Production company: Sara Cowdell
Date: 23rd of June, 2019
Location: BATS theatre, Wellington
Rating: 4/5 stars
Reviewed by JOANNA LI
Feminism and pop culture have always had a complicated relationship. From holding famous figures accountable or criticising their silence, to the commercialisation of political views that never amount to more than just empty performativity, it’s unsurprising that this tension is one often discussed by both academics and celebrities.
Sara Cowdell (artistic director of the festival Performance Art Week Aotearoa, otherwise known as PAWA)’s new performance POWER highlights that tension. Traditionally, Cowdell has worked in alternative performance spaces, and her first theatre show draws inspiration from British pop girl group Little Mix. It honours women in pop music while juxtaposing the elitism of intellectual feminism against the accessibility of pop feminism.
“Sometimes intellectual or critical feminism is tiring,” Cowdell said. Instead, her work wants to address the joy and excitement of bringing people together, and constantly showing the authenticity in the experience. “It’s not a depressing performance.”
But at the same time, it’s not all just light and happy either. The show opens with the beginning notes of Little Mix’s song No More Sad Songs. While the choreography is everything you’d expect from four girls dancing to a Little Mix song, their expressions mark them totally different from a typical Little Mix performance from the very beginning. All four performers look directly into the audience, with challenging stares and defiant expressions. None of the coy looks or borderline cheesy smiles you’d expect.
This atmosphere continues on for the rest of the performance. Alternating between song and each performer recounting a personal experience, the audience too alternates between experiencing the joy and easy catchiness of a pop song, and the range of stories and emotions that each performer tells. “There are definitely some confronting moments. We’re pulling lines from songs out of context and putting it into a feminist context,” Cowdell said. “That means that the more problematic lines really stand out, and we can give our own definition to it.”
When we had coffee together, Cowdell and I discussed the rampant sexism in pop music – like how men are allowed to make mediocre music and go out on stage in a t-shirt and jeans and just prance around for an hour, while women are heavily criticised if there aren’t at least three costume changes, dramatic lights, and choreographed dances with backup dancers. “Our show is very Little Mix style, with the costume and the lights and everything. We’re self-aware of that. I think it’s a nice irony.”
She wasn’t wrong. It shines so clearly during their performance, particularly if you compare it to the actual live Little Mix performances: exactly none of this show is made for the male gaze. No matter how much the actual girl group might claim otherwise, it’s undeniable that as a hugely popular international group, and in an industry still mostly run by men, to at least some extent all of their actions – the way they dress, the songs they sing, the choreography of their dances – will cater towards the male gaze. In a small production in Wellington? There’s much less need for that. This show solely sends the message that the performers want to send – anyone else’s opinion be damned.
Does Cowdell’s performance involve men? “Sure,” she laughed. “It involves them being shit.” She then went on to elaborate: POWER was open to men, but it wasn’t created for men. Instead, it allowed men to gain more nuance about the female experience. “Stories offer more access and unlock empathy far easier than political statements or academia do.”
The stories told all relate back to the themes of the songs chosen, even if it’s not clear at the beginning. Stories of sexual assault accompany Touch, the performers recount men being awful towards them after a defiant dance to Hair. There are stories of girls supporting girls, one’s complicated relationship with their own body, aging, realising one’s sexuality.
That being said, at some points the performance did feel a little tone deaf towards the experiences of the actual girl group, three of which are women of colour. As such, a performance by four white women, no matter how revolutionary in rejecting the male gaze or telling their own stories, will always lack the nuance that underlies some of Little Mix’s songs. This was especially clear in Hair, as the lyrics “get him out of my hair” seem far more trivial when sung solely in reference to an ex-partner, instead of accompanied with the complex history of women of colour and their hair in regards to disapproval and appropriation by mainstream culture.
Nevertheless, there’s something confronting, but at the same time, validating, in listening to stories about womanhood to the backdrop of songs that defined your teenage girl years. In the end, the performance was enjoyable not only because of the themes or the way it was devised, but simply because it looked like the performers were all having fun on stage. They laughed and danced and sang, and it made the audience want to be part of a group of friends who could dance to some catchy songs and not care about what anybody thought about them too, or at least bop along. A group of friends who would lend a listening ear to your stories, be able to relate to them, but also to scream and boogie when you needed it.
It all results in a cathartic combination of story and song, which contrasts dramatically from perhaps what a traditional pop performance would hold. “That’s kind of the whole point of pop music,” Cowdell explained. “You take what you want from the songs, and apply it to yourself.”
POWER is running at BATS Theatre in Wellington until the 27th of July, get your tickets here!
JOANNA LI is a queer woman of colour studying law and arts at Victoria University of Wellington. Loves her friends, is passionate about issues surrounding marginalised communities in the media and decolonisation.
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