Queer Cabaret Star Mama Alto Joins The Ranks Of Drag Icon Taylor Mac's Dandy Minions

27 September 2017 | 11:06 am | Mama Alto

"We are here in service to the Spirit of Dandy, in the belief that art and truth can heal."

Taylor Mac

Taylor Mac

Queer is not just an identity, it's a verb. Taylor Mac, performance artist, LGBTIQA+ icon and activist, lives and breathes queering as a verb: as an action, as a process, and as a subversion. Mac's very choice of pronoun - not he, not she, not they, but judy - indicates the camp self-awareness and subversive undermining of social constrictions lying at the heart of the queering process.

To queer something is to radically reinterpret existing materials, to shift the focal gaze, to measure by a different framework, to view through a different lens. It rejects the dominant, mainstream, normalised and supposedly objective understanding of the world and approaches it instead through self-aware subjectivity, from the margins into the centre, from the grassroots upwards, and with a freedom born of pluralities and multiple layers of meaning and connotation. And judy's magnum opus, the 24-Decade History Of Popular Music, does precisely that.

Acknowledging explicitly that popular culture, music, and indeed, Western society itself, has been built by and from the margins, Mac puts those margins back into the centre of a historical record which too often erases, silences or ignores them. Sexuality, race, gender, class and more collide with the myth of the mainstream through the vehicle of an archive of popular song transformed and reinterpreted in a "radical faerie realness ritual." It is not so much the re-writing of history as the revelation of elements that have been there, hidden, all along. 

The ritual element is partly tied to the extravagant costumes, the flamboyant reimagining of songs, and the nature of a collective and participatory audience experience, but one of the keys to the success of this work is its durational nature. Twenty-four decades are re-enacted and re-envisioned over 24 hours, in a unique, marathon experience of sustained communal focus. While the performance is now divided into four chapters of six hours, performed on separate days, as it will be in Melbourne, it has been staged once in a single continuous, non-stop, delirious day and night. But even in its four-part form, such an epic work of temporal and visual excess is a transformative and ecstatic experience. 

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For that very reason, many critics have compared Mac's 24-Decades to Wagnerian opera, anointing it as "a Ring Cycle for the 21st century." And the comparison is pertinent not only for the piece's epic form but also for its mythological nature. Mac puts forth a fabulous, maximalist and expansive vision of divine queerness: a reverent and holy reliquary that bestows sainthood upon the marginalised of society and history. In this alternative understanding of our world and culture, judy allows queer people to rise to recognition as the central divinities and creative forces of our own mythical beginnings - no longer the minor roles in a history of white heterosexual men.

Taylor Mac On Taylor Mac

"A 24-Decade History of Popular Music was performed in its entirety for the first time last October,  but just because it premiered doesn’t mean it’s finished. In 
fact, each time we do it, it is a workshop, premiere, and small part of a long run. At its core, it’s about commitment to the long haul. It’s about “the arch of the moral universe bending towards justice” rather than arriving at it; it’s about how communities are the ones who bend the moral universe towards justice; and about how we transform the thing that tears us apart into the thing that brings us together. 

We are trained to believe the long game produces results for the individual.  Children are taught this so they stay in school.  Workers are taught this so they build their pensions or retirement funds.  We are told markets work this way, relationships, political strategies, and muscle memory.  And these lessons have been proven to work.  Sometimes.  Recently we have seen a macrocosm example of how this strategy failed, in Hillary Clinton’s presidential ambitions.  She played the long game.  But she failed at winning the presidency.  The long game is a game that individuals loose for various reasons but primarily because their lifespan is not long enough (if Hillary had another hundred years in her, you could imagine more runs for the presidency that would ultimately result in a win).   Where individuals fail though, communities and movements may succeed as evident in how the arch of the moral universe is bending towards its justice.  Even more important, it’s an ironic game that communities and movements may play to help them transcend the game:  to get them out of the competition paradigm and into an act of commitment.  A commitment to bending towards rather than arriving at.    

