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Burlesque performer and director Moira Finucane on creating delight as a political act. By Anna Snoekstra.

Burlesque performer and director Moira Finucane

Moira Finucane.
Moira Finucane.
Credit: Jodie Hutchinson

“A penguin came up to me on a very, very cold day and I thought, I’m just going to stand here until it chooses to leave. We stood there for a long time, so I sang to it.” Director and burlesque performer Moira Finucane is telling me about her 2019 trip to Antarctica.

“It was one of those moments of pure joy amidst an environment that was changing catastrophically around us,” she says. “I saw that everything we do affects people and systems so far away. Going there, and hanging out with that penguin, seeing krill and listening to distant avalanches and thinking about the deep interconnectedness of everything, it changed me on a cellular level.”

I’m quickly getting used to Finucane’s mix of high drama, absurdity and sincere passion. We’re sipping coffee and eating panettone in the cosy, warmly lit lounge at Kino Cinemas, three floors beneath Sofitel Melbourne where Finucane & Smith is presenting FUTURE.JOY.CLUB in the Grand Ballroom. Our conversation is punctuated by an attendant announcing when each cinema opens.

The road to becoming one of Australia’s best-known burlesque performers was not straightforward for Finucane, 58. She first trained as an environmental scientist and became the campaign co-ordinator for the Wilderness Society. In the mid-’90s she moved from Perth to Melbourne, where the underground theatre scene was thriving. This was when she saw Jackie Smith perform, in Smith’s early days when she was writing and performing one-woman shows.

Finucane remembers thinking, Wow, she is just amazing. A full year passed, and she herself had begun to perform in underground nightclubs as a sidebar to her advocacy career, when she met Smith again at a nightclub. “We just fell in love instantly,” says Finucane. “We haven’t really been apart since that day. We absolutely said we’re not going to work together. We both thought that would be the death knell.”

Then Finucane was invited to perform at the National Gallery of Australia as part of Don’t Leave Me This Way: Art in the Age of AIDS. “I’d only really performed in nightclubs but I’d never seen my work as underground performance for just a coterie of friends and ex-lovers,” she says. “I’ve always been bursting to get my work out there.”

At the last minute, the director fell through and Finucane begged Smith to step in. She didn’t think it was a good idea but Finucane wouldn’t take no for an answer. “I said, ‘Oh, come on, it’s a five-star hotel.’ She said, ‘Five stars?’ So that’s how we started working together – the lure of a five-star hotel in Canberra.”

Their artistry turned out to be complementary and their company, Finucane & Smith, was born. Finucane’s bold, archetypal characters and over-the-top performance combined with Smith’s fine arts background and sparse writing to create a new sensibility focused on their shared passion for humanity. “We started working together and we really never stopped,” says Finucane.

They broke out in 2004 with the surprise worldwide hit The Burlesque Hour at the venue fortyfivedownstairs. Since then, Finucane has become a full-time artist and she and Smith have toured the globe creating shows together. Finucane and Smith have become well known for the old-style hospitality of their cabaret, which winks at clubs of a bygone era, meshed with intelligent, subversive visual performances that redefine the limits of the form.

Theirs was the first Australian company invited to the Havana International Theatre Festival in Cuba. They’ve performed their shows Australian Gothic in China, in English and Mandarin, created Art vs Extinction presentations in the United States and Europe, and immersive works in museums from Prague to Ljubljana.

Despite these successes, sometimes Finucane questions her career shift. “I worry prancing around on stage is never going to change the world,” she says. But she believes in the power of art.

When Finucane and Smith were in Buenos Aires, they were scheduled to perform on Mother’s Day. Finucane knew that day was culturally fraught in Argentina: it’s the day the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, whose children were “disappeared”, march each year. “The posters they hold up now look like retro photographs from the ’70s because they were taken in the ’70s and they haven’t seen their kids since then,” she says. “Anyway, there we were on Mother’s Day, and I had one of those crises where I think, What’s the point of this when faced with such devastation?

Finucane says people bring their hearts to the theatre, they come because they yearn for something more than just entertainment. So she dedicated that show to the mothers. “Still, I had my doubts about the value of our show in the context of that kind of suffering,” says Finucane. “And this woman came up to me afterwards. And she said, ‘I hate this day. It’s a terrible day for me. But your show has made me feel alive for the first time in years.’ And she was one of the mothers of the ‘disappeared’. She still writes to me.”

We take a breather then, overwhelmed by this story and the way Moira tells it. Both of our eyes are shining now. It’s easy to be entranced by this woman. Listening to her speak with such electric energy, I’ve let my coffee go cold without even realising. I didn’t need to see her on stage to know she is a born performer. We talk more about transformation and her relationship with her audience.

