On the cusp of mainstream fame, Sia Furler did something most artists would consider unthinkable: She chose to disappear. After the release of 2010’s We Are Born, she retired from performing and turned to songwriting, churning out hits for stars like Rihanna, Beyoncé, and Britney Spears. And when she finally reemerged with her own 2014 album 1000 Forms of Fear, she had a new visual identity that obscured her own.
The reclusive new version of Sia was more than just a marketing makeover: It was a means of survival stemming from her struggles with drug addiction and need for a more private life. So how does Sia perform a world tour, her first since 2010, and still remain private? She fills her stages and screens with constant, beautiful distractions.
At her Panorama Festival set this past weekend, the massive stage was empty except for a small white platform and backdrop, on which the bewigged Sia stood in the corner as different dancers came out to perform choreography with each song. A Maddie Ziegler-doppleganger performed center stage for songs like “Alive,” “Big Girls Cry,” and “Chandelier,” her manic movements zigzagging from childlike to monstrous. For Sia’s toned-down cover of her David Guetta collaboration “Titanium,” dancers wearing giant animal mascot heads fought and prodded one another with an oversize pink hammer.
Sia’s dances are choreographed by Ryan Heffington, the Los Angeles–based performer who’s also worked with Florence Welch, FKA twigs, and Arcade Fire. His dance work for Sia’s videos, from “Chandelier” to “Cheap Thrills,” thrives when you get a good close-up. His movements for the face alone are their own intricate routine, as his dancers stretch their mouths into forced smiles with their fingers, knocking on their skulls and pulling on their faces as if to communicate something urgent without using spoken language.
When you’re a quarter mile away from the stage at an outdoor festival, it means you’re watching the jumbotron screen the entire night. But rather than use Panorama’s stages for live-video coverage of the ongoing performance for faraway attendees, every number of Sia’s show had its own star-studded, prerecorded music video that mirrored what was happening onstage with other dancers. For her soulful rendition of “Diamonds,” the song Sia wrote for Rihanna, a video of comedian Tig Notaro in mirror-covered gloves lit up a darkened room like a disco ball. Kristen Wiig made a screaming, weeping cameo with a face-framing video for “One Million Bullets,” and Gaby Hoffmann, clad in cartoonishly large denim jeans, smashed her head into a series of glass panels for “Unstoppable.” Paul Dano dipped in and out as a distraught salesman, wriggling on the floor among feathers, in the video for “Bird Set Free.”
Sia is an artist who makes dark music about being a celebrity, for celebrities. All the tortured party-girl anthems, nasty relationship stories, and BFF-grade pep talks — that’s what you go for when you want to show the world you’re a pop star with real wounds. And the cameos within her live show felt like an extension of the ever-changing projection of what Sia’s work represents, rather than a grab for some high-profile faces.
Sia’s live show exaggerates and makes a performance of the emotional labor of being a pop artist. For the faces Sia doesn’t make, and the dancing she refuses to do, there are thousands of other movements and expressions being made in her voice with other people’s bodies. She and Heffington play puppeteer, using their stage-within-a-stage to play out not just the narratives of her songs but also the demands and freighted expectations of an audience that wishes to be entertained or moved. Heffington’s work makes the audience suddenly and keenly aware of the pop body as something expected to switch — to anger, to joy, to sexy, to sad — and Ziegler speedily shuffles through them like a deck of cards. Her twitchy wind-up doll routine on “Chandelier”’s final bow is haunting and effective.
There’s something vaudevillian about Heffington’s choreography, as the silent dancers and actors tap dance across tables in pressed tuxedos and gloves, making goofy faces and movements reminiscent of classic slapstick. Stagehands in workman’s jumpsuits frequently came out to move Sia across the stage or comb her bangs into place. The modest setup had an off-kilter air of elegance, but it played like a deliberate pose, Sia’s performers thrashing and crawling across the stage as she narrates. It was a show that owes a lot to Baby Jane’s delusions, with faces sweet one second and more sinister the next, bodies trained to entertain an adoring public sped off the rails. How often do we see Kristin Wiig cry like that? How often do we see a 13-year-old girl dance like that?
Sia Furler wants to be invisible, but instead she seems more visible than ever, the multiplicity of her work laid bare. If these songs didn’t fit Rihanna or Katy Perry, they’ll surely take something weirder: a new kind of Frankenstein pop star with a dozen genders, bodies, and twisted smiles.