MOIRA’S RAPTURE

A rare treat, Dear Reader; a peek into the psyche and life of Moira Finucane, one of the most remarkable women you’re likely to meet. She writes, produces, directs, performs, informs, shocks, changes minds, and that’s an average day…

The Rapture, presented by Finucane & Smith Unlimited, starring Moira Finucane with a catacomb choir including counter-tenor Mama Alto, Clare St. Clare and 82 year old songstress Shirley Cattunar, opens at fortyfivedownstairs, 45 Flinders Lane, Melbourne until July 16 before touring to China and Germany. Staging is cabaret style, with seating at tables and drinks sold at the bar. Tickets $25 – $98, according to what you can afford. Practicing artists negotiable, and often free. Book on 9662 9966 or fortyfivedownstairs.com (This feature first appeared in Fairfax media; The Age Spectrum arts magazine and the Sydney Morning Herald.)

Spectrum cover of Moira Finucane by Simon Schluter

Spectrum cover of Moira Finucane by Simon Schluter

I never understood burlesque. All that hammy coquetry, twinkly knickers, feathered brassieres. Years ago, when a university chum actually labored over a thesis on the art and theory of naughtily-nearly-stripping-but-whoopsy-flutterflutter-not-quite, I remember thinking; come ON.

So forgive me; I’m late to the raging radical burlesque phenomenon that is Moira Finucane.

She is, I know now, a world-renowned, multi-award-winning performer, writer, producer, a national treasure no less, according to this newspaper. Finucane and her various carnivalesque troopes, have also been the butt of so many hyperbolic superlatives – “Volcanic!” “Anarchic!” “Grotesquely bizarrely feminist!” “Unclassifiable!” “A box of banned firecrackers!” – since she switched from environmental lawyering in WA to burlesque performing in Melbourne 13 years ago, that I worry there’s only a few flabby compliments left for me to bestow in this story.I also know now, because here we are in a grungy Fitzroy bar, resting with tea after a head-spinning visit to a studio nearby where two of several designers are collaborating on costumes for her new production “The Rapture”, and I’m being educated by her majestic self at full hair-tossing, fingers-raking, eyes-flashing throttle, that I had the wrong end of the feather boa all along.

“I never use nudity on stage lightly,” Finucane says, leaning in, “And, never in a, “here I am and aren’t I alluring?” way. “When you see me naked on stage it’s about power, it’s about humanity; sometimes I’m like a beautiful goddess (straightens, lifts chin, casts eyes regally down), or sometimes I’m like an ordinary person who’s just jumped out of the bath, (nods like a neighbour across a back fence) and sometimes, I’m going to look like a monster.”

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So, pfft, there go the only two facts I thought I knew about burlesque. In fact, Finucane and her partner, playwright and producer Jackie Smith, have twisted and whacked the popular idea of burlesque so hard in the various incarnations of their highly praised (remember all those hyperbolic superlatives) troope productions, “The Burlesque Hour” then “Glory Box”, played all over the world since 2004, they’ve forced the genre to evolve into a radical free-form theatre of ideas. And not a lot of them synced to whoopsyflutter coquetry.

Which brings me neatly back to; just what is it about Finucane’s choreographed on-stage nudity that is so meaningful, powerful? And, let’s take one more leap on the tail of that thought; when she does cover her strikingly sinewy, alabaster body (her not so blank canvas) partly or wholly, how do her costumes then coax, evoke and convey similarly powerful ideas to an audience?

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So this is a story, in case you haven’t guessed, skewed toward those lingual mysteries of costume, particularly Finucane’s. She is an excellent focal point; her costumes are more intriguing than most, built in mad collaborative processes with a disconnected gaggle of off-beat creatives.

In “The Rapture”, for example, a convoluted treatise on extinction and the power of art to rescue Finucane’s own glorious and hopeful vision of humanity (“A party on the edge of the abyss,” she quips), she will “inhabit” (her word) a magnificent origami “iceberg gown” and a hulking “bear coat” by avante garde fashion artisans Anastasia La Fey and Kathryn Jamieson of faux fur collection Gun Shy, respectively. And, these costumes will meaningfully convey her ideas.

She has also pressed long-time collaborator Shirley Keon into service and when I met her, the veteran glamour couturier was still delicately pinching an exquisite length of sheer black Parisien lace-edged tulle into Finucane’s vision of “a beautiful shadow of a once spectacular Spanish gown”. “Yes, this is see-though but, how can I put it?” Keon sifts her words, “It’s not sexy in that way. She (Finucane) talks about nudity almost like a costume and every layer has meaning until you get to the absolute meaning of her costume.”

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Legendary jeweller/sculptor Kate Durham is also fitting fragments of bones, shells and tiny random objects, into a fragile jig-saw, a sort of primordial breastplate with hidden depths and what she calls, “Vessel-like things for little secrets and bits of knowledge”. She says costumery is much the same as clothing, charged with meanings. “What we convey to others, depends on their mental associations with what they see.”

Sometimes, Durham tucks tiny images in to her pieces to evoke or convey a familiar feeling or look to beholders. “They can respond; oh, I know this, I remember this, I trust this.” It’s a mechanism Finucane also uses to effect in her costumes; the imagery of fairytales, horror, art and familiar history. “Moira’ll come to you just with a powerful starting point; an image or an idea, like crows pecking out a sheep’s eyes,” says costume designer Isaac Lummis, another of Finucane’s many mad creatives. “Then it’s; “Ok, make me a costume, but I’m planning on standing there half naked and covering myself with fake blood and I want a crown and I want wings and I want it to do this, and then do that…and, by the way, make it beautiful”. There are a lot of technical challenges in Moira’s things.”

