The Mardi Gras Float and Community Performance during the 2021 Parade showcased a host of colourful people dressed as camp Australian flora, taking to the pitch at the Sydney Cricket Ground in a dazzling display.
The story of this performance, the concept behind it, the costumes and the people involved goes far deeper than just glitter and dance moves.
The talented Virginia Ferris was the curator of this year’s Mardi Gras Float and Community Performance. With her impressive list of titles, including performance director for Sydney Lunar Festival and head of choreography for Sydney Gay Games, Virginia was a natural fit. It was way back in 1992 when Virginia choreographed her first Mardi Gras Party Community Performance.
“The one thing I have always been allowed to do is shine as a choreographer for community shows both in the Parade but also at the Party," says Virginia. "Even back in the 1990s, other choreographers would get the big stars and professional dancers and I would always be given 200 people to make the magic work with community performers. This has been my life and I’ve loved every minute!"
When searching for inspiration for this year’s Mardi Gras Float, Virginia and the Mardi Gras team came across the 1995 Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Poster which featured people dressed as waratahs surrounded by Australian Flowers of many colours:
An idea sparked for Virginia: “I saw the rich diversity of Australian flowers, with their many beautiful shapes, sizes and colours, as an analogy for the diversity of our LGBTQI+ community.”
“Much like Australian flowers, we as a community bloom, we flourish, thrive and burst into colour.”
“This idea was also sparked during the Covid-19 pandemic, when lockdowns were the unfortunate norm. It was during this time that the term 'home grown' took on a deeper meaning for me and the Mardi Gras team. 'Home grown' became about celebrating all that is great about the country we live in and our local and loved LGBQTI+ community. Not only do these Australian native flowers grow in our homeland, but we as a nation have grown while at home, coming together to rise above the trials and tribulations of the last 12 months."
And so, the theme for the Mardi Gras Float and Community Performance, Bloom & Rise was born.
The theme allowed us to acknowledge the hardships of the past year and proclaim proudly that we will rise above it together as a community and bloom forward with colour, tenacity and fabulousness.
The cast comprised of seventy performers for Bloom & Rise, led by six stand-out performers - all legends within our community - dressed in colourful and outrageous Australian native flower costumes, with each costume representing a different colour of the rainbow flag.
YELLOW – WATTLE modelled by Peta Friend – Founder of Trans Pride Australia
“Peta Friend is our Trans champion as Ms Wattle. Always gorgeous, inside and out, Peta was a wonderful person to lead our young upcoming performers in this group” - Virginia Ferris
ORANGE – BOTTLEBRUSH modelled by Ramon Doringo – Iconic Sydney Choreographer and Teacher, Sydney Dance Company
“The fabulous Ramon Doringo took time out of his busy schedule to perform for us - he has been performing and choreographing for Mardi Gras for many, many years and our cast were in awe of him leading the Bottlebrush group.” - Virginia Ferris
RED – PROTEA modelled by Coco Jumbo – Sydney Drag Queen
“Coco Jumbo - legendary Drag Queen say no more! She was able to fit in our show between the Drag Race Down Under Filming - a true legend.” - Virginia Ferris
GREEN – GRASSTREE modelled by Mademoiselle Coco (Andrew Wilshire), Deaf Drag artist supported by Deaf Services and The Deaf Society.
“Andrew Wiltshire was not only one of our fierce leaders as a Grasstree but he worked tirelessly to translate our show into Auslan and teach the cast to sign the last chorus that featured a cohort of Queer Deaf community performers.” - Virginia Ferris
BLUE – BANKSIA SEED modelled by Mitch Westwood, Community and Lead Float Performer Representing queer youth and gender fluidity.
“Mitch Westwood, our youngest gender fluid leader is someone who been performing in Mardi Gras community shows for the past few years and continues to shine as one of our upcoming stars as the Banksia man. He was so dedicated to the role and travelled from Wollongong for every rehearsal” - Virginia Ferris
PURPLE – KANGAROO PAW modelled by Jude Bowler, Lesbian Artist, Performer, Boxer and Mardi Gras Icon.
“Jude Bowler introduced me to my first Mardi Gras as a choreographer back in 1992. That year I choreographed her in both the Mardi Girls group and also for Sleaze Ball when she was Jane of the Jungle and slid down a rope (unharnessed) from about three stories high! She was as fearless then as she was as the leader of our Kangaroo Paw group.” - Virginia Ferris
Virginia and the Mardi Gras Team’s vision was brought to life by our incredibly talented workshop team, led by our Head Costume Designer Leah Benson who took the concept and translated it into the magical creations you saw on Parade night.