A 24-Decade History Of Popular Music is a reenactment of how the individual may lose the long game but communities and movements, if continually brought together, have the potential to thrive. One thing I like to say during the shows is that, “I’m not a teacher.” I assume most people know at least as much as I do about most of the things I’m talking about, if not more. My job is to be a reminder. I’m reminding the audience of the things they’ve forgotten, dismissed, or buried (or that other’s have buried for them). It seems to me, in this time of obstacle, of political cynicism, amnesia, polarisation, oppression, and upheaval that we are in desperate need for a physical, emotional, sensorial, and intellectual reminder that we can use the obstacles to strengthen our bonds and communal actions."

Thematically that's certainly true, and these values are embedded in the very fabric of the performance. While Taylor Mac is very much the auteur of this work, judy is not presenting a one-person show: 24-Decades features a cast of over a hundred. The core members of Mac's sublime orchestra, the central figures of judy's supporting cast, and the costume team headed by the iconic Machine Dazzle, travel with Taylor from the United States. The rest of the performers are magnificent locals sourced through an artist call and extensive word-of-mouth endeavour by the Melbourne Festival and 24-Decades teams. The Melbournian contingent includes a spectacular menagerie of burlesque dancers, marching bands, choral singers, classical musicians, and a crew of multidisciplinary performance artists who fulfil the role of Dandy Minions.

And that's where I come in. The Melbourne coterie of Dandy Minions includes some of our underground stars of cabaret, circus, burlesque, and drag, including the smoky Agent Cleave, the subversive Creatrix Tiara, the raucous Dandrogyny, Australian drag icon Karen from Finance, and the stars of Yummy - including James Welsby, Beni Lola and Rolly - among many others.

What, you might ask, is a Dandy Minion? In the words of Timothy White Eagle, a First Nations American who is the leader of Taylor Mac's merry cohort, "We are here in service to the Spirit of Dandy... in the belief that art and truth can heal." In their words, it is about being a bridge to the audience, about opening hearts, about twinkling eyes and the role of human connection within epic artworks. The Dandy Minions must "cast a spell" to celebrate difference, and create "a world where there is no gay shame, no slut shame, no gender shame, no colour shame... a world fuelled by love and individuality." 

What better message could the Melbourne Festival present in the midst of Australia's current ideologies-at-war climate, where the real lives of vulnerable people become the targets of a political shooting gallery? With the divisive and problematic postal survey on marriage equality allowing the amplification and spread of hateful rhetoric on the validity and dignity of queer people and LGBTIQA+ relationships, the inhumane and destructive incarceration of asylum seekers based purely on xenophobia, the growing class warfare of the political and wealthy elite against the working class and those requiring welfare or experiencing homelessness, alarming rates of domestic violence against women coupled with structural misogyny such as the disparity of a gendered wage gap, and the continued disempowerment of this country's Indigenous peoples, Australia in the early 21st century is often a place of complex discriminations, heartbreaking cruelty and perplexing sociopolitical conflicts. 

The dominance of white heteronormative patriarchal power structures, which positions itself as the "normal" and "natural", too often obscures, harms and disadvantages the diversity of this country - and the same can be said of the United States. Taylor Mac's 24-Decade History Of Popular Music was birthed as a response and challenge to these issues and this climate, an immediate and contemporary work with resounding and deep relevance. While we must be wary of too often transposing American-centric understandings of sociopolitical issues onto Australian contexts, within the Melbourne Festival's mission of bringing unique and groundbreaking international art to Australian audiences, it is fabulous to see such a brave political choice take centre stage: may the queering commence.

The Melbourne Festival presents Taylor Mac's A 24-Decade History Of Popular Music11, 13, 17 & 20 Oct at the Forum Theatre, The Inauguration, 5 Oct at Hamer Hall, and The Wrap, 22 Oct at the Forum Theatre.

Mama Alto is a gender transcendent diva, jazz singer, cabaret artiste and community activist; she features as one of the Dandy Minions in the Melbourne Festival and Pomegranate Arts presentation of Taylor Mac’s A 24-Decade History Of Popular Music.