WORDS BY SOL YOGA
For weeks I had tossed up whether or not I should fork out the $110 to see FKA Twigs (Tahliah Barnett), an artist I admired since high school. I felt like I couldn’t rationalise such a price for a show at Carriageworks, a venue notorious for bad staging and inaccessibility. But after a series of Instagram posts of Twigs’ baroque-inspired costumes, sword fighting choreography and training sessions at pole studios, I was sold.
I made the assumption that Carriageworks had learned from their staging debacle at St. Vincent last Vivid Festival, and that FKA Twigs’ performance would be more akin to the Solange performance at the Sydney Opera House last year, with elevated seating allowing for full view of the stage. It did cost $110 after all, and the Solange show had only costed $98. That was rather optimistic of me.
When I arrive at the venue, I had a rather warm welcome from the four sniffer dogs present. By the time I had descended halfway down the entryway stairs, police had already set their eyes on my partner, who is Zambian, as a sound target to scan for drugs.
Shock again when I see the festival-style bag and ticket checking entry gates. Surely I’m in the wrong place for a show with one artist? But I look around, and alas these are certainly fellow FKA Twigs fans. As a sniffer dog’s nose leaves my shin I walk on, hoping this will be my last hurdle.
I’m processed through the checks quickly, relieved I got through alive, only to realise I’ve lost my partner in the line. I look back through the rows of metal barricades and see that the security officer is checking every microscopic detail of his foreign passport and has asked him to take off his beanie. I had also chosen to wear a hat this night, a red beret, but nobody even thought to look at me for more than a second. At this point Twigs isn’t due on stage for an hour, but I already want to go home.
I glance at the tasteless food trucks (again, weird festival vibe?) and head straight into the venue, not taking any more chances being in the view of dozens of police and security guards. I saw no chairs, no elevated platforms, nothing that let my 165 centimetre form have any chance of seeing any of the beautiful dresses and choreography I had seen on Instagram. At this point I consider myself officially scammed into eating mainly potatoes and rice last week to afford these tickets.
My partner sees me visibly anxious, and helps me move to the middle front of the stage. I stand there for 45 minutes, cankles swelling, overstimulated by all the people around me. But the second she walks on the stage, all of the negativity just melts away.
I gasp as she starts tap dancing to samples of her own voice, in cut up culottes, lace and bubble sleeves. Her hair is done up into cornrows. Despite the obvious period costuming references, I see a glimpse of a Nike swoosh on her ballet tights, and I’m floored. I honestly believe only her and I could think of such outfits – I’m willing to unveil my eBay search history to prove this.
My friend Huna the next day mentions how confronting it was to see Twigs tap dancing to a mainly white audience as she walked in. It didn’t even occur to me that she was referencing minstrel shows until then. Huna is Black and was also overwhelmed by the police presence moments before viewing this, which added to her skepticism of Twigs’ opening act, but as the show progresses, the juxtaposed layers of colonial and modern Black imagery confirms that Twigs knows what she’s doing.
After the tap dance, a microphone seems to appear in her hands.She sings a few heartfelt songs in her signature, whispery voice, then the heavy red curtain behind her swings open to reveal layers of white linen. Solange’s all-white set at the Sydney Opera House again comes to mind – it makes for a dramatic impact in person but awful for Instagram photos, and I kind of like that.
During one song she prances off the stage and warmly embraces two of the front row audience members, her hand on their faces, making full eye contact with them, a dedication to her fans.
But let’s get into the real reason I was there. Her baroque-and-streetwear inspired outfits came out of my dreams. No really, I’ve long fantasised about pairing Vivienne Westwood corsets with Nike Air Maxes, and I was ecstatic that an artist with the resources made this happen.
She’s swaddled with layers of ruffles, yet moves around the stage effortlessly. The dancers are clothed in all-white Nike ensembles and the personality of each dancer stands out – a smile or hand gesture peeks through the choreography, lyrical and dynamic. Twigs’ live performance has developed a great deal since her last show in 2015.
Twigs goes through a number of costume changes, including gem-studded bras, oversized sweaters, corsetry details, Nike boxing shorts and knee pads, 18th-century style rumps and boned skirts, long silk headscarves, run-of-the-mill Nike sneakers you can get at any Foot Locker (customised with ballet ribbons), feathered millinery, lace-up pleaser platform heels, Edwardian walking skirts stripped down to its layers. At one point she undergoes a costume change right on stage with the help of her dancers.
Everyone is eager to see what they’ve seen shaky videos of on social media: the pole. In the last half hour of the show, the white curtains are taken away to reveal two levels of metal scaffolding with a six metre pole in the centre. A three-piece band is dramatically perched on the first floor and the dancers energetically dancing and swinging on the second, in unison with Twigs on the stage. My mouth was open for a few minutes after this reveal – I can’t imagine playing a sampler that high up.
The microphone is suddenly swapped for a rapier sword mid-song, and Twigs bursts into a dance complete with energetic drops and slashes, all perfectly timed to a beat created from layers of her own voice in different levels of distortion. As both a martial arts film lover and electronic musician, it honestly felt like Eid back when my parents still deemed me young enough to receive cash gifts.
After a short dance intermission, she’s traded the sword for 10-inch heels, and delves into her pole routine. The audience is screaming out, phones at the ready, as she hoists herself up the spinning pole. The red curtains close, and she performs her last song of the night, Cellophane.
She smiles and bows with her dancers, referring to them as “my friends,” and they all melt into a huge hug. Some of the audience in front of me hug each other, it was really cute. The lights go up and I remember where I am.
Disoriented from being in close proximity to thick, scented smoke and flashing lights for two hours, my asthma acts up, I drop my puffer, my partner drags me out of the crowd and I have an anxiety attack on the floor. My legs hurt so much. A random girl comes up to me and asks if I’m okay, not really caring for an answer though.
It takes the Red Cross volunteers over 20 minutes to bring me water because the only exit was blocked by large numbers of people trying to leave the hall all at once. The volunteers didn’t want to leave me in case the police suspect that I had drugs in my system. A few of my friends gathered to take me home, in tears.
I think the choices made by the Carriageworks and Vivid teams did not fit the type of performance I saw. It was so refined, so graceful, with so many conceptual moments that could only have been observed up-close. It would have been more interesting to see this show at the Sydney Opera House, a space equipped for a scaffold set and a lengthy colonial history itself.
Additionally, who has ever seen four sniffer dogs at the Sydney Opera House? I’m interested in opening a conversation about how popular Sydney venues are treated in comparison to each other. Redfern has undergone dramatic changes in the past few years, and for some people it already has a loaded history. And the answer does not lie in increasing police presence on a night that was supposed to mean joy and decadence.
The festival framework is clearly not working for people with different needs, and it definitely did not fit in with the context of the show, which would have been more enjoyable had I been seated. Overall, organisers need to consider the artists’ performance history and creative direction in their choosing of a venue, and I’m sad to say that Sydney is notoriously bad at event organisation. I’ll keep my daydreams of Victorian ruffles and sportswear, but I’m yet to figure out if it was worth my money and health.