This Is Acting: Sia Stuns With Theatrical Coachella Spectacle

(photos: Christopher Polk/Getty Images for Coachella)

Superstar DJ Calvin Harris was supposedly the Sunday headliner at Indio, California’s Coachella music festival this past weekend, but his uninspired closing show on the main stage was a disappointment, really nothing different from anything you’d see at one of his Vegas weekend megaclub residencies. Instead, the day – and really, the entire festival – belonged to elusive and reclusive pop provocateur Sia, whose ambitious hour-long concert, which she co-directed with Daniel Askill, was one of the greatest moments in Coachella’s 17-year history.

Actually, to call Sia’s set a “concert” does it a massive injustice. This was theater, challenging the very notions of what a live festival experience can be. To borrow a phrase from Sia’s recently released sixth album, this was acting. This was performance art.

Sia herself appeared onstage looking like a living art installation, her signature bow-topped, two-toned bob wig curtaining her entire face as she posed atop a white cube in a billowing ruffled gown – a breakaway garment that then “gave birth” to a litter of contemporary dancers. And that was just during the first verse of opening number “Alive.” From that stunning moment onward, spectators knew they were not witnessing a typical Coachella show. Sia may have belted, “I’m still breathing,” but all concertgoers on the field were collectively holding their breath – in awe, in confusion, or a combination of the two.

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Each of Sia’s 13 songs Sunday night was a performance art piece unto itself, featuring avant choreography by Ryan Heffington, dramatically angst-y plotlines, and visuals that were much trippier than any of the screensaver-like video-screen graphics that would later run in loops during Harris’s DJ set.

Some of Sia’s video projections, in fact, starred her 2015 Grammys collaborator Kristen Wiig, actors Paul Dano and Gaby Hoffman, comic Tig Notaro, and astonishingly talented Sia muse/Dance Moms prodigy Maddie Ziegler (all wearing Sia wigs, of course) – their pre-taped skits impressively and impeccably synched with the professional dancers’ live routines taking place on the stage below. Even in a festival weekend that boasted surprise appearances by Kanye West, Kesha, AC/DC’s Angus Young, Lorde, Sam Smith, and three-fifths of N.W.A, these cameos stood out as incredibly special.

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Dano portrayed a miserable corporate drone stuck in customer-service purgatory during “Bird Set Free” and a couple between-song vignettes. Wiig, completely not in wacky comedienne mode, sobbed maniacally while sitting in a white suit on a metal chair, then interpretive-danced in a simulated rainstorm during “One Million Bullets.” Sia’s performance of Rihanna’s “Diamonds” (which Sia co-wrote) featured a virtual Notaro wearing bedazzled Michael Jackson gloves and staring in wonderment at light beams shooting from her palms. Ziegler, making a great case for her recent hiring as a So You Think You Can Dance judge, appeared in six astonishing musical numbers. Other striking moments included a dancer in an oversized David Byrne-circa-Stop Making Sense suit with claw-like epaulets, and an emotional fight routine between two mismatched-height performers wearing crude animal heads.

Amazingly, none of this upstaged Sia’s otherworldly vocals on soaring, stratospheric songs like “Chandelier,” “Big Girls Cry,” and David Guetta’s “Titanium,” despite the fact that she remained in the background – obscured by shadows, her wig, and her giant Hello Kitty hair-bow – throughout her set.

After that triumph, any other performance was bound to be a letdown, but Harris’s lazy set (which started 15 minutes late) consisted of just one missed opportunity after another. Never mind that his girlfriend Taylor Swift stayed put in the crowd and didn’t hop onstage for a hoped-for surprise love duet (if there was any time or place for them to make their live debut as a performing power couple, this would have been it); considering Harris’s many A-list collaborators over the years, the DJ could have pulled a Pharrell/Dr. Dre and filled his set with buzzy cameos (or even some holograms). But instead, Ellie Goulding (who actually played Coachella on Friday) was a no-show while he spun “I Need Your Love,” “Outside,” and “How Deep Is Your Love,” as was Florence Welch on “Sweet Nothing.” And a rumored HAIM appearance never materialized.

Big Sean did show up for “Open Wide” (and his own “I Don’t F— With You”), but that didn’t happen until halfway through Harris’s set, at which point much momentum was already lost. And yes, Rihanna did appear in the flesh to perform her smash hit “We Found Love” (which Harris wrote), but even that was underwhelming, since she pretty much half-sang over the canned track – plus this was really just a reprise of her “We Found Love” Calvin/Coachella cameo from 2012.

Harris’s set ended strongly enough with British singer John Newman coming out for “Blame,” but that couldn’t make up for Harris wasting most of his valuable stage time spinning obvious selections like Daft Punk’s “One More Time,” the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Heads Will Roll,” and Adele’s “Hello.”

Incidentally, the above-mentioned Taylor Swift garnered a lot of press this weekend just for attending Coachella with her squad and posting a few desert Instagrams of her new platinum ‘do, but Swift and Harris were not Coachella’s cutest couple this year. That honor belonged to gruff country troubadour Chris Stapleton and his singer-songwriter wife Morgane, whose sizable turnout of enthusiastic millennials proved that not everyone flocks to Coachella these days just for Harris-esque EDM. Backed by a minimalist (and obviously all-analog) band, the lovey-dovey Stapletons – quite possibly the Johnny and June of our time – charmed the crowd as they serenaded each other on “You Are My Sunshine” and “Tennessee Whiskey,” staring deeply into each other’s starry eyes. (“She’s the love of my life… Honey, I’m so in love with you,” Chris crooned, as the audience swooned.) Mr. Stapleton’s perfect sundown show at an otherwise rock-, dance-, and indie-centric festival was evidence of his rare wide-ranging appeal – but it’s likely that he and his missus will graduate from the intimate Gobi Tent to a larger stage when they pull double-duty and return to the same Empire Polo Field grounds in two weeks, for the country music Stagecoach festival.

Another highlight of Coachella weekend one’s final day was the early evening main stage set by the 1975, fronted by Swift’s once-rumored love interest, the charismatic and outlandish Matt Healy. Classy and wonderfully pretentious Brit gent that he is, Healy casually sipped red wine from a real glass goblet onstage throughout his Manchester band’s set of pastel-suited, saxophone-embellished funk-pop (think Scritti Politti, INXS, Go West… more 1985 than 1975), then got philosophical, lecturing privileged concertgoers about the festival’s “superficial atmosphere” on this, the kickoff date of the 1975’s U.S. tour. “We’re all free here, and a lot of people aren’t free,” he stated, “and if we’re gonna be free, let’s do it in honor of people who aren't… because I f—ing love it here [in America], but we are so f—ing lucky.”

Coachella returns to Indio next weekend for an encore, featuring the same lineup but probably including some new cameos and surprises. Will Sia be able to top herself? Will Calvin Harris benefit from a desert do-over? Watch this space.

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