Antony Hamilton, the freshly appointed Artistic Director of Chunky Move, has opened a radical new chapter for the company with his genre-defying work Token Armies. He leads the charge literally on horseback, unveiling a quasi-installation piece featuring 23 dancers, robots and an assortment of animals. It’s a bold offering, defined by intelligent choreographic systems and a strong visual language.
Chunky Move’s Token Armies. Photo © Dian McLeod
As the audience slowly filters into the cavernous hall of Melbourne’s Meat Market, the space is already alive. The performers, clad in antifa-inspired uniforms complete with face masks and caps (costumes by Paula Levis), move through the grey haze in a continuous anticlockwise direction. Some run with black flags, others march with a dog or an eagle, some glide along on wheeled frames.
Joining them on the giddying loop is a massive cubic, brain-like sculpture (designed by Creature Technology Co), which floats ominously above the activity, occasionally jolting like a slumbering beast disturbed. Smaller animatronic puppets traverse the space as offspring, walking clunkily between the fauna.
The program note proposes a “bring[ing] together of varied lifeforms in a collective action”. The purpose of the collective action is never clear, but that’s not the point. The guerrilla aesthetic belies a more ambiguous substance that tends to focus on the ecosystem these bodies – warm-blooded and not – create.
It’s a complex and self-propelling system of choreographed action, each choice political and calculated. Bodies attach and detach to each other and various objects in repetitive sequences, like a visitor finding a symbiotic host before reasserting autonomy. Some dancers (most outstandingly Jack Riley and Amber McCartney) splinter off into tightly choreographed duets that combine hard, punctuated arm lines with Hamilton’s b-boy-inspired snatches, flips and low-hanging squats.
All the while, the group continues to advance in the same circular direction beneath undulating waves of white light. Bursts of sprinting pierce the harmony like warning shots, hinting at something more urgent up ahead. It’s clear the performers are readying themselves for something – if only the future.
Cooperation also implies conflict. Whistles and leashes are used to control and tame both the animals and machines. Our primacy as humans is sharply revealed, as we witness our familiar and unquestioned authority over other creatures. In a powerful moment, a violent automaton is wrangled and ultimately defeated by the group, lest it overtake us in the natural order.
Here, Hamilton is challenging humans’ assumed superiority and questioning our interdependence with both sentient and technological beings. It’s an ambitious topic, and the work doesn’t quite manage to crack it. The handful of animals are presented in their domestic setting (a leashed dog, a bridled horse, etc.) and their use (and, critically, our paid spectatorship of them) seems to undercut any democratisation of the animal kingdom.
The impossibility of that task is accepted in the second half of the work, when the performers strip down to their underwear and bare flesh. With the objects and animals cast aside, the dancers embrace tenderly, dance a peculiar folkish phrase and run wildly through the hall. Here, the electronic score (by Aviva Endean), which is perfectly restrained throughout, helps elevate the work into another dimension with its sampling of natural soundscapes and harmonised vocals.
Bare skin sits starkly against the remnants of the machine world we left only moments ago. The performers seem more than human; too human. There’s a familiar grace and beauty in these later scenes, but we yearn to return to the peculiarity of the former where cooperation out-valued identity. It’s a clever juxtaposition and invites even more questions about our relation to others, human and not.
Token Armies is an impressive feat in both ambition and execution. Hamilton and his creatives have managed to create a potent aesthetic that balances imagination with literality – perhaps drifting slightly towards the latter. The cast delivers a watertight performance and does well to seamlessly integrate the objects and animals into the choreography. Singular in vision, this is a work that needs to be seen to be appreciated.
Chunky Move’s Token Armies is at Melbourne’s Meat Market as part of the Melbourne International Arts Festival until October 20