It seems appropriate that this international cross-cultural Sydney Festival show had its origins in a Mumbai warehouse, where a trunk of 1930s Shanghai jazz master recordings were discovered by workmen preparing to demolish the EMI building. When Shanghai Mimi‘s creative producer Douglas Hunter heard a disc containing 22 of the original tracks, he saw an opportunity for a show that celebrated the genre known as Shanghai jazz, which married Chinese and Western cultures.
Shanghai jazz evolved during the seminal era in the late 1920s and ’30s, when Shanghai was a vibrant cultural melting pot of artists from New York, Berlin and Paris who flocked to the city’s clubs, creating a blend of American jazz and Chinese folk music.
When Finucane was asked to come on board as director she leapt at it. “I’m attracted to work that has its roots in a powerful history of art and culture and is unbridled in its passion, and that leads you straight to Shanghai jazz,” Finucane says. “In the ’30s, Shanghai was one of the biggest cities in the world – the Paris of the East, but also the New York of the West. I want to bring all those influences to Shanghai Mimi.”
Finucane’s connection with China was fostered by her grandfather, who fell for China’s charms after visiting in the 1970s and subsequently imbued his grandchildren with a curiosity for the country and its people.
In addition to her title as Australia’s original queen of burlesque and performer in shows such as Glory Box (inspired by a night in an avant-garde Chinese nightclub), Finucane has a respected following in China both as a performer (The Good Person of Szechuan, a Malthouse Theatre/National Theatre of China co-production) and director of shows including The Flood, an Australian drama first presented in Shanghai in English and subsequently restaged in Mandarin.
“There are so many elements of Chinese culture I find fascinating and you can’t just speak of one culture, you have to speak of many,” says Finucane, who is working on a new production of the opera Medea for 2020, incorporating a Peking opera company and an “Indigenous superstar in Australia”.
In preparation for casting Shanghai Mimi, Hunter and Finucane visited various acrobatics troupes in China but the Qinghai group won her over immediately. “They’re a family-style troupe who’ve worked and trained together since they were seven. They have awesome skills and their personalities were leaping from the floor.” This will be their first time working with a non-Chinese director and first time visiting Australia.
For her part, Finucane has spent months reading, visiting jazz clubs and museums, even being treated to a tour of the city by a third-generation Shanghainese family whose knowledge of the ’30s scene proved crucial. “I’m still learning and no doubt will be right up until opening.”
A far cry from traditional circus or acrobatics, Shanghai Mimi is a non-narrative show set during a pivotal moment of change in 1930s Shanghai, but fused with contemporary Chinese acrobatics, 21st-century fashion and dance performed to a live eclectic score inspired by the Mumbai recordings alongside electro-swing, Latin and tango. Think the classic diabolo act performed by women in fitted qipaos and bespoke shoes, or the 2000-year-old Han dynasty jar-juggling act accompanied by ragtime. “It’s not circus as you know it,” Finucane enthuses.
Nor is it performed in a conventional theatre setting. Audiences will be welcomed into the world of a Shanghainese club where a big celebration is about to take place. Banks of seats have been replaced with cabaret tables, a catwalk extends into the stalls and aerial work will take place above, while the stage extends out over the orchestra pit and hundreds of beautiful Chinese lanterns will give the space a warm glow. “I love creating worlds for audiences. You’ll be immersed in this incredible club, so dress up!”
In fact the show embodies Finucane’s nirvana. “Shanghai Mimi is the world I want to live in. It’s not just looking backwards, but forwards as well. It’s the kind of world we want, full of people and styles and curiosity, the extraordinary, the exquisite, artforms clashing and mashing, a celebration of the beauty and wildness of humanity.”
NEED TO KNOW
Shanghai Mimi is on at Riverside Theatres Parramatta, January 10 to 20.
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