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'Cher' turns the trope of the tribute show on its head

Arts & Culture

Larissa McGowan is turning back time with the remount of her contemporary dance meets cabaret meets theatre show Cher – a deeply personal project the dancer and choreographer says is ‘the ultimate epic adventure’.

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Weird, but in the best possible way.

That’s how Vitalstatistix describes Larissa McGowan’s Cher, which it is presenting at the Adelaide Festival Centre this week.

The solo show honours the iconic singer, incorporating music from different eras and other aspects of her career and life, but is far from a straight tribute. Instead, McGowan uses Cher as a lens to explore gender, power and popular culture – in particular, the way in which female artists constantly reinvent themselves.

“What’s fun about this work is that it literally is genre-busting because it pushes me to do everything from lip-synching through to contemporary dance through to certain styles that are more cabaret,” she says.

“It may even feel a bit more musical at times, and it’s very theatrical.”

The show premiered in the Space Theatre at the Adelaide Cabaret Festival last year, and McGowan says the remount (the result of a collaboration between Vitals and the AFC) comes at a pivotal time given the difficulties COVID-19 has created for her and other artists.

As well as being presented in a new venue – the Festival Theatre Stage – it has also undergone some minor changes. This is largely due to the fact that Cher is a political activist and avid tweeter, with McGowan saying she wanted the performance to reflect the issues with which the singer is currently engaging.

“It’s one of those performances where going back and watching it again and revisiting everything physically, it just feels right,” she says of the new presentation.

“I think that I found more in it this time than I did the first time. It’s reinvented – it’s a new show, in my mind.”

McGowan, who now works as an independent artist but was part of Adelaide-based Australian Dance Theatre for many years, believes pop culture can help make contemporary dance more accessible for some audience members. Her other works in recent years have included the video games-inspired Mortal Condition, and a dance called Fanatic (for Sydney Dance Company) which explored the fan culture surrounding science-fiction films Alien and Predator.

She says Cher sits alongside earlier works such as these. She describes it as both “a deeply personal project” and “the ultimate epic adventure”.

“It all comes back to possibly my past growing up,” she tells InDaily, when asked where she found her inspiration.

“I did a lot of musical stuff; singing, tap, jazz, all of that. I loved cabaret, I loved all of those things, so it’s inherently a part of what made me a performer in the first place, but ultimately, with the hard times with the arts and funding, I started thinking about what type of performance I wanted to be projecting and rethinking what people expected of me.

“So it really came from a place of: What’s next? What’s new? What can I offer that is challenging and exciting for me as an artist?”

In exploring and celebrating the persistence of female artists who reinvent themselves, she is also interrogating herself as a performer. When is she portraying Cher, and when is she an ageing female artist trying to reinvent herself?

“It’s a highly internal thought process for me, where I may be thinking one thing and doing something physically very different, which is really fun…

“I really like this because it’s a challenge – I am breaking that fourth wall, which as a contemporary dancer is quite strange.”

Like they always say, if there was a nuclear holocaust there will be cockroaches and Cher

While Cher is a solo performance, it was created with a team of other South Australian creatives including co-creator and sound designer Steve Mayhew, set and costume designers Jonathon Oxlade and Renate Henschke, lighting designer Chris Petridis, dramaturg Sam Haren, and rehearsal director Carol Wellman Kelly.

Vitalstatistix director Emma Webb says one of the positive things to come from this difficult year has been the “real sense of generosity and collaboration” between larger and smaller South Australian arts organisations, and a desire to try out new ways of presenting performance.

She says Cher is “a stunning, intelligent, original and subversive show; one that turns the trope of the tribute show on its head while deeply honouring Cher herself”.

“It’s a show that reveals the rage and reinvention of the universal ageing female artists, and does so with a heart and humour.”

As for why she chose Cher, in particular, McGowan laughingly notes that for almost all her performing career she’s shared similar curly dark hair. She’s also always loved singing Cher’s songs.

“There are other female artists like that who have really pushed through decades and decades of staying in the limelight and relevant, but she seriously seems to be someone who just manages to keep coming through.

“She just doesn’t stop – like they always say, if there was a nuclear holocaust there will be cockroaches and Cher… she’s an absolute powerhouse and I really do admire women that have managed to find a new way to be relevant.

“For me, she’s a totem; she’s a bit of a hero.”

Cher is being presented on the Festival Theatre Stage from October 21-25.

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