“I think every person is a unique flower and we all bloom in our own way.”- Leah Benson
It was also on our clever Workshop Production Manager Liz Carter and her team of structural engineers to realise Leah’s designs, then build the structural elements and add lighting for each to ensure they sparkled on the night.
"Just about every set of hands in the workshop have worked on this float. It’s been a real collaborative effort and a labour of love." - Liz Carter
Mardi Gras was one of the first organisations to include Auslan interpreters at its events, so it was important we continued to shine the spotlight on the Deaf community in a meaningful way.
After casting Deaf Drag artist Andrew Wilshire performing as Mademoiselle Coco and as the Grasstree lead character, we reached out to The Deaf Society and Deaf Services’ executive manager for advocacy and strategic partnerships, Leonie Jackson, to help cast the eight supporting dancer roles from members of the Deaf community.
Leonie Jackson has been a trailblazer within the Deaf Community for many years and she was very excited to be involved in helping program Bloom & Rise.
Leonie was also a champion of the LGBTQI+ community. Her friends, married couple Alex Jones and Paul Harrison, were the co-parents to her young children and they all raised the kids beautifully together.
Tragically, a day after celebrating her 50th birthday in January this year, Leonie died saving her child from a rip while swimming. Leonie was a hero in many ways.
A lover of flowers, Leonie was a person with a big heart, and a champion of diversity and equality.
We decided then that this performance would be in tribute to Leonie.
“Leonie’s beautiful child Tobian performed in the show as a glorious Grasstree, and Tobian’s Dad Alex also performed to honour Leonie. Alex’s husband and other child Byron were in the audience along with Tobian’s grandmother proudly looking on. We were so humbled to be able to honour Leonie in this special way.” - Virginia Ferris
At the conclusion of the performance, the screens around the SCG lit up with a picture of Leonie’s smiling face as we celebrated a woman who lived her life with love for others.
A song called ‘Flowers’ played, and the performers all signed the chorus in a poignant tribute to Leonie.
“I’ll give you flowers
In the pouring rain.
Living without you
Is driving me insane.
I’ll bring you flowers.
They’ll make your day.
I’ll take your tears.
And wash them all away, away.”
Lyric Credit: Flowers by Nathan Dawe.
Bloom & Rise was a performance about overcoming adversity and rising up. It was a celebration of life and a message of hope. Whether you knew Leonie or not, this performance on Parade night was a fitting tribute for such a beloved person who did so much for the community and those around her.
To the many other people involved, from costume designers, dancers and music producers, thank you for all you did to create this special moment at this truly one-in-a-lifetime Parade.
A massive thank you to Lisa Martin who was the Mardi Gras Producer of Bloom & Rise and worked closely with Virginia to bring the concept to life. Always with others at the front of mind, she worked passionately and tirelessly to ensure the cast and creative team were energized and excited to be part of this experience - even during the most uncertain and challenging moments that came with the pandemic.
A special thank you to Peewee Ferris, also known as Pipi Le Oui, the music producer and mix master for Bloom & Rise. Much like Virginia, Peewee has supported the Mardi Gras Parade and Party for many organisations and groups over the years.
A final special thank you to Ken Arthur who donated his time and resources in directing and editing the flawless videos that were shared on our social media pages in the lead up to the Parade, and were played on the screens at the SGC during the Pre-Show. Make Up For Ever also generously supplied makeup and makeup artists for the video shoot.
Choreography: Creative Curator & Choreographer, Virginia Ferris; Assistant Choreographer, Christine Gillet
Producer: Lisa Martin
Music: Pee Wee Ferris (Pipi Le Oui)
Workshop Team: Liz Carter, Leah Benson, Tiffany Porto + the workshop team
Pre-show video; Director & Editor: Ken Arthur; Makeup: Make Up For Ever, Karyssa Leigh, Andrea Damyon, Susan Lilian; Talent: Manuel Nascimento, Ashley Simmons, Mitch Westwood, Zaylee Brown, Jude Bowler, Peta Friend, Daniel Pryse (Dammit Janet); Soundtrack: Peewee Ferris; Voiceover: Ellen Rose; Hair: Vicky Lawton, Ken Arthur; Mardi Gras Creatives: Virginia Ferris, Lisa Martin; Production: Adrian Saville, Matt Fowler
Makeup: Martin Bray & Make Up For Ever Auslan Interpreters: Celeste O’Hara, Della Goswell, Jenny Heasman, Natt Kull, Karalyn Church
And the fabulous cast of the Community Show!