The Menagerie Variety Show

Fun and frolics on-stage at the Opera House

Practising our active bitch faces for serious dancing (2) - photo by Sarah JaneThe last time we were on-stage at the Opera House was for the DANZdance20 gig back in 2013 – so it’s been a while.

25 drummers and 10 dancers from Batucada took to the stage for The Menagerie Variety Show – invited as the “intermission entertainment” – and a brilliant time was had by all.

It was a long day – beginning with a stage walk-through at 3pm. It’s always reassuring to be able to experience the stage and plan how you’re going to get on and off before you do a big gig like this one – and producer extraordinaire Rachel Rouge and her team made sure that every one of the multiple acts in this fabulous Variety Show were able to do just that.

The Opera House is such a beautiful old building – a perfectly grand and decorative old-fashioned theatre – with a veritable rabbit warren of dressing rooms on multiple levels behind the scenes. When you reach the bottom of the many flights of stairs from your dressing room you step through the door from the light-filled stairwell into a dimly-lit and cavernous backstage area. It’s another world.

Ropes and pulleys for the various curtains and scrims are securely tied along the stage-edge railing that runs from front to back. Great black curtains hang in mid-air above you, disappearing into the gloom of the roof far above, and a set of smaller black side curtains – the wings – act as a cover so that performers can wait their turn at the edge of the stage without being seen by the audience. It’s a real, proper, just-like-in-the-movies theatre and backstage area – and I think we were all quite thrilled to be there.

At 5:30pm we all came together again for the official safety briefing, followed by a walk-through of the curtain call for the entire cast and a bit of a run-through of an item for the beginning of the show, which Rachel called The Raising of the Scrim. Always a good plan to practice those bits beforehand – including having four of us volunteer to fire the glitter cannon thingies at the end of the show. Woo!

The show began at 8:00pm, with The Raising of the Scrim taking place after the first act had done their bit. In this visual gag, the MC has introduced himself and is describing how happy we all are to be doing this gig in such a wonderful venue, and how professional we all are, and how of course nothing will go wrong because we’re all so professional…

As he’s speaking, the scrim (huge black floor to ceiling curtain at the back of the stage) “accidentally” begins to rise, revealing a bunch of performers in various states of pre-gig preparation (and various states of undress!) – all of whom slowly turn to stare, transfixed in shock, at the MC and the audience beyond. The scrim is quickly pulled back down, and the MC continues his intro. Shortly thereafter it rises again – revealing us all once more – and this time, Rachel and her helpers are unable to pull it back down again.

Rehearsing the raising of the scrim - photo by Epu TararoThe scrim inexorably rises up into the cavernous darkness above us, taking with it one of the performers who is hanging on for dear life to the bottom hem of the curtain. As we watch in horror, he disappears up into the gloom, as the curtain at the front of the stage quickly comes down to hide us all. The audience hears a CRASH as he (presumably) lets go of the scrim and falls back down to earth.

It was pretty cool to be behind the scrim and to be able to see the hidden trapeze with wrist loops that our hapless performer was actually holding onto as he rose above the stage – and the large crash mat that his buddy threw himself onto with a CRASH once the front curtain had come down.

Having taken part, Vanessa and Lisa E probably know each other a little better than they did before, Nina and Gordo have demonstrated a leaning towards exhibitionism – and as for Nige, well, perhaps some things are best left unsaid. I may never recover 🙂

After the excitement of The Raising of the Scrim we had an hour or so to hang out in our two lovely big dressing rooms (with proper mirrors with light bulbs all the way round, and everything) before heading back down to the stage once more for OUR BIT.

You may find it odd that we were the official intermission entertainment. Personally, I reckon it’s very thoughtful of Rachel to provide such a thing for her audience – and from what we could see, the vast majority of the audience actually stayed where they were and watched us, rather than trotting off to the loo or the bar or both. Which was most gratifying.

We began with Timbalada, which is a great one to start off with when you’re playing from absolutely cold with no warm-up or pre-practice at all. Nice and funky, not too tricky to play, and great to dance to. The audience roared its appreciation at the end of the piece, which was pretty awesome to hear.

Performing Timbalada at The Menagerie. Video by Renata Grangeiro.

The dancers went off for a bit of a rest, and we moved into Chris’s samba – one of our more complex pieces. Halfway through, the dancers wove their way between the drummers to arrive at the front of the stage once more.

Performing Chris’s Samba at The Menagerie. Video by Renata Grangeiro.

Performing Chris’s Samba with the Funk Break at The Menagerie. Video by Renata Grangeiro.

We had planned for our final piece to be Merengue, which is always a crowd favourite. Our dancers danced, the drummers drummed, and it was all pretty awesome.

At the end of the piece, the audience cheered and applauded like mad once more – and from the side of the stage someone signalled “Carry on! Play another one!” Luckily we have more than a few pieces in our repertoire, and so Sambanui samba reggae was called.

It’s an interesting experience to be suddenly signalled with a piece you hadn’t planned on performing and hadn’t mentally prepared for. But fortunately, having played it so many times over the years – both in rehearsal and on-stage – we know this piece inside out, and instinctively our hands begin to move at the correct moment, even before our brains have had a chance to catch up.

Performing Sambanui Samba Reggae at The Menagerie. Video by Renata Grangeiro.

What a great gig – we had an awesome time, played for half an hour instead of the 20 minutes we were expecting, and it seemed as though the audience really enjoyed our set. Brilliant.

After we went off-stage, we had a further hour or so to wait until the final curtain call, which began with Wellington Batucada and finished with Rachel Rouge. Once the entire cast and crew had taken their bows and were assembled on-stage we did a mass Can-can dance – which was mainly notable for the fact that everyone appeared to be Can-can-ing in different directions at the same time. Much fun was had by all – and the four glitter cannons were set off without a hitch.

Doing the Can-can during the Curtain Call at The Menagerie. Video by Renata Grangeiro.

What a great day! Let’s do it all again next week!

Photo gallery

Photos by Alan Shuker, Alison Green, Amber Sturtz, Chris Boorman, Epu Tararo, Jane Comben, Roger Henderson, and Sarah Jane. Click on any thumbnail to see the larger version:

The Menagerie: An Olive Story

Never before had I witnessed the variety arts on such a fittingly magnificent scale. All around the country we do all that we can to transform small stages tucked away in bars into a semblance of the majesty a full stage theatre provides. It was an absolute delight to see these performers on the kind of stage they (and many others) deserve to showcase their skills. Though what a sight it would be to try and fit the Bandolier Masters or Wellington Batucada on the Fringe Bar stage.
Altearoa, 30 July 2018

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