THE word “bird” begins with a B, but in the coming production of “120 Birds”, it’s the letter L that holds sway.
Choreographer Liz Lea plays Madame Lou, flanked by a line of luscious ladies with names like Leslie Light, Lyda Lovely and Lola Loop, who together form the fictional “Company Elle”. They, too, have their antecedents in real-life performers like Louise Lovely, Louise Lightfoot and Lola Leap.
Set mostly in the 1920s and 1930s, the show presents four globetrotting hoofers who pirouette, tango, Charleston and waltz through many countries in a “rise and fall” tale of a touring company.
The title is a reference to the 120 birds with which ballerina Anna Pavlova toured to Australia in 1929.
The coming Street Theatre season is billed as an Australian premiere, but that isn’t quite so. Last year, Lea won a Canberra Critics’ Circle award for her solo version of “120 Birds”, presented at the National Gallery of Australia as part of its “Ballets Russes” exhibition.
Its first full showcase was in Edinburgh during 2010, where Lea, after creating costumes with glamorous fabrics and designs inspired by Australian artist Florence Broadhurst, worked with two tango dancers from Berlin and an English dancer to produce a 45-minute narrative.
“120 Birds” has three principal dancers – Melanie Fayd’herbe de Maudave, Ash Bee and Miranda Wheen, all from Sydney, though Bee has danced with QL2 and Wheen is a regular with Mirramu Dance Company.
This expanded version is a “Liz Lea and Company” production, but Lea was able to mine Canberra Dance Theatre (where she is artistic director) for a troupe of burlesque dancers and four “gold” or senior dancers, Toni Allen, Madeleine Bullock, Charmaine Hallam and Glenys Harris, who augment the company.
Backing the production is a vintage film-scape sourced from the National Film And Sound Archive, which provided professional assistance with editing and permitted Lea to use footage viewed during a residency in 2009/10.
With about 70 costumes, the dancers tell me as they throw on their jewellery for our photographer, it sounds like sheer entertainment.
“Oh, yes,” Lea says, “there are sad moments, such as when Pavlova dies, but it’s mostly tongue-in-cheek and it’s all totally accessible.”
“120 Birds”, The Street Theatre, May 19 and 29. Bookings to 6247 1223 or www.thestreet.org.au