Pic: Dian McLeod

Dance, Festivals

Token Armies review (Melbourne International Arts Festival)

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Chunky Move’s freshly appointed artistic director Antony Hamilton has created a piece of contemporary art with Token Armies that’s fit for an era where both technological and ecological infiltration threaten to consume our curated sense of security. 

The Melbourne-based contemporary dance company’s latest endeavour runs at an hour and 25 minutes, a mammoth project that sets the scene for what’s to come from the new choreographer at the helm of the company.

The radical performance is genre-defying and more akin to a piece of performance art than contemporary dance. The quasi-installation, quasi-immersive piece features 23 dancers, robots and an assortment of animals, all moving in synergy within Melbourne’s Meat Market venue.

Upon entry, the audience is told they are part of the performance and asked to cloak their belongings, before clothing themselves in sleek, black trench-coats, adorned with the Token Armies logo.

As the audience slowly trickles into the cavernous warehouse space, the show has already begun. Performers are moving in various fashions throughout the centre of the space, on a continuous loop. They are sheathed in black military attire — complete with face masks, caps and gloves, with highlights of fluorescent orange (courtesy of costume designer Paula Levis).

Some carry black flags; others are pulled on wheeled metal frames. Two performers are strapped into animatronic puppets. Not that you can tell, the design is so seamless it feels like a piece of artificial intelligence moving of its own accord.

Naked flesh is a stark contrast to the dark rigidity of the now-bygone machine world.

Meanwhile, it’s hard to ignore the large cubic shape, sending out oceanic soundwaves and floating ominously. The technological props are designed by Creature Technology Co. and traverse the space as if they are the kin to their human counterparts, human and machine moving together in a mechanical routine.

Simultaneously, a sleek black horse (yes, a live horse), an equally shiny black dog and a large eagle perched on a performer’s arm all manoeuvre throughout the hazy environment, according to their human-counterparts’ commands.

This opening segment is drawn out – perhaps a little too much for comfort – and the guerrilla aesthetic and collective militant movement offers little ‘dance’. However, if the back-catalogue of recent Chunky Move performances is anything to go by, as a category, dance is ambiguous; it is the calculated, precise and purposeful movements that constitute these performances. Each performer must be at a certain point at an exact moment for the piece to work – bodies and objects constantly attaching and detaching from one another.

In the first half, there are two instances of what one could call ‘traditional’ dance sequences, both of which attract the audience’s gaze. Most notably, a stringent duet combines hard, firm movements of limbs with hip-hop inspired flips, bends and squats.

Leashes, whistles and ropes are used to tame both individual and machine. This comes to a head when one animatronic is overthrown by force – an indication of human-nature’s engrained desire for control and superiority, be it towards nature or technology.

The second half of the performance sees a shift from the automated to the sentient, when objects and animals are cast aside, and the performers strip down to their underwear and bare flesh. The atmosphere in the space shifts. Dancers embrace tenderly, moving with an innocence and freedom that was earlier denied, as though we have transcended from Star Wars to Midsommar. Flowersare flung across the space as dancer’s in pairs carry one another up-and-down the hall.

Naked flesh is a stark contrast to the dark rigidity of the now-bygone machine world. The juxtaposition is important, it is a reminder of a contemporary battle we are yet to face, between the natural and the created.

Token Armies is ambitious; yet Hamilton and the Chunky Move team have managed to create a dystopian world where three contrasting environments – humankind, animal kingdom and machine – move with both disparity and unison.

Token Armies plays the Meat Market as part of the Melbourne International Arts Festival until October 20.

Tickets: $59 at festival.melbourne

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