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Leah Shelton, Terror Australis Leah Shelton, Terror Australis
photo Anthony Rex

Leah Shelton struts across the stage of her new “grindhouse cabaret,” Terror Australis, in hotpants, flourishing a bag of goon, while lipsynching to a mash-up of Ozploitation films. Her ripped Australian flag T-shirt flutters as she slides up and down the pole of a wonky Hills Hoist that spins slowly, its attached sheets providing a projection surface for an eerie Australian landscape of serial killers and car crashes, of dead animals and screaming women, of paranoia, sweat and stale alcohol. Welcome to what Shelton describes as the “fucked up outback Contiki Tour that hacks Australia to pieces…”

Shelton has had a stellar career in a sweet spot between cabaret, burlesque and performance art. Trained as a contemporary dancer, her most enduring collaboration is with the Samoan-Australian company Polytoxic and many of that company’s trademarks are in Terror Australis—supreme costuming, cheeky humour and pop culture-inspired choreography. But the show also holds Shelton’s obsession with film noir and schlock tropes and showcases a form she has made her own—where she performs to a screen—lipsynching, dancing, mincing and wringing every possible ironic and juxtapositional reference from the relationship between the mediatised image and her body.

Leah Shelton, Terror Australis Leah Shelton, Terror Australis
photo Anthony Rex

In Terror Australis the beautiful, polished noir body is replaced by the body politic of mainstream Australian culture and it gives the work a raw and guttural energy—a ripping political commentary about the brutality of masculine Australian popular culture. But this is no distant deconstruction. Shelton gives us permission to go with her into that violent heartland and to relish its performativity while witnessing its misogyny and excesses. The work comprises a string of short routines that morph with quick costume changes and are interspersed with short films that play with urban myth horror tropes (hitch-hiking, late night road accidents and road kill). As eerie as these films are at times they do feel a bit like placeholders for costume changes rather than intrinsic elements. Similarly, some of the routines, while enjoyable, do not quite feel like they are in the same world as Terror Australis. These include the burlesque legs-in-a-suitcase routine that took Shelton to Las Vegas and the dreamy pastiche re-enactment of Picnic at Hanging Rock that never steps from reconstruction into satire.

But the routines that feed directly into the central theme of Terror Australis are an extraordinary testament to the wit, intellect and performance energy of Shelton. These include the quivering kangaroo head in an evening gown sequence where we linger to watch her shot down and die on the road; the iconic 80s black togs of Linda Koslowski in Crocodile Dundee cleverly staged with a blow-up inflatable crocodile; and finally the goon-girl who clads herself in Australian paraphernalia. She leads us to the show-stopping finale, wielding a cock-strap that unfolds a string of Australian flag bunting and highlights the horror of a popular culture that mires itself in mediocrity and brutal nationalism.

Leah Shelton, Terror Australis Leah Shelton, Terror Australis
photo Anthony Rex


Terror Australis was the winner of the John Chataway Innovation Award, Adelaide Fringe 2016, and was a nominee for Performance Award, Melbourne Fringe 2016.

Terror Australis, creator, performer, designer Leah Shelton, conceptual collaborator Daniel Evans, sound design Kenneth Lyons, video design optikal bloc, original lighting design Jason Glenwright; Brisbane Powerhouse, 3-5 Nov

RealTime issue #135 Oct-Nov 2016 pg.

© Kathryn Kelly; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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