Methods and Mediums

M&M: “Nostalgic for the Present”

I’m not a a typical musical enthusiast. I’m not very good at identifying singers. I can rarely recognize a song on the radio. I have been blessed enough to watch two concerts in my lifetime, on a whim, but the number seems paltry compared to the fans I know who track their favorite artists across the country. I have only ever bought two music albums in my life, and one of those was for a friend. So perhaps I am not the best person to write a review about a concert.

However, when it comes to theatre, I have studied, performed, and immersed myself in more shows than I can count. I have been a lighting designer, director, dramaturgist, and playwright, and I received the highest available mark in IBHL Theatre. I am confident in theatre, and so I can be confident about an M&M featuring Sia’s breathtaking tour “Nostalgic for the Present”.

On Tuesday, October 18, Sia brought her performance to Boston’s TD Garden, with the vibrant AlunaGeorge and talented Miguel performing the opening acts. As wonderful as their music was (and Miguel led a particularly entertaining chant of “f*ck Donald Trump* followed by an inspiring, heartfelt speech), this post will focus solely upon the creative force that is Sia.

I realize that not everyone has time for a song-by-song review, and so before I head into that, I would like to explain what it is about Sia that I find so compelling. I strongly and wholly believe that a part of the drop in emotional health and rise in depression and anxiety disorders (beyond better recognition and diagnosis) is our modern culture’s aspiration to be ‘happy’.

Media sells, again and again, the stories of happy endings and perfect lives. Many people, particularly those in westernized societies, view happiness to be the absence of sadness. Thus, many deny themselves negative thoughts and look away from negative things, what society might consider blemishes on what they want to be smooth and perfect. Cover the scars with foundation and go about your day.

Then, when tragedy strikes and sadness washes in, they think their lives to be unhappy things – no. It’s just that we as a society have set an unattainable standard for a happy life.

Life without darkness does not exist, and Sia recognizes that fact. Every one of her songs carries an undercurrent of melancholy, and her rise to fame brings me immense satisfaction. Britney Spears said of her, “There is a bit of darkness somewhere in there, but it doesn’t come across in a frightening way,” and I would agree. I believe that acknowledging that this darkness that exists in everyone and normalizing its place in the world around us would only benefit society.

Sia sings of depression, of break-ups, of being hurt again and again, and she sings about finding the scraps of strength to rise up, walk away, and carry on. Unlike some artists who try to cover those darker stories with a lighter melody or others that seem insincere, Sia embraces those darker moments in their entirety through her songs, and there is never a doubt that she has been in those places before. There is an exquisite pain and triumph in every word she sings.

Oh, goddammit, while I’m writing this post, she’s released her This is Acting (Deluxe) album and it has three new songs – now I’ll have to write about those too. One thing at a time, however. Let me start with the show. Of course, I plan to go into detail, so…

 I think this warrants a spoiler alert.

This was my first concert in the United States and my first time in such a large venue. Frankly, I was overwhelmed by the sheer size of the concert hall. So, clearly, I had no idea what to expect and was utterly dumbfounded to learn that though the concert started at 7pm, with the opening acts and intermissions, Sia would only appear at 9pm. Oh, but what an appearance she made.

The first notes of “Alive” pulse from the speakers. The crowd is uproarious – the anticipation had mounted for two hours, and every person in those seats bursts into cheers at the first hint of Sia’s voice. The lights come up, and we see her on a white stage, tall and still, wearing a white, ruffled ballgown. It is peculiar, both draws the eye and raising questions. Immediate enthrallment.

SIA/MIGUEL IN CONCERT

Photo courtesy of East Bay Times

Though AlunaGeorge and Miguel were fantastic, Sia commands the stage the instant she appears and memories of the opening act fade.  There is no doubt that this is Sia’s show, and her stage presence is overwhelming. More than just how much attention she can pull – the persona she puts forth, offputting, one-of-a-kind, and wholly charismatic – is enchanting. For the duration of the concert, she invites us into the world that she has created through her songs. And in a world that feels like it is running out of surprises, Sia manages to grant the audience a little magic.

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Photo courtesy of DailyMail

As we enter the second verse, the skirt of her dress begins to shift. The ruffles expand, rising inexplicably as Sia’s singing gathers momentum. “I wore envy and I hated that,” she sings, “But I survived” – and in that moment, the audience realizes that it wasn’t a ballgown at all. Four dancers, draped in ruffles, escape from the stage, revealing Sia, in a plainer dress, standing atop a box. And at her feet, Maddie Ziegler looks up in confusion, and swiftly enters into contemporary dance.