“We know that if we live in a world that is on the edge of a climate catastrophe, if we live in a world where the violence against women and girls is cradle to grave, if we live in a world where the injustice that First Nations people worldwide face is incomprehensibly terrible, then we know we’re living in a world where things are out of balance,” she tells me. “We know we’re living in a world where humans aren’t treating other humans as sacred. In my work, when I go and meet an audience – anywhere in the world – I treat them as sacred. And the response that people have to being treated as sacred is unbelievable. I am constantly amazed by its transformative power.”

 

Finucane was brought up Irish Catholic in Perth. Even as a young girl she was passionate, already intent on saving the planet. She was fascinated by wildlife and museums and churches. She saw everything as precious. But her attempts at leadership were undermined and rebuffed by her Catholic community. “I guess I was made to feel ashamed of who I was,” she says.

By 14, Moira was as tall as she is now, and sporty. In 1970s Western Australia, where the feminine ideal was blonde and willowy, Finucane didn’t fit in. “Here I was, the six-foot muscled-up-to-the-nines surfer,” she says. “I never felt pretty.” When she began performing in her 20s, she began to feel not pretty but powerful.

Moira remembers another transformative moment. She starts to declaim in Spanish, which catches the attention of an elderly couple waiting for Cinema Two to open: “Mi amor fluye de mí, como un río, como un torrente lleno de árboles y cuerpos que luchan!” It roughly translates to: my love flows from me, like a river, like a torrent full of trees and struggling bodies.

It was part of a monologue she performed while touring Latin America. When she entered the foyer after the show, the audience started calling “la diosa!” – the goddess. “I realised that that intense religious mystical iconography, which is so Latin American, was inside my imaginative landscape,” she says. “They saw me and they immediately recognised me. I went to these churches in Buenos Aires where there are all these skinny, tall, severe-looking saints. I thought, Oh, my God, that’s why they call me la diosa! There was so much iconography that looked like me. There was this virgin, with black eyes and lightning bolts coming out of her hands. The powerful fierceness of that imagery wasn’t pretty, it was wild.”

She’s carried that imagery into her performance. The hero image for FUTURE.JOY.CLUB shows Finucane, golden light flowing from her electric-shock hair, roses collaring her neck, her taloned fingers grasping a shiny red heart. Her goddess comparisons lead me to imagine that she’ll be the star of the evening, the rest of the cast backing her up. Not so. FUTURE.JOY.CLUB is well and truly a variety show.

As always, Finucane and Smith have cherrypicked some explosive stars. Singers include Indie pop star Sophie Koh, who sings in both English and Mandarin, Ngurlama jazz blues legend Lois Olney – a childhood friend of Finucane – whose voice soars, and Melbourne’s own transcendent songstress Mama Alto. Govind Pillai mixes traditional Indian dance with glitter and tease, burlesque artist Jazida dances with fire and fans lit up in multicoloured lights, and club star Iva Rosebud takes the classic striptease to new levels.

Over the past two decades, Finucane & Smith has made work that is seductive and subversive as well as warm and inviting. “I’ve never sought to shock people, because that assumes that my experiences are somehow superior,” she says. “I have no idea what they’ve been through. How would I know? Many people in the audience’s life experiences would shock me. I’m not some shocking live artist who’s got to teach them a thing or two about life.”

Rather, she attempts a great coming together. That’s the reason for the word “club” in the title. Finucane and Smith want to create a club where everyone feels welcome as soon as they walk through the door, a place where every kind of person can feel like they belong.

There is a palpable joy on the stage of FUTURE.JOY.CLUB. It’s a joy that I found radical and restorative after I watched the show myself, a stark contrast to the anxious cultural mood. This joy is very much intentional. After Labor lost the 2019 election, Moira began taking long walks. She found herself looking at plants and animals and thinking about extinction, how it’s an absence that turns species invisible. She found herself overlaying everything she saw with bleakness, a sense of uncontrollable loss. Not long after that, she went to the Antarctic Peninsula, where global heating is most dramatic. Instead of bleakness, she found wonderment. The pure joy she encountered there empowered her.

“I look at joy as something that’s not a panacea. It’s not turning away, but turning toward, a feeling that is inextricably connected to hope, which is powerful,” says Finucane. “Hopeful communities are powerful communities, it’s very hard to put down a hopeful community, they will keep working, they will keep standing up, they will keep stepping up, they will keep expecting change. I think of hope as the weaponised human heart. To actively purvey hope is something that’s incredibly powerful and it’s also really political.”

The performance is a celebration of human life in all its forms. Difference is shown as beautiful. Different cultures are lamented, different body types, different sensibilities. There are moments of grief and tenderness, along with humour, beauty, provocation and fun.

It’s all there in the name: FUTURE.JOY.CLUB. “We felt this urgent need to look ahead and envision the world that we want to see. So that’s where the name came from. It’s about the future that we want to create, the future that we want to be part of. It’s about experiencing and giving and sharing joy.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 16, 2022 as "Radical joy".

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Anna Snoekstra is an author and screenwriter. Her new novel, Out of Breath, will be released in early July.

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