of themselves.
This theatricality wasn’t unique to the performance of “Comme si.” Every song Letissier performed was its own sovereign one-act play, telling a story through its staging. “Goya Soda,” an album standout, exhibited an unrequited love story between Chris and a backup dancer, one that ended with the lover going “up in smoke” as white smoke suddenly exuded from the dancer’s jacket and smoke machines rolled a gentle grey fog upstage. “Science Fiction” embodied the spirit of Michael Jackson’s iconic “Thriller” music video in choreography, yet another nod to Christine and the Queens’ ‘80s synth-pop-inspired style.
In the show’s most vulnerable moment, Chris stood alone on the stage, sans band, sans dancers, for a stripped version of the French ballad “Nuit 17 à 52.” But even then, she invited the audience to sing along and mocked their butchering of French phrases. Letissier is at her core an artist concerned with every element of staging design and production, one who prioritizes audience reception while still enjoying herself onstage.
Her masterfully controlled theatrical image isn’t surprising. Lettisier was expelled from drama school in Lyon after fighting to be a play’s director, and she produced both of her studio albums. But to a greater extent, her show’s theatricality is an embodiment of the underlying thesis of both Chaleur Humaine and Chris: Gender is, at its core, performative. From every staged fight that dripped camp to her short-cropped hair and onstage flexes, to her flirtations with her dancers, Lettisier’s performance was a wink, a nod, a gesture as to how flexible gender can be and a loud celebration of her (and Chris’) queer identity.
As she transitioned from solo ballads under a single spotlight to full-ensemble dance numbers and back again, Lettisier was accompanied by brilliant lighting, smoke and sets. While Christine and the Queens’ show didn’t begin with a curtain swooping open, it ended with a curtain call. As she held hands with her band and dancers to take a bow center stage, the night’s show was cemented as more than a mere concert — it was a theatrical piece, something as bold and innovative and full-throttle as Christine and the Queens’ last album, something as unique as Lettisier herself.