‘Being part of that audience was electrifying’: Alison Croggon on Mama Alto and Maude Davey’s Gender Euphoria
“Trans” is, like a lot of the English language, stolen from Latin. A handy prefix, it means “across”, “beyond”, “through”, “surpassing”: we use it transcendently, translating our transgressions into transformations. Chemists use “trans” (and another Latin word, “cis”, meaning “on this side of” or “before”) to describe different arrangements of molecules. The chemically curious can read about cis and trans isomers on the Master Organic Chemistry page; but the tl;dr version is that chemically the Latin words each indicate “the same” or “the opposite”.
But enough of chemistry, which I introduced to point out that “cis” – in common usage these days as an abbreviation of “cis-gender” – is a word with a perfectly respectable etymology and not, as I have sometimes seen claimed, a random collection of letters that has been made up by politically correct gender whisperers to alienate women. Me, I’m a cis woman, which simply means that my embodied sex is the same as the sex to which I was assigned at birth, unlike a trans woman, who is “across” from her assigned sex.
Not only am I cis, I’m white and straight. So why was I crying my eyes out in Gender Euphoria, Mama Alto and Maude Davey’s show about transcending our binary gender world? Being trans is not my story, and it’s not my struggle; or at least, it’s neither of those things directly. But I wept, all the same.
Gender Euphoria premiered for a single night (I’m sure there will be other seasons) at Arts Centre Melbourne as part of the Midsumma Festival. In many it’s ways a simple show, the kind of cabaret/burlesque we know from Finucane and Smith’s burlesque series, in which Gender Euphoria co-creators Mama Alto and Maude Davey have both performed. Here they draw on the familiar format, presenting a slickly orchestrated series of acts from different artists, ranging from torch songs to dance to monologues to circus. It felt radically inclusive, and not only because Auslan interpretation was woven into the performance. It felt liberating.
It opens with Mama Alto’s account of being robocalled before the last election (“how certain are you that you will vote this way? Press one for ‘very certain’, two for…”). At the end of the call, the robot asked her to identify her gender, giving her two options, male and female. No option for people who fit neither. Mama Alto pressed six. “Please make a valid choice,” said the robot.
She started laughing. She couldn’t stop laughing. It was, she says, “gender euphoria”, the transformation of gender dysphoria into the purely human; a moment of recognition that reaches beyond the binaries that are forced upon us. A glimpse of liberation, and also the inspiration for the show, which features the most trans and non-binary performers ever featured on a main stage event in Australia.
The acts that followed all expressed aspects of variously embodied trans and non-binary experiences. Miss Bailee Rose, in a red sequin minidress and heels, a body that wasn’t “neither male nor female”, not an expression of lack, but herself, her own body. Fury in dressing gown and pyjamas, holding a cup of tea, discussing transcendence. Harvey Zeilinski in shorts and boxing gloves talking about possibility, how when he was at school he was told he was bad at maths and sports and so, because that was what he was told, he was bad at them; but now…he might even try maths.
A deeply moving double act from non-binary aerial performer Mahla Bird and poet Quinn Eades. A dance from Samoan fa’afafine woman Amao Leota Lu expressing the process of transformation, her hands fluid and exact, magical. Nevo Zisin, confessing that yes, the rumours are true: they are the gender whisperer. And they are here to tell you that you are beautiful.
The songs. The voice, says Meredith Monk, is a vehicle of meaning that doesn’t suffer from the burden of semantic meaning: it has its own meanings. And there was a quality in the performances that went far beyond words. Accompanied on piano by musical director Ned Dixon, Mama Alto and Mx Munro belted out classics, climaxing with a chorus performance of Anohni’s You Are My Sister with Miss Bailee Rose and Ned Dixon that was rawly powerful: perfectly imperfect, passionate and joyous, a moment of being complexly, beautifully human.
Being part of that audience was electrifying: the bond between the performers and their audience was palpable, an almost visible shimmer of energy. Every act felt saturated with meaning: the show’s formal simplicity and directness created a fullness of emotional affect that’s hard to describe. It was full in a way that a lot of conventional performance, no matter how dressed to the nines in money and spectacle, is empty: every performer was fully present, wholly alive and generous, giving everything they had. Flying beyond the binaries that mutilate us all.
Gender Euphoria, co-created by Mama Alto and Maude Davey, directed by Maude Davey, musical director Ned Dixon. Performed by Amao Leota Lu, Miss Bailee Rose, Fury, Harvey Zeilinski, Mahla Bird, Mama Alto, Mx Munro, Ned Dixon, Nevo Zisin and Quinn Eades. Fairfax Studio, Arts Centre Melbourne, as part of Midsumma Festival.