How does an intensely private hitmaker — one whose songs of empowerment have made her a role model for millions of young women, yet who prefers not to reveal her face in public — stage an arena-sized performance?
Sia answered that question Thursday night at Target Center with a show at once intimate and distant, artistically daring and emotionally restricted. In many respects, the primary focus of attention was not the 40-year-old Australian native belting out choruses with anthemic flourishes. It was 14-year-old Maddie Ziegler and four older live dancers, whose performance-art choreography was abetted and often mimicked by others on a video screen, including famous actors Kristen Wiig and Paul Dano.
Music was deliberately not meant to be the vehicle by which concert-going fans of Sia acquired a deeper understanding of her personality or her muse. This was a “track show,” with no accompanying live musicians. Sia herself stood ramrod straight on a white soapbox throughout the crisply-paced, 15-song, 70-minute performance (plus one encore). She did not directly address the audience, other than to introduce the dancers and to say, “I love you. Keep on,” as the curtain dropped after the finale, “The Greatest.”
A wig with enormous bangs, black on one side, white on the other, covered everything above her mouth. This yin/yang color contrast and clever obscurity is the dominant motif on her most recent album, “This Is Acting,” and for this Nostalgia For the Future concert tour.
The size of the hall and the prerecorded instrumental backing necessitated that Sia mostly hew to emblazoning the grandiose hooks and emotive gusts that have made the songs she performed hits for Rihanna (“Diamonds”) and David Guetta (“Titanium”), and tracks punctuating the climax of television shows (“Breathe Me”) and movies (“Elastic Heart”). She has the pipes to deliver these crescendos in a satisfying fashion — at least until she pruned back the drama on the playful “Cheap Thrills,” or turned to blues phrasing on “Soon We’ll Be Found” and let the audience know what it had been missing.
Fortunately, the dancers succeeded in their role of capturing our attention and filling in some of the emotional voids. The clear-cut star was Ziegler, obviously Sia’s alter ego, who first appeared in the video for “Chandelier,” the tale of revelry and vulnerability that announced Sia’s return to music after fame and ill health had driven her to depression and near-suicide.
From the opening number, “Alive,” Ziegler was a riveting whirlwind, contorting her appendages and facial expressions with equal aplomb, topped by forward flips (cartwheels without a hand touching the ground). She similarly dominated “Elastic Heart,” acting out a dysfunctional relationship against a backdrop of jail-cell bars, and, of course, “Chandelier,” the final song before the encore.
Other dancers (and their video doppelgängers) contributed to a subtheme of feeling besieged as the songs played out. There was a bureaucrat in a suit beside a constantly ringing phone at a table; a person with monster claws draped on his shoulders, literally weighing him down; and animals as well as humans locked in love/hate overreactions.
The choreography, by Ryan Heffington, who has helmed most of her recent videos, takes place among dancers in skits restricted to a plain white platform that covers less than a third of the overall stage space, with minimal props. One yearns to see it in a more consonant intimate venue, which would also lend itself to Sia exercising the subtleties in her vocals displayed on her records. But alas, this private performer remains a commercial smash, and we are all left to finesse the consequences.
The concert opener, Miguel, is a brazenly sensual and sexy showman of mixed race parentage who favors a robust mix of nasty funk and powerhouse rock. If that sounds familiar, Miguel connected the dots by noting that his appearance “is my first time back since Prince passed. I think it is kind of obvious he was an inspiration.” Spirited sass like “Arch and Point” paid his debt forward.
Britt Robson is a Twin Cities-based writer. On Twitter: @brittrobson