The crowd went nuts. They applauded at the first entrance of Ursula Yovich, Deborah Mailman, Rachael Maza and Lisa Flanagan and the audience was still grinning as they rose, almost as one, for a standing ovation at play’s end.
There’s much to love in The Sapphires, Company B’s contribution to this year’s Sydney Festival. It’s got a terrific score of Motown covers, a generous spirit and great performances, yet there is much work to be done to make this a great play.
Its successes are partly cultural. The sight of the four indigenous leads sporting aqua gowns, feather boas and beehive hairdos is both startling and inspiring, as the play is based on a true story.
The Sapphires went to Vietnam in the 60s, sang songs and dodged bullets, and in the play they also encounter problems such as being refused accommodation in Asia.
Yet the play isn’t really about racism but about love, as the sisters contend with unwanted pregnancies, ratbag boyfriends and wartime romances.
It’s here the work falls short. At times the sisters seem caricatured: we have the uptight sister, the loose-living sibling, the baby sister in trouble. Through unfocused eyes one could be watching Radiance with sequins. Clich?scenes involving unwitting pot smoking and show must go on sentimentality also weaken any genuine pathos.
There is one gutwrenching moment, however, that whispers volumes about cultural ignorance. Stranded in Vietnam, the four sisters sing Ngarra Burra Ferra down the phone to Mum back in Melbourne. It’s a haunting number that eclipses their reclamation of crowd-pleasers like Heatwave, yet it has to be a song performed offstage.
Across town at the Opera House, punters were confronted with a revamped Concert Hall, the stage expanded temporarily to accommodate the Shen Wei Dance Arts. The troupe presented a double bill: The Rite Of Spring, played on a dark stage with dancers in muted tones moving to Stravinsky; and Folding, the dazzling white aquascape with human guppies featured on posters across town.
Both works offer a striking vision of the human body as part of larger, more organic processes. In The Rite Of Spring dancers move at first like molecules or atoms, twisting and reacting to stimuli beyond our sight yet in perfect complement to the rhythms of two-piano Stravinsky.
With Folding, Shen Wei’s background as a visual artist comes into sharp relief, as dancers with elongated heads and goldfish robes flutter and carouse, with a gold weight suspended by fishing wire suggesting a world of air just out of sight. Like Robert Wilson’s The Black Rider, the work drifts into the realm of contemporary visual art, demanding audiences to see the work in two shimmering dimensions as well as three.
The Sapphires and Shen Wei Dance Arts both succeed to varying degrees, and also represent the primacy of beauty and fun. The opening of Three Furies: Scenes From The Life Of Francis Bacon should provide further contrast: an artist whose paintings already suggest movement, both tortured and sexual.
The Sapphires continues until 20 February at Belvoir Street Theatre. Phone 9266 4890 for bookings. Shen Wei Dance Arts closed Monday 17 January.