Throughout the entire song, Sia is motionless, standing tall with one hand on the mic and one hand on the stand, while Ziegler dances using the whole of the stage. During the verses, which are with intent, she dances the same way, her expression – identical pre-recorded vignettes projected on sidescreens for the entire audience to see – bewildered and sorrowful. As we enter the chorus, a slow chant of “I’m still breathing,” Ziegler slows, at one point miming suffocation, feeling the weight of each word of that mantra four times.

The audience shouts the words with Sia, a joint declaration. “I’m Alive,” we all proclaim, and Ziegler dances with fervor, breaking into a series frenzied movements, limbs snapping out at odd angles, both a show of her incredible talent as a contemporary dancer and a symbol of the emotion attributed to the song.

This first song was the least theatrical of Sia’s entire show.

Now, I will note here that, coming from a theatre background, I was unaware that you are allowed to record entire concerts, so I only recorded parts of the first few songs. I’m not sure I have regretted something more in the past year. So for the next few songs, I might be missing some highlight moments that I simply did not record.

Regardless, the song ends. The lights go out. When they come back on, Sia is standing house left, still in the same pose upon the same box, giving the impression that she never moved. She is to the side and out of the way – there’s no doubt that she is not meant to be the focus of this performance. Instead, there is a shadowed figure back-lit before a screen. As Sia sings the Rihanna’s “Diamonds” (which she wrote), a few members of the audience recognize the shadowed figure as comedian Tig Notaro.

There is no dancing in this song, and instead, in the chorus, Notaro reveals his hands, cupped before him, and he stares at them as if in awe. The audience certainly is – he wears mirrored gloves, reflecting a thin light that is focused upon them. The light bends and shoots off in every direction, giving the illusion of actual diamonds. However, not satisfied with one surprise for the audience, Sia and Notaro amp it up with every ensuing chorus. In the second chorus, tiny lights scatter across the screen behind Notaro, and its origin is unclear until Notaro starts rotating slowly, revealing a mosaic of mirrors on the back of his jacket. By the end of the show, however, the entire arena is spotted with light, with Notaro quite literally shining bright like a diamond.

The next song, “Reaper“, again stars Maddie Ziegler, now dressed in white pajamas as she sits slumped, seemingly bored, at a small table. As the first verse progresses, she rises and, after a moment, begins to dance almost jubilantly. Unnoticed to her, Wyatt Rocker – hair two-toned in the style of all of Sia’s surrogates and slicked back – sneaks onto the stage and begins to assert himself upon the space. He makes himself a seat at her table and begins to trail after her.

In a striking visual, Ziegler cowers under the table and Rocker climbs atop of it, and though both dancers are abstract in their dance, repetitive motions combined with moments of grand expression, they present the audience with a clear dynamic. It is a fascinating display of cohabitation, with white and black transitioning from moments of coexistence and cooperation to what seems to become an imbalance. In some moments, Ziegler stands before Rocker, obscuring him from sight, and in others she is picked up and twirled and manipulated by him, more so towards the end until he finally drags her up from her chair onto the table as if she were a doll. In the end, Ziegler hangs her head to the side, limp, and Rocker props his arm upon her back. I took this performance to be a metaphorical representation of living with negativity.

This performance in particular reminded me greatly of the work of Pina Bausch in its extreme precision and the use of and cooperation between two different bodies to convey a specific mood. There’s a fantastic sequence where Ziegler and Rocker both sit at the table, rocking back and forth in time like a pendulum, taking turns taking actions until Ziegler puts a stop to it. They rise for a moment, and when they settle again, they have fallen in sync. The precision and expressive quality of that choreography was powerful and enthralling.

I suppose I should mention now – between songs, in the seconds that the stage remains dark, the screens on either side of them show vignettes of the dancers. The content is strange and surreal, sometimes just a close up of a face, other times a pan of curious costumes such as over-sized pants pressed flat, sticking out to either side of the person’s waist or a shirt with giant, oversized hands clinging to the shoulders. There is garbled audio, a cacophony of whispers and murmurs at various pitches, phones ringing, etc. that is impossible to make out and deeply unsettling.

One such vignette leads into “Big Girls Cry”, which from the get go is fascinating in that the routine on stage is identical to the song’s official music video. This is what gives Sia’s show such a theatrical touch – every song, it is as if her team was performing a music video live on stage. With this song, this is quite literal – the only difference between the official music video and the show is how Ziegler traded in the all-blonde wig for the new blonde-and-black model. Or, no, that’s inaccurate. Perhaps the more remarkable difference is Ziegler’s improvement with age. Watching the projections of her performance on the side-screens, she is expressive and powerful. Full praise to her.