Lummis worked with Finucane on several of her goth-shocker, carnivalesque productions and must be some kind of genius by now because one day, he says, he’ll be happily designing costumes for a major traditional musical such as “Georgie Girl”, or “Hello Dolly” as he is now, and the next, he’s equally thrilled to wrestle one of Finucane’s meandering plotlines into a wearable miracle that will stay put and won’t ruin, no matter how she contorts it. (Finucane says of all her costumes; “I animate it, and it animates me…”)

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“One I remember,” Lummis recalls fondly; “She wanted a Victorian looking gown with a very high neck and long sleeves – you know the kind? But she wanted it completely see-though, and she wanted it to be able to get it wet and she wanted to be able to roll around on the floor in it…but you still had to read it as a Victorian gown.”

Lummis’s modus operandi is usually a lot simpler: “A costume communicates,” he says; “Things like the time, the era, the place and a character’s age, their social status, emotion, everything… “It has to be right for that context and say all the things you need it to say, without words. But, Moira’s ideas are so deep and complex and abstract…”

So must her costumes be too.

“Costumes aren’t just clothes,” Lummis says. “You can be tricked into thinking a certain way by those few pieces of fabric. If a costume sends the wrong message; if the script says one thing, in something like “Hello Dolly” say, and the costumes say another, the audience is going to get confused.”

Which is not such a problem in the average Finucane & Smith production where flummoxed audiences are actually a good thing, a first step toward shock, laughter, then maybe, culture-cracking revelation. A momentarily confused audience, in other words, is wide open to new ways of thinking.

In 2014 for example, a particular costume became perfectly formed exempla of this. The character was a stringy bloke in the bog-ordinary garb of an old pub rocker; checked shirt, leather jacket, jeans. On stage, to a backtrack of Chrissie Amphlett’s “I touch myself” he stripped; down, down, until the utterly unrecognisable Finucane revealed her bare breasts and distinctly womanly self.

The shock, by all accounts, was wonderfully audible, the disclosures around lock-step cultural assumptions, too thick and fast to examine here but, you get the drift. Costume speaks as eloquently and with the same range and breadth as Finucane’s extraordinary voice which, incidentally, she can crank all the way up from a breathy squeak to a Shakespearean bellow, once so thunderous it sent her sound director’s dog yelping from the room.

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While we’re still down at that grungy Fitzroy bar, Finucane regales (yes, regales) me with tales of the gothic dreams and operatic memories that spawned “The Rapture’s” costumes. When she steps into them, they will animate her discordant, jarring visions of melting icebergs, of mountainous icy waters rushing into the Palace of Versailles, of precious artworks and priceless treasures, of a girl who dives for hope into the abyss. They are glittering visions hatched, she says, on the actual day she was left alone and quiet, imagination running wild, in the Palace of Versailles’ Hall of Mirrors.

“I see an ancient, horrible destroyer,” Finucane deepens her voice, stiffens and spreads her fingers into an elegant fan. “I see a woman in a beautiful dress; like a ball gown one minute, then it’s…it’s like an ugly, spined animal the next….I see a snow queen, standing at the top of an iceberg…”

It’s not your average theatrical script, but Finucane’s collaborators thrash until they get it. Designer Anastasia La Fey, for instance, gets it; “I work that way anyway,” she says when we visit her studio, a thrumming hive she shares with several more of Melbourne’s artisanal designers including Johanna Preston of Preston Zly shoes and Gun Shy’s Jamieson. “I view all my works as sculptures to be inhabited,” La Fey says. In fact, distilling a backstory into something meaningful, expressive and wearable, is all in a day’s work for the exotic designer of the wide cheekbones, tattooed fingers and swaying gypsy skirt; “For the street, for the stage, it’s the same; I make clothes to be treasured.”

Her “ice queen” cloak for Finucane’s monologue at top of the world, is a revelation of itself, a wave of pearly silk organza, laboriously caught and stitched into hundreds of tiny, intricate origami folds. Later, at Spectrum’s cover shoot by photographer Simon Schluter, when Finucane is strapped into Kate Durham’s evocative breastplate, and La Fey’s cloak is drawn close around it, brushing her hips and shoulders, it slips and bobs and undulates like a creature, rolls like a foaming wave. The pale beauty of the cloak will help Finucane deliver her romantic vision of salvation and cultural change through art, but also to assert “The Rapture’s” lighter subtexts: “There are moments,” says Finucane, “Of great joy and hope….”

For Jamieson now, interpreting Finucane’s doomsayer destroyer queen into a costume for “The Rapture” was a no-brainer. Her forte, street or stage, is fat faux fur coats that swell well beyond the body’s natural silhouette and work like magnificent, soft armour in everyday lives. “People literally have to get out of the way when you’re wearing one of my “Hollywood” jackets,” she laughs.

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Unlike those ‘Hollywoods” however, with their line-backer-wide shoulders and floss pink fur, Jamieson’s bear coat for Finucane is even bigger, more magnificent, a rippling royal mountain of glossy brown fur lined with gold silk satin, elaborately hung with thick tails and fat tassels and dragging dramatically on the floor.

“I have this memory of a bear,” says Finucane wistfully as Jamieson heaves the enormous coat off a cutting bench, into her arms. “It’s true; when I was about seven, a mother grizzly bear in the Rocky Mountains ran alongside our tiny little car – putt putt putt – keeping pace easily. She was huge, and her coat, it rippled and shone in the sun….I’ll never forget it, it was a life changing epic.”

She hopes “The Rapture” is too. “I don’t choose my collaborations in order to make me look pretty; I choose them to communicate directly, in a high electric way, with power and honesty.”

Janice Breen Burns, jbb@voxfrock.com.au