A conversation before the show: girl-a, “wanna sit in the front row?”, girl-b, “nah I don’t wanna be that close when someone’s starkers …”. A sign on the door coming into the theatre (paraphrased) “This show contains violence, partial nudity, loud noises”. Notes from Troy Mundy: “‘Housewives on Fire’ is set in the late 50s and through to the early 60s … does our art and media truly represent our daily lives?”.
I was in the midst of confusion with the ACArts graduating dancers’ performance until just before the kitchen scene when I realised this wasn’t a work about 1950s morality in a country that has so far to go before overcoming its indelible prudery, but a homage to the great works of Baltimore from John Waters, Polyester, Pink Flamingos, Hairspray, other suburban dystopias like David Lynch’s Blue Velvet and the high modern irruption of The Other in Twin Peaks. My confusion between programme notes and performance cleared up, it became a dual question of what kind of homage was being made and why his programme notes were so misleading. Wilfully duplicitous, slyly skirting around the real agenda or something else?
To the dancing and a soundtrack of golden oldies we can all sing along to – if we come from the right culture, and skirts and jackets and shirts and shoes right out of Cry Baby, a fifties vintage explosion I was considering a timely backstage visit to purloin. Chris Hewitt had an evil, scary fixed grin all the way through that made me think he would made a perfect serial killer, all the while snatches of conversation drifted from the ensemble throwing themselves through all the dance steps of the era stitched into Troy’s endless arms and legs, spinning, cutting the air, swirling in and out of groups, fast and intertwined.
At some point the steps became a bit blurred and all looked the same. This settled in a difficult arrangement with the subliminal chatter that never quite achieved an out-of-place dreaminess I thought it was striving for, also not aided by the murky lighting in this scene. Throughout I felt a tension between a desire to commit absolutely to the b-grade movie aesthetic and a contrary pull towards a certain aesthetic of contemporary dance, both somewhat incompatible.
Thinking of Divine eating dogshit at the end of Pink Flamingos made me want to see the dancers pushed further, they are obviously capable and willing to go there and more smut and discomfort while unraveling the historical revisionism of the 50s would have been great. As it was, I kept thinkng, so ok all the clichés have been consciously accounted for but what does it say?
Into the kitchen for a Hugh Hefner swingers dinner party and once more Chris is the lecherous, slimy and revolting heel. After the all-out dance-mania of the first act, this second act is decidedly darker, swirling into a death spiral abyss of adultery, overdoses, villainy. recrimination and despair, accompanied by a Vegas crooner ripe with nihilism and blandishments and even blowing away your husband with a Magnum counts for shit in the history of the universe.
This scene in its entirety from the happy couple at breakfast until the explosion of viscera and dead ghosts, relying wholly on the fine abilities of the dancers in embodying caricatures of golden age polyester lifestyle let itself down in the editing. In engaging with a genre, particularly b-grade and cult, it’s not so much the narrative arc where the rapt attention lies as in the ability to manipulate the form. It’s not for his cardboard sets and morphine-addled performances that Ed Wood’s oeuvre is the pinnacle of trash, it’s the spectacle of sheer unending catastrophe, and for Housewives, it was always a little too clean.
Rachel Fenwick as the four-eyed wallflower, social misfit and sneezing puking misery crumpling in on herself in despair, the valium-bearing drug fairy in blue, the mink stole socialite insensate in her own detritus, Chris again utterly beautiful in the porno-maids’ chorus line, a slow landslide of mess accumulating while on the bed a tryst becomes four-way action with tits and (sadly not naked) cocks and pussies, bizarrely sliding between the Red Room in Blue Velvet and the bed scene in Centrestage.
I like porn, but I couldn’t work out what genre Troy was working in, or if he was saying anything about sex and gender in the world we live, especially in Australia that has such a fixated obsession with being repulsed by dirt and sex and bodies. It’s easy to ostensibly engage in such social critique at a safe distance of half a century but I think in turn this merely reifies the dire stereotypes that plague Australia and the remnants of Queen Victoria’s empire. Vegas guy’s backup chorus girls were hot eye candy though.
I had this feeling especially in this scene of a hesitation from Troy to wholly commit to the mess and sex and bacchanalia of the soirée, not helped also by a soundtrack that completely didn’t work. The first scene’s 50s compilation was entirely appropriate, and the black third, cycles of voices in hysteria also was unsettlingly effective, like low-grade torture and babies screaming, but here I though silence would have been better, or Shostakovich’s apocalyptic Leningrad opus, or anything other than the easy sub-Aphex Twin noodling that has passed for acceptable contemporary dance music for way too long. I feel like I say the same thing every performance I see and it’s the greatest frustration for me, the banality of sound in dance.
Death. Blood. We go to the foyer. Interval.
The technical decision to have an interval to prepare the stage for the black final act broke the momentum and I would liked to have seen a more considered approach to this, one that didn’t require us to depart for a length of time about equal to what remained to be performed.
Electric chair. Bonnie Williams like some sadistic lesbian prison guard from Jesu Franco’s Sadomania shook her ass and pumped her night stick and would put all the girls at Crazy Horse out of a job. Tara Robertson then reminded me of the mesmerising and powerful Carlie Angel whom I saw Sunday at a showing of Mia Mason’s, and then … Rachel again. Clad in black in the guttering far corner, entombed in the heavy unlit drapery void while unavoidable directly in our line of sight four dancers in a death mania, yet Rachel with small arthritic twists of hands and fingers stole the moment.
Then more guns, Patty Hearst and the Symbionese Liberation Army, a quick rush for the finale and loss of innocence that would have been John F Kennedy’s assassination or Charles Manson’s Helter Skelter had it been included and then a watch and wait for us to depart.
All the dancers were beautiful to watch. I need also to mention Emma Stokes in the lead, who has an elusive strength and emotion in both her dancing and acting, and is the centre around which the work revolves. For me it’s a special thing to see these dancers, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen a tertiary dance performance in Melbourne, and the first for me here. It’s as much about gaining some familiarity with the scene here and how everybody moves as it is about seeing a performance and I was really impressed with how determined and self-assured they all are both as individuals and as an ensemble.