Shanghai Mimi @ Sydney Festival

Wow. A highlight of SydFest 2019.

Borne out of Artistic Director Moira Finucane and Creative Producer Douglas Hunter’s respective journeys into the 1930s Shanghai jazz scene, Shanghai Mimi is a brilliant mix of acrobatics, song, dance and storytelling that I am more than grateful I got the chance to watch.

Taking on the vibe of a jazz club in Shanghai, with the Riverside stage (notably extended by a small catwalk-esque piece leading into the what would normally be the centre of the first few rows of the audience) sparsely lit by the red of traditional Chinese lanterns, slow jazz instrumentals being performed by a gold-jacket-clad quintet tucked downstage right, and Musical Director/Pianist John McAll’s calm announcement that ‘the club will open in 10 minutes’, there is something immediately soothing about the pre-show atmosphere. It’s exactly how we would want to experience this kind of thing had we been in Shanghai nearly 80 years ago – relaxed, comfortable, and with a glass of wine by our side.

And it is this relaxation, comfort, and alcohol which sustains us through the actual performance. Every sequence performed by the glamorously-dressed Qinghai Acrobatic Troupe (the number of which I lost count) is done with the detail, precision, and ease which would be expected of a world-class dance group. Their ability to blend traditional Asian props, movements, music and stories with the grace and sophistication only a dedicated regimen can achieve makes the 70-minute show fly by. It almost looks too easy as the actors suspend themselves in midair, twisting their bodies and using one another for balance. One could swear that they too could keep over a dozen hula hoops moving simultaneously over all parts of their body, whilst also collecting more thrown to them at the same time. The sheer brilliance and skill of this troupe adds a complex layer of meaning to the art of acrobatics I was once blind to, and something that an audience quickly attaches themselves to as well. Credit to Acrobatic Director Sun Hao and Choreographers Simon Abbe and Wu Baoyong.

No more is this complexity recognised than in the skill of the show’s singer Sophie Koh and dancer Ernest Ngolo. The former, draped in everything from a glittering gold dress to mink far too heavy for a Sydney summer’s night, slips into the audience’s expectations of her role so well that it’s odd when she reverts to an Australian accent during moments of dialogue (though not in a negative way). Her voice is one that is almost too perfect for this situation, the interplay between English and Chinese lyrics holding an equal amount of power over the multicultural audience. As one of the show’s unchanging features, the standard she sets herself is far met. The same is also true for Ngolo, a tall African man we see constantly throughout the show. Though with a more limited wardrobe, the lightness of his movements and ability to match the pace and tone of his voice to the backing music (which rarely stops) makes him an intriguing performer, often the centre of attention even when he likely shouldn’t be. His main feature in the show, sharing the harsh story of his upbringing, is one of the rare points where the dancing and acrobatic elements of the performance do not weigh up.

Ultimately, Shanghai Mimi is the full package. The consistency and unity of the band, the dancers, the acrobats, and the singer is something I haven’t seen in a performance before. As a gateway into the weird, wonderful worlds of jazz and acrobatics, as well as the stories and times that shape the lives of the people we see on stage, the only thing I regret is that I didn’t see it sooner.

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