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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Burlesque Cabaret Vulgare

Cabaret Vulgare BurlesqueBurlesque performer Sarah Ward pushes the art to its limits - and back to its origins.

THE Arts Centre has hosted its fair share of challenging acts, but it's a safe bet its regular audiences have not encountered the likes of potty-mouthed performer Yana Alana before. The alter-ego of performer Sarah Ward, Yana Alana has taken over the Fairfax Studio this week, along with her all-girl sideshow Tha Paranas and burlesque act the Town Bikes, with their show Bite Me Harder.

Variously described as an angry feminist spoken-word poet, an interpretive dancer and a cabaret singer, Ward's character Yana made her debut at the 2007 Melbourne Fringe Festival, where she won the Fringe Cabaret Award with her show Bite Me, which was nominated for seven Green Room awards.

In Bite Me Harder, Yana gives the audience her views on young Liberals, feminism, therapy and "being a victim in the world". It's also about "mundane, everyday things", Ward says: "I pick on systems, or things that annoy me. Then I take it way too far."

Ward, 29, is warm and quietly spoken, which is nothing at all like the in-your-face Yana. Performing as her alter ego is, she says, cathartic.

"Yana doesn't care what other people think, and I have a tendency to care too much," she says. "In a lot of ways, Yana is my polar opposite. In the way that she doesn't think about what others think about her — she knows she's sexy and she dresses accordingly; she is loud and brash and doesn't mind taking up room; she knows her opinion is valid and should be heard, and that she's a political poet with a message.

"These are the sorts of thing I struggle to convince myself of, but at the same time, clearly I believe those things or I wouldn't have created the character."

Ward initially wanted to be an actor, studying at the Actors Centre in Sydney, before realising singing and comedy were her strengths. "I came out with a little diploma and graduated, and decided acting wasn't what I wanted to do," she says.

A role in Neighbours was definitely not an option. "I couldn't even fit into the pants they'd want me to wear," Ward says. "I always knew I was most powerful when I could tell a story through song. It's where I feel most free and comfortable."

After a five-year stint as a comedian in award-winning hip-hop act Sista She — renowned as Australia's only queer, rap, comedy, performance-cabaret act — Ward says she's "over comedy" and prefers to call herself simply an "artist" these days. "I've done comedy. I'm jaded now."

She also teaches voice at the Women's Circus in Footscray when she's not composing and creating shows with Tha Paranas. Last year she was co-musical director of the Women's Circus show A Plane Without Wings Is a Rocket.

So, what can audiences expect of this new show? Apart from warnings about her language, most reviews refer to Yana's roller-coaster of extremes on stage, and note that she's a hard-to-define creation.

"I don't think Yana can be defined," Ward says. "I know that sounds wanky, but I think everybody has their own experience of her. To some people she's a mother, she's a sister, she's an aunty, a woman that you once knew, or a woman you never want to know. I think about her like an archetype from mythology so I can separate myself from her. But it also gives me a lot more freedom in the characterisation if I don't pigeon-hole her."

The larger-than-life diva evolved, Ward says, from a variety of sources. "I've realised since I started performing her that she's a little bit like my grandma," she says, almost guiltily. "And a bit of her is from two other people I know who shall remain anonymous. During the process of creating her, I didn't have any idea where she was coming from. As I get to know her more, I realise all these unconscious things. It's kind of spiritual. I think creativity and art are spiritual, in a way."

And with creativity and art often come offended sensibilities. The sight of audience members walking out of Yana's shows, presumably offended by her colourful diatribes (or perhaps by Yana reading aloud from her book If You Were a Carrot I Would Have Cum by Now) has become quite common. "We had a couple of walk-outs at the Melbourne Fringe; I think maybe they'd just looked at the picture and not read the blurb about the show," says Ward. "People say, 'Oh, she's foul-mouthed, potty-mouthed, she's this or that.' Yes, she is, but she's also many other things," Ward says. "Some people love her, some hate her, some are scared of her."

As Ward says, Yana Alana "looks a little bit like she might be traditional cabaret," but she is perhaps best understood as a burlesque act, in the true sense of the word, in that she combines elements of song, dance, striptease and vaudeville.

At any rate, audiences are perhaps becoming slightly inured to her shockingness. At a recent show, Ward was surprised by the lack of walk-outs. "We played the Adelaide Cabaret Festival, where the demographic was an older, middle to upper-class crowd," she says. "I was expecting some walk-outs there, but it didn't happen."

So does that mean Yana is still dropping the word "c---" into her act, even in the highbrow surrounds of the Arts Centre?

"Of course," she says.

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