They're back together: Anni and Maude Davey are about to return to the stage in their latest collaboration Retro Futurismus: New World. Anni kindly took time out from final preparations for the show's opening night to speak with Jan Chandler about circus, burlesque and the changing face of live performance.
Anni is currently a freelance director and teacher of physical theatre and circus. In 1987 she joined Circus Oz and found herself on a steep learning curve; an actor without circus skills, she decided to take herself off to Paris to learn the art of trapeze. Over the years Anni has continued to work with Circus Oz in various roles whilst still finding time for other ventures. In the 1990s she was involved in the formation of two independent companies, Club Swing and Crying in Public Places; the first produced aerial shows and the second a cappella theatre. Both toured nationally and internationally and their works are considered to have had a strong influence on later developments in both circus and musical theatre. As a director Anni has worked with, among others, One Trick Pony, Sosina Wogayehu, Anna Lumb, and Sarah Ward (Yana Alana), winning two Green Room Awards as Best Director of Cabaret (2007, 2009). Most recently Anni directed her sister Maude in her retrospective show My Life in the Nude and was one of the artistic collaborators on Retro Futurismus 2015.
So what changes has Anni seen in her years as a circus performer? What stands out is the increased level of skills and artistry, along with a changing response to what circus is. 1978 saw the formation of Circus Oz and 1979 saw the beginnings of Albury-Wodonga's Flying Fruit Fly Circus. Then in 1983 the world famous Nanjing Acrobatic Troup visited from China and undertook two projects with Flying Fruit Fly, Circus Oz and other physical theatre artists. In China their work is seen not as circus but as high art, with all their skills based in Beijing Opera and acrobatics. At the time Australians tended to think of circus as simply a demonstration of skill. Then Circus Oz chose to combine circus skills with humour and politics, turning them into a satirical weapon. I still remember a running gag in an early Circus Oz performance which featured a ticket vending machine (they'd just been introduced on trams); if you had notes the 'machine' announced that it only accepted coins and if you had coins, well it only accepted notes! Since then people have discovered that circus is more than just a demonstration of skills but 'a divine art form' and there's been an explosion in the number of shows, acts, pieces 'that talk to the universal experience'.
Maude, an actor, director and writer, took a slightly different path, one that focusses on the body as performance. Anni assures me that Maude never sought out burlesque, instead it was the other way round, especially following the success of Moira Finucane's The Burlesque Hour. Maude has always considered her work to be performance which uses the body as a 'tool' to interrogate aspects of society rather than burlesque. Burlesque is a more demonstrative art form: 'This is how you do it: you wiggle and shake and take some clothes off, wiggle and shake and take some more clothes off … That's not what Maude does, not what I do, ... and certainly not what we're doing in Retro Futurismus: New World.'
For all the current 'mashing' of genres and experimentation with new media, Anni remains optimistic about the future of live performance. People will always be interested in live performance because it's very different from a mediated performance such as video or film. 'If I put something on a screen in a theatre people's eyes are immediately drawn to it rather than to the person in front if them. It's a mediation, it's not immediate, it's not there with you. … Live performance will continue to experiment with form, to go backwards and forwards, it'll continue to go around and around in circles, because that's what we do, that's what we've always done.'
So how does Anni describe this work? Anni finds it's difficult; she is trying to find a new label, one 'that's a bit ambiguous so that people don't go “Oh I know what this is” … Maude and I have always tried to stand in front of people and discuss the state of the world, the universality of the world. To discuss how we feel, how we belong in it and how other peoople might enter into a way of understanding that they too belong … a way of coping with the world I suppose. It's theatre but not theatre as we know it because we don't drive the message home with a narrative, we drive it home with images. Perhaps our work is best described as image based performance in a cabaret context'.
For Anni, working with Maude is a challenge but also fascinating and comforting. 'I wouldn't do it if it wasn't challenging, but it seems to work. We have a sort of complicity which is significant ... The fact that we can't pretend means that the work is authentic and people find it fascinating watching us work together.'
So what can we expect from Retro Futurismus: New World? The show is looking back on the present from a hypothetical future drawing inspiration from the 'great prophets of the 20th century – the Bowies, the Kubricks, the Fritz Langs'. Maude and Anni play cockroaches who plan to exterminate humankind, leaving them with three choices: to submit, to evolve, or to escape. They want to encourage people to think about the situation, engage with it and hopefully show a little compassion, recognising that the small things count as much as the big. Anni describes the work as 'cabaret with circus inflections' which offers a little bit of hope, or as Maude would say 'a change of pace, a touch of grace, and a soupcon of desire.'
RETRO FUTURISMUS: NEW WORLD by Maude and Anni Davey is currently playing at fortyfivedownstairs, until 31 July 2016. More details»