Jazzercise? Over. Water aerobics? Lame. Zumba? Yeah right. The future is shoulder dancing. If you’ve ever wanted to bring the true aunty energy to a party, look no further than the sacred shoulder dance as taught by renowned shoulder dancing expert Aunty Jude. Wow your family and friends like never before, but beware the sweat, and also the animate lighting display just over Aunty Jude’s shoulder.
Aunty Jude (Alison Bennett) is about to teach you the art of shoulder dancing, including added elements such as the embellishment. With the help of her vulnerability rope and musical support by cellist Mary Rapp, Aunty Jude creates a safe space to explore the shoulder dance way of life and even engage in some friendly inter-audience competition. But a sinister energy lurks over the festivities, a large multi-coloured lighting rig (designed by Alex Torney), like a horizontal traffic signal, is listening to Aunty Jude’s every word, slowly directing her towards the true purpose of the evening: an MLM recruitment event.
Introducing Aunty Jude, written and performed by Bennett, wrapped up many elements of the ageing white woman in a clown figure caught between varying forces of entertainment, economic need, and the alien pressure represented in the traffic lights. Throughout the performance, Aunty Jude was forced to move through activities deemed suitable for older women including modest dancing and confessions while being positioned as maternal, teacher, grifter, and vulnerable figures. As such, Aunty Jude was conveyed as an amalgamation of identities and experiences, which lead to her eventual collapse and retreat when she could not sustain the performance and satisfy the demanding lights.
While not necessarily tied to a plot per se, director Shy Magsalin found resonance in the character study of a warm and giving persona. This concentration of attention in a single character was most successful in the opening situation of Aunty Jude providing the audience with a shoulder dancing class. Bennett’s ad-libbing and rapport with the audience was expertly handled and created a great sense of connection and fun in the room. The divergence, then, into the multi-level marketing pitch was unexpected, but the support Bennett had garnered from the audience resulted in a very successful audience participation section where two audience members competed as new recruits to the MLM selling shoulder pads. From here, as the traffic light being became more actively engaged in Aunty Jude’s performance, the sense of the production was diluted into mere remnants of the audience/performer relationship we had before.
The clowning performance by Bennett was superb and incredibly funny in her representation of an exaggerated artsy woman, something like an even more flamboyant version of Miss Patty from Gilmore Girls. With more focus on the narrative arc, more concrete integration of the third being behind the lights, and cleaner transitions between the production’s three moods by Bennett and Magsalin would have greatly improved the flow and allowed for a greater emotional payoff when Aunty Jude does collapse on stage. Alternatively, an amping up of the more subtle hints at the problems older women face, particularly financially which Aunty Jude alluded to occasionally, would have strengthened the production’s exploration of the modern older woman and put it into conversation with other recent work like Rough Trade and Through the Cracks which focused on older women’s rising rates of homelessness.
As a character study, Introducing Aunty Jude was a clowning masterclass, but the unclear narrative and dwindled audience rapport let the energetic, engaging, enigmatic Aunty Jude floundering in the end.
Introducing Aunty Jude ran at the Seymour Centre from September 6th – 10th as part of the Sydney Fringe Festival and Made in Sydney
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