Northcote Town Hall, 3 October
It is hard to know where to start when reflecting on Fire Monkey, a dance collaboration between local Victoria Chiu and Singaporean Angela Liong, artistic director of Arts Fission. But this is far from being a bad thing. Instead it speaks to the layers of richness offered by the work. As a whole, as well as in its individual components, there are threads of dance, culture, ritual and music, choreographed into a vast and ambitious fabric that can be appreciated from (literally) any angle.
Created for an ensemble of ten, the work is non-linear, allowing for dramatic dance sections to be highlighted while other more subtle episodes seem to evolve on the periphery of our vision. The performance embraces the wonderful late Victorian era Northcote Town Hall making it feel very site-specific. In the foyer, dancers climb a flight of stairs, guided from below and hand in hand with one another. When the climber reaches a height where the connection will inevitably break, the partner below is tugged into a momentary suspension. As they crumple to the ground, their opposite half is already waiting to soften the landing. Motifs of co-operation and mutual support, conflict and power dynamics follow.
In the main hall, dancers process in lines. Broken for the most part into two distinct camps or tribes, the ten dancers lay claim to territory, enact incursions, or ritualised rapprochement. The delineated groups are made up of four local and six Singaporean dancers. They merge with the built environment or turn it over to their own use. Fire Monkey forms a grand choreographic architecture.
Dancers are joined by musicians, playing live, who follow the action, often focusing on incendiary moments and acting to fan the flame of discrete elements of the work. The audience is invited to move freely, to appreciate the multiple perspectives that Fire Monkey has to offer.
The symbolism of Fire Monkey is taken from the Chinese lunar year of the monkey, which in 2016 was a galvanising moment for world-changing events on the global political stage. Chiu speaks passionately of Trump’s ascent to power, refugee crises and acts of racism and sexism. She is approaching these themes very much from her Chinese-Australian heritage, a direction she first took in her remarkable 2015 collaboration with Kristina Chan Do you Speak Chinese? The intricate and highly original movement vocabulary is pushed in a different direction here and it is one that is compelling and truly fresh. The dance language is difficult to categorise, creating as it does so much that feels new.
A sampling of the various sections of Fire Monkey sees cliques being challenged, dominant characters exerting control and individuals joining forces in acts of diplomacy and co-operation. Fire is emblematic. Two sequences represent flame as long banners of hot colour. A trio of dancers occupies one end of the flame, gently articulating a traditional Eastern dance sequence. Others run alongside the flame, diving and sliding on their stomachs. A menacing power-figure wielding a folded parasol tight-ropes his way along a vivid yellow banner – his idiosyncratic movements convey threat overlaid with mania.
Later, dancers wrap and drape themselves around the edges of the stage, elevated and growing into and out of the architecture. In a final, wonderful episode, curtains and roller door are opened to reveal a new brightly lit outer world in the courtyard of the Town Hall. From here we see the power figure encased in an illuminated upper room, looming comically, whether still in control or having lost his potency is uncertain. There is a wall projection, a structure of waving streamers and the dancers and musicians continuing their journey. This section is particularly celebratory.
Attention to detail in Fire Monkey is exemplary. Lighting changes from muted and atmospheric in the main hall to bright and sharp in the dark outside night. Costuming is subtle, becoming more particularised as the work progresses. For a 50 minute work, there is a huge amount packed into Fire Monkey and all of it was enjoyable.
- SUSAN BENDALL
Photos: Gregory Lorenzutti