Stephen A Russell talks to Melbourne’s favourite diva, Yana Alana.
It was during the Adelaide Fringe Festival, roughly three years into touring Yana Alana’s hugely successful Between The Cracks show, that performance artist Sarah Ward naked and daubed in blue body paint from head to toe, decided to do something completely different.
“I wanted to create a show that was almost the antithesis to Between The Cracks, which is about Yana’s struggle with her mental health and identity, coming to terms with the fact she’s like everybody else, and that’s hard for Yana, because she’s a bit narcissistic,” Ward laughs.
That was the genesis of her latest offering, Yana Alana Covered, which will debut at the Lithuanian Club during this year’s Melbourne Fringe Festival. Yana will be fully clothed this time round, singing other people’s songs in her own inimitable fashion. She’ll be joined on stage by Tha Paranas, Ward’s partner of nine years, percussionist Bec Matthews, and Between The Cracks pianist Louise Goh, who will also tackle electric guitar for the first time.
“It will remind the world that there are incredibly talented female musicians out there and they often don’t get booked because it’s a bit of a boys club in the music industry,” Ward says. “I’m grateful and inspired to have these extremely talented and generous women backing me.”
They’ll tackle songs with powerful stories, political messages or an element of performance art, including Shirley Bassey’s ‘I Who Have Nothing,’ and Nina Simone’s ‘Everyone’s Gone To The Moon,’ as well as tracks by Laurie Anderson, Kurt Cobain and Scout Niblett’s ‘Dinosaur Egg.’
“I saw Scout Niblett in San Francisco about four years ago now performing this song and it really is very strange,” Ward says. “I want to highlight Yana’s unease in herself and the world and her search for a sense of belonging. Scout did it with dirty electro and her voice, but this has piano, glockenspiel and cymbals, so it’s a very different instrumentation. It’s a bit more eerie and kooky, but also a little more internal.”
Matthews has been a huge support for Ward. “Last year I got really sick with cancer and she helped me through that, as well as being my collaborator, my inspiration and my everything. We’ve had a really amazing nine years together with big highs and lows.”
Yana had her origin at Bumpy’s infamous Drag King night at the then Star Hotel. She was a means for Ward to write cathartic poetry detailing her coming out and subsequent identity crisis. “I suffer with anxiety and at the time I was on medication, not a very well person,” she says. “It was really lovely to create this alter ego that was unapologetic, brash and rude; all the things that I wouldn’t let myself be.”
Debuting at the Melbourne Fringe Festival in 2007 with Bite Me, the follow up big band show In Concert scooped six Green Room Awards. Between The Cracks scored two more plus the 2014 Helpmann Award for Best Cabaret Performer. Despite this success, Ward still sees herself as a mid-career artist. Battling cancer was a setback that made her take stock of where she’s headed next.
“Fringe means you have to cut corners and make sacrifices, but at the same time there’s something really raw and pure about it,” Ward says. “But I’d like to be able to make this my career, and the only way to do that is to make sure you’re making money instead of always spending on your art.”
Arts Minister George Brandis’ recent gutting of Australia Council funding makes that prospect even harder. “I’m terrified about what it means for the culture of this country,” Ward says. “I’m not just concerned about my own needs. Art isn’t just pretty, it informs our culture. It’s a mirror that asks our society questions of themselves, and projects a better future. It shouldn’t just pacify. It should challenge. It’s really sad for the culture of this country that George will be deciding what art does.”
And what does Ward think Brandis would make of Yana? “I don’t think Brandis would like her very much at all. I think he’d find her quite frightening, but I know I’ve got a good character if George doesn’t like her.”