Antony Hamilton’s Token Armies is ambitious and challenging, but it ultimately leaves Georgia Mill wanting more
The Meat Market is long and vaultlike, its barrel ceiling glowing in a wash of cool, white light. Along the sides of the space are sculptures of cattle and sheep with thick rings in their noses, their heads protruding into the walkway as we enter. Built in the late 1800s, the market operated until the 1970s as a place for meat vendors to trade. The significance of the building’s past relationship with animals as a commodity isn’t lost in the context of this work.
Token Armies is the first creation by Antony Hamilton in his role as the Artistic Director of Chunky Move. Known for works which blend visual design with sound and movement, Hamilton’s connection with the company began as a dancer 17 years ago. He stepped into the role of artistic director and co-CEO with Kristy Ayre earlier this year.
Hamilton’s previous credits include resident director for Lucy Guerin Inc, guest dance curator at The National Gallery of Victoria and the inaugural International Resident Artist at Dancemakers, Toronto from 2016 to 2018. His latest work, Token Armies, is a large scale ensemble work featuring 23 dancers, including Hamilton himself.
Everything about the performance is ambitiously heightened, from the large sculptures that swing and breathe like living animals to the size of the cast – the largest in Chunky Move’s history. The work uses the entire main performance area at the Meat Market, with the audience positioned on either side, some standing, others sitting on large grey plinths or on the floor.
From the moment we enter there is a haze in the air and the sound of heavy footsteps. I gently tap my pocket to reassure myself that my asthma puffer is there: front of house staff have warned us of the presence of pollen and animal hair. My hand finds the hard cylindrical form, I’m ready.
A large black horse walks patiently along the length of the space. Its coat and mane shine under the uniform lighting (design by Bosco Shaw). On each of the horse’s feet are small leather shoes with metal studs. A rider cloaked in black, their face obscured, sits high above us. The horse joins a long march of bodies all in black, all with masks or hoods partially covering their faces. They move in a clockwise motion along all four sides of the stage.
Shadows are cast across the audience as the dark procession, filled with urgency and devoid of emotion, surges past. The performers’ gestures are static and abrupt. They work together, but there is an unquestionable solitude to the work. Paula Levis’ black costumes, embellished with touches of orange, are austere and distinct to each performer. They obscure the performers beneath, with minimal skin visible. We see bodies that move with purpose, like some kind of nomadic-military group.
We sit on a plinth on the edge of the stage. The performers rush past, some of them wheeling metal objects, others inside machines that look like something out of Star Wars – hybrid human-robot forms (impressively created by Creature Technology Co.). Others work together with a tarp, erecting it in multiple ways and then dismantling it again. There is a stress and hurried quality to their movement, a sense that they must be somewhere else. They look straight ahead with no acknowledgement of the audience.
Before we entered, we were told the work was participatory and given a black rain jacket, mask or hat to wear. The vast stage in front is daunting, but despite the expectation of participation, the boundary between audience and performer remains in place for the duration of the work. I find the most performative aspect of the costume to be the crisp rustle the jackets make when anyone in the audience moves. They add to the rolling soundscape (designed by Aviva Endean) with its low base notes, creaking footsteps and the occasional dog bark.
As each performer passes us they merge into one – you’re unsure if you’ve just seen a person or half a person inside a metal box. The repetition is relentless. My focus is constantly shifting around the room, aided by the lighting wash. The first time a performer walks past with an eagle perched on their arm I feel myself pull back instinctively. It’s huge.
We’re so rarely close to birds of prey that I half expect it to turn around and speak. Its long feet curl tightly around the glove of its handler and its arched beak rests within an inch of their lips. I stare into the space between their mouths as they pass – the hard, jagged beak trusting the soft rounded lips. The eagle wears a leather hood that covers its eyes with an ornamental tassel on top. I stare at the spot its eyes would be. It can’t see the pair of robotic legs swiftly walking past, or a performer being pulled along by an occy strap while lying on a trolley, or the large black dog that is taking a keen interest in it – one of the only ensemble members not to have its face partially obscured.
I find the presence of the animals challenging. The soundscape of the work is confronting at times and, despite the fact that they all appear highly trained and used to the noises, I am acutely aware of their presence amid the strobe lighting and waving flags. Hamilton notes that, “Humans and animals interact in countless ways, but we rarely credit other species as valued partners in the ‘success’ of humanity. This supposed idea of human primacy has advantages and disadvantages and is something I wanted to explore within the world of Token Armies.”
The work is quite a different piece when the animals are not on stage. I find it easier to engage with the dancers, since I’m not worrying about the emotional well being of the eagle, or that the sudden movements will spook the horse. The dependent relationship of domesticated animals weighs heavily on my mind. We breed them, house them, train them, eat them and put them in live dance performances. Horses, dogs, goats, chickens and many other species have all undergone huge transformations for thousands of years in order to perform tasks that benefit humans. This performance presents nihilistic visions of both the future and the past. I’m left contemplating where it is we’re going and what have we done to get there.
The work appears to be building up to conflict, but it never quite arrives. Much like the procession, we keep moving forward without reaching an endpoint. Token Armies undergoes several transitions, introducing more of the performers’ bodies and tighter ensemble work. These sequences have a beauty and softness to them, displaying the skill and strength of the dancers. There are small reprieves during this section of the work, moments of intimacy and co-dependency. The introduction of the flowers, that the performers lay at the feet of one of the machines, provide both a welcome injection of colour and of human ritual, as they are placed on the floor in a practice that mimics burial rituals. At one point the performers all move around the huge black object, which resembles the head of a whale or a dinosaur, to take shelter or rest. The connection between them and the machinery of the object is one of mutual benefit.
The size of the ensemble is both what makes the work impressive and at times hard to access. There are moments of delicacy and dialogue that I wanted to be closer to. But by the end of the work, I was left wanting more. In such a large ensemble, I wondered why there wasn’t more diversity in the bodies on stage.
An ambitious and visually stunning work, Token Armies asks us to question the boundaries between forms – between living being and object – and to push back against them. The work highlights the brutality of human history and our exploitation of the natural, but ends in a place that showcases the fragility of all forms.
Token Armies, concept, direction and choreography by Antony Hamilton. Sculpture and Wearable Sculpture Design & Fabrication by Creature Technology Co. Costume design by Paula Levis, lighting design by Bosco Shaw, sound design by Aviva Endean. Performed by Jade Dickinson, Alice Dixon, Joshua Faleatua, Christina Guieb, Antony Hamilton, Samuel Hammat, Mitchell Harvey, Melanie Lane, Cody Lavery, Phillip Leitch, Gregory Lorenzutti, Kathleen Lott, Tiana Lung, Talitha Maslin, Amber McCartney, Damian Meredith, Callum Mooney, Josh Mu, Jessie Oshodi, Jack Riley, Harrison Ritchie-Jones, Kyall Shanks and Michaela Tancheff. Presented by Chunky Move and Arts House in association with Creature Technology Co. in the Melbourne International Arts Festival, at The Meat Market until Sunday, October 20. Bookings
The Meat Market is wheelchair accessible.
Fully surtitled or minimal dialogue, some background music and/or sounds.
There is limited seating for this event.
Warnings: Contains nudity, haze, strobe lighting and flower pollen. Please note due to the nature of the work, there is limited seating for this event.