Sons of Sissy upends folk traditions, in a show that's both funny and unsettling

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      A Simon Mayer production. At the Scotiabank Dance Centre on Friday, April 5. Continues on April 6

      Something unexpected happened at the opening of Sons of Sissy last night: the four European dancers here to riff on Austrian folk culture were invited to fly like eagles during a welcoming ceremony by Squamish Nation artist Bob Baker.

      What might have seemed odd and incongruous—a group of Tyrolean yodeller-schulplattler specialists taking part in a Coastal Indigenous rite—was in fact perfectly fitting. Austrian choreographer Simon Mayer’s complex, funny, and often unsettling work is all about societal and tribal ritual. And ultimately, it's a call to bring people, and cultures, together.

      After the brief ceremonial opening, the European fest hit began straightforwardly, with its male foursome performing Austrian folk songs, inflected by the rousing ululations of yodelling and the oompah beats of stamping feet. The multitalented artists played all the traditional instruments—fiddles, an accordion, and a standup bass, with a horn entering the mix later on. Alpine cowbells, hung surreally from the ceiling on a rope, also made a clanging appearance.

      But Mayer, who grew up in the Austrian countryside, soon began radically subverting the forms he grew up with. In one of the show’s most effective moments, the work spirals into something dark and hypnotic. Patric Redl circles the stage, emitting a constant, moanlike drone from his accordion, taking the work to another plane. Matteo Haitzmann whirls around in a skirt, its fabric flying up and around him like a saucer, another dancer stepping in to twirl him. The strict vocabulary of the folk dancing is there—a hand on a hip, the timekeeping knock of feet on floor—but some new kind of ritual is happening.

      The ideas become more upfront as the men strip down (and we're talking literally, as in right down to their birthday suits), pummelling their ever-reddening thighs with the schulplattler’s slapping rhythms, and adding a level of both absurdity and vulnerability to their partnering.

      At some points, of course, it is comical, the naked humans cavorting and weenie waggling. But the clever Mayer is challenging social norms on multiple fronts—not just the traditional male roles dictated by his homeland’s folk dances, but societal expectations of masculinity and strength, and larger urges toward fascism. (Mayer has talked about the way the Nazis used folk culture for their ends, and the rise of nationalism in Europe today. In an interview with the Straight, he also spoke about one of his dancer’s experiences of homophobic bullying growing up in the Austrian countryside.)

      This is subversive stuff. Quite intentionally, it pushes its dancers beyond exhaustion and its audience beyond its comfort zone. In its final, extended quarter, it’s cathartic and exhausting. The men find something primal and freeing late in the show, at moments a bit like naked toddlers running through a sprinkler.

      But the final imagery, of human beings, stripped to their essence, folded in a circular embrace and joined in quiet yodelling song, is deeply moving. Just as importantly, there's an argument to be made, if you're willing to take a chance on something bold and weird, that Sons of Sissy may be what the world needs to see right now.