Regrettably, I did not record “Bird Set Free“. I may decide to find a recording on YouTube to refresh my memory and add my thoughts to this post, but I unfortunately lack the time this week. I do recall that it featured actor Paul Dano, playing Sia’s surrogate, wig and all.

I did not record “One Million Bullets” in its entirety either, but I recall enough. The scene on the stage is poignant enough to linger: Sia’s surrogate for this song is Kristen Wiig, who sits alone on stage. She does not dance with her body, but her expression is heavy with melancholy. She eventually brings out an umbrella as the lighting changes to resemble rainfall in a manner reminiscent of Robert LePage’s work with media, and the entire scene encompasses a universal feeling of loneliness without a direct word about it.

Of course, one of the most popular songs of the evening is this year’s summer hit, “Cheap Thrills”, for which the performance edit of the song is available above. Like the song itself, with its catchy reggae rhythm and chorus begging you to sing along, the choreography for this dance is simpler, with several repetitive motions. Ziegler and the two male dancers, whom I was unfortunately unable to identify, mark every beat with a strong snap of movement, sometimes in sync and sometimes in sequence.

A particularly interesting moment of choreography is when they all gathered in front of Sia, forming forming what could be described as winking eyes with their hands – a moment that can be seen 2 minutes into the video – with Sia joining in. During the performance, she added candid, nasalized vocalizations to the mix, throwing out a, “Hi, Boston!” at the end, really giving the impression that the hands represented eyes of some sort.

After the lights go down, there is another vignette, one I recall clearly: A person is dressed as a hand, eerily, crookedly walking in place. It is both humorously reminiscent of the Thumb-Thumbs from Spy Kids and heavily also heavily unsettling. However, symbols were quickly becoming apparent in the concert – the wig, misfitting clothes, and large, ominous hands. With that, we move into “Soon We’ll Be Found” – I will note here that the music video linked here is from years ago, before Sia started to obscure her face. If the mystery of her identity and symbolism of her anonymity are important to you, I ask that you not watch.

I will mention now that this particular performance is the one that inspired me to write this post. In high school, I wrote an entire paper on contemporary shadow theatre, which is the technique Sia and her troupe employs in this performance. While I was distracted by the Sia, who had been relatively immobile the entire show, come to life with sign language, someone had snuck a projector onto the stage, house right.

[Uploading this post now as it has been too long overdue, but it will be completed after I complete my paper due today.]

 

  1. (David Guetta cover)
  2. Encore:

This is Acting (Deluxe)

And now, for the new release. Sia has just this week dropped a new edition of her highly successful album, This is Acting, and this deluxe edition includes three brand new songs: “Confetti”, “Midnight Decisions”, and “Jesus Wept”.

“We had love so strong my heart couldn’t take it
You took it in your hands and resuscitated”

From the first two lines, “Confetti” won me over. The song tells the story of a woman who learns that her romance isn’t meant to be. Her fiance lies and is cheating on her, and she resolves to end their tainted relationship. The chorus repeats over and over, “I’d rather walk alone than let them throw dirty confetti,” and the meaning of the title becomes apparent.

My admiration for each of Sia’s songs comes from her ability to weave lyrics and the music together to create an entire mood. In “Confetti”, the lyrics tell the story of a woman disrespected, hurt but angry, with enough strength to leave the relationship. However, her music is what lends color to the outline Sia’s sketched with her words.

The first verses uses minimal instruments – a piano, a vague electronic reverb – as the lyrics describe falling in love with a man who promised they would be together. The lack of heavy instrumental and touch of subtle resounding notes in the background create a nostalgic effect, and as one listens to Sia’s words, we can already tell that the happiness she describes did not last.

Sure enough, the pre-chorus sets in with heavy percussion, the background piano drops an octave, and Sia’s voice rises, pitching in anger without losing control.

“I stared at the diamond on my finger and I waited
But the truth never came, but I know her name, so see you later”

Enter the chorus, where the lyrics boldly proclaim that the woman will not miss

No I won’t miss you, I won’t cry, I don’t regret it
No I won’t stand for it, no I don’t need confetti
And you can treat another to your lies, you’ll never get it
I’d rather walk alone than let them throw dirty confetti.

I adore the chorus. Some people might say that the chorus isn’t particularly remarkable – standard pop fare, repetition of words, simple melody – but Sia’s vocals provide the emotion to the words, betraying the hurt beneath the strong words.

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