music / Canberra Symphony Orchestra, ACTEWAGL Llewellyn Three, Llewellyn Theatre, July 18. Reviewed by GRAHAM McDONALD
Dancer and ”CityNews” Artist of the Year 2017 Liz Lea had lived with endometriosis, unknowingly for 20 years, which then left her requiring extensive surgery.
“She thought she could have it all” a disembodied voice stated at the beginning of the performance. “Love, family, travel, the white picket fence…”
Slow-motion footage of Lea, as if her alter ego, in a flowing red dress dancing across water became juxtaposed with her dancing onstage performing a sequence of sharp, quick, marital-arts inspired movements as she fought her body and losing her dreams, yet refusing to give up. This beautiful footage continued to play on and off throughout the performance, with Lea running through trees or drifting in water, while her “stage” self wore mostly black, as if in mourning, sometimes mirroring the dance of her “red” self. It was quite captivating.
“RED” lies somewhere between dance and theatre with Lea often breaking the fourth wall to fill in details of the side effects the surgery has left her with. While Lea aims to make the story inclusive of other endometriosis sufferers, the assumption here is of truth to her personal journey. Private and painful details emerged about the restrictions and precautions she deals with and Lea danced and acted her way through “RED” portraying guts and humour.
Whilst her “red” self frolicked freely, Lea was left onstage pulling on sequined incontinence pants and being unable to teach certain ballet movements. She was joined by a group of older dancers on stage in a farcical portrayal of attempting dignity and rehabilitation while strengthening the pelvic floor. One wonders how Lea still executes such lovely, slow, high leg extensions!
The voiceover gave detailed medical descriptions of Lea’s case, while she regressed to her 13-year-old self and informed the audience of some of the questionable medical advice given while living in Malawi and India, including manual stimulation from an ayurveandic practicioner. The advice didn’t get much better after the surgery at 40, where it was suggested that if she’d like a baby, her best bet would be to “Go out, meet someone, get laid”.
Somewhat ambiguous was Lea’s lip syncing to Chris De Burg’s “Lady in Red”, sporting a pregnant belly, while dancers cleaned up from the incontinency rehab scene. It managed to border on poignant and bizarre. Whether this was Lea’s personal experience or a generalisation was left, rightly, undefined. The lighting was striking in this scene and used to great effect.
Lea’s choreography drew on inspiration from many different dance styles including burlesque, allowing for many costume changes to be morphed into the show. Costumes as she explained, has long been a passion of hers.
The irony of having endometriosis as a dancer seems like the worst-case scenario. During Lea’s story, however, thinking on dance as dancers the realisation is that likely no one could handle the challenge better than someone whose work is often pushing the boundaries of endurance, pain and bravery. What doesn’t kill you makes you strong enough to perform and here Lea performs with a balance of brutal honesty, humour and credibility.
Lea’s program notes say that while the condition of endometriosis hasn’t defined her past, it has now defined her future and that if “RED” promotes self-care to even one person then that is a great outcome.
“RED” is engrossing and performed with Lea’s usual engaging drama and flair. It gives a new-found respect for the stoic courage Lea and others with endometriosis face life with.
The audience arrived, donned in red dresses, jackets and blouses and left with Lea having been told she had the choice of a hysterectomy or waiting for the “blessing” of menopause.
But this dancing diva is certainly not waiting in the wings, she is centre stage, living out loud and sharing her story with those who see “RED”.
In keeping with Lea’s love of costumes, across the garden is “20:20”, Lea’s costumes from past performances.