This site has limited support for your browser. We recommend switching to Edge, Chrome, Safari, or Firefox.

Animal Nature

From modern Latin, from the Greek words sumbiōsis, ‘a living together,’ sumbioun, ‘live together,’ and sumbios, ‘companion’ comes the word symbiosis, an interaction between two different organisms living in close physical association, typically to the advantage of both. In the dictionary, the very definition of a symbiotic relationship, why, it almost sounds like a pas de deux. A ‘step of two’ performed by dancers working together, dependent upon each other, with each other, in synchronicity, aware, at all times, of the other.


Stephanie Lake Company: “Replica”


Northcote Town Hall, Melbourne, Victoria, April 26, 2018


Gracia Haby

Christina Chan and Aymeric Bichon in Stephanie Lake's “Replica.” Photograph by Pippa Samaya

subscribe to the latest in dance

“Uncommonly intelligent, substantial coverage.”

Your weekly source for world-class dance reviews, interviews, articles, and more.

Already a paid subscriber? Login

In Stephanie Lake’s new work, “Replica,” Christina Chan and Aymeric Bichon embody this definition. From the outset, they are two different organisms mutually dependent upon the other, moving to the benefit of both, or so it seems. In the dark of the theatre in the Northcote Town Hall, as they stand before a strip of light on the floor, they are the bodily incarnation of mutualism. Bichon moves and Chan responds; Chan moves and Bichon responds. Two silhouettes in accord, making ‘a living together’ through togetherness. You scratch my back; I’ll scratch yours. You tap my left shoulder; I’ll tap yours. My arm draws a large circle in the air. My hand lands upon your head. With the tap, you begin to fall, but not before extending your arms forward and tapping at my abdomen. A push here, a poke there, no cause is without effect. We all fall down. Ring-a-ring o’ roses; a pocket full of posies; a-tishoo! A-tishoo! We all fall down; it’s human nature, after all.

Human nature, animal nature, it is one and the same, whether in the dictionary or the nursery rhyme; the slowest faces a penalty, the weakest in the herd is more at risk of falling prey to a predator. Best pair up with another; make a replica of their survival techniques through movement; and remember that if we all fall down, we can also all climb up. Take my hand; pull me up. In ecological rings, in biological terms, a symbiotic relationship between two or more species can be beneficial to all organisms involved (mutualism) or none (competition), and it can benefit one organism without affecting the others (commensalism) or help one while harming the others (parasitism). In “Replica,” Chan and Bichon, take turns trying on all four caps for size, from mutualism to parasitism, drawing for me the nature of things as the needle traces the groove and the lights shift from dark to light, warm to cool, red to blue. Lake’s choreography, Robin Fox’s sound composition, and Bosco Shaw’s lighting design all follow the same principle. Chan’s hand connects with a part of Bichon and the sound in symbiotic understanding changes. Bichon claps, the lighting alters in response. There is more than one relationship involved here.

In ecological rings, in biological terms, a symbiotic relationship between two or more species can be beneficial to all, or none.

Never settling in one state for too long, “Replica” is an African oxpecker[note]There are two species of oxpecker, the red-billed (Buphagus erythrorhynchus) and the yellow-billed (Buphagus africanus) found in the Serengeti. By day they feed on ticks and other parasites they glean off the bodies of large mammals, and by night the yellow-billed oxpecker even uses the mammal as a roost.[/note] upon the back of a zebra, a Cape buffalo, and a giraffe. Chan and Bichon take turns in being the tick-eating bird of mutualism upon the zebra’s back. With fast pecks with her left and right hands to Bichon’s torso, Chan could be alerting Bichon of danger ahead. With quick falling and precise movements suggestive of the oxpecker’s hissing scream, a hand for a beak, a movement for a sound, the warning is clear: Danger! Look lively!

But all is not as it seems, as is replicated in the choreography. Just as the friendly oxpecker is thought to be eating the ticks off the back of the zebra, it is also sucking the blood from the open tick-wound, and in doing so it is blurring the lines between mutualism and parasitism. Chan crouches over the supine Bichon and becomes every fibre and feather the vampire bird.

In true flexibility of animal nature, Chan then makes herself a sea anemone hitchhiking upon the back of Bichon’s hermit crab. The stage is now a seabed. Bichon actively recruits her as a passenger, and pokes her with his pincers. Chan, her whole body an anemone’s tentacle, is about his throat, as if in the process of reattachment to his shell. The crab might be carrying the anemone, but the anemone has barbed and venomous tentacles. Chan eats Bichon’s leftovers with her right tentacle while warding off enemies with her left.

Crocodiles have their teeth cleaned by Egyptian plovers, ants transport caterpillars to a place of refuge, and small animals drink from the rainwater that collects in the pools made by the footprints of elephant herds in beautiful symbiosis. To picture this is to picture “Replica,” in part. Conjure the image of a beak pecking at debris gathered between the sharp teeth of a crocodile with its jaw open as it rests on the bank. The jaws may snap shut. They may remain open. You’ll have to wait and see. Next, recall walking around a sporting oval lit at night. The oval is flooded in bright light and the players and their shadows are writ large. The grounds surrounding the oval fall into darkness. Contrast is set. The degree to which things can be revealed or hidden is sharp. Now, imagine a ship at sail. Let’s make it an old ship, with timbers that creak with every roll. Picture Chan, centre stage, in side splits, using her left foot to push her form to the right and then using her right foot to push her form to the left. Picture Bichon walking with his shoulders pulled up to his ears, with his forearms swinging, left, right, left, the effect and exaggerated triangular silhouette is almost cartoonish. Picture Chan and Bichon in unison, carving the same shapes from or into the background space. Picture them taking turns to silently draw sound from each other’s mouth like pulling imaginary toffee, marvelling at the sticky fluidity. Perhaps in the movements you’ll see a bee collecting perfume from an orchid, transferring the scent to the storage sacs on its back legs. Perhaps you’ll see a frog sheltering beneath the leaves of a vermiliad, symbiosis after all, is between animals and plants, cells and mitochondria, and so on and so on.

Picture them taking turns to silently draw sound from each other’s mouth like pulling imaginary toffee, marvelling at the sticky fluidity.

Chan and Bichon transfix with every wiggle, twirl, click, pinch-like snap, and quick rotation of their extremities. Hands and feet move as if they are their own independent organisms separate to the body. And when I feel I have it all pegged in place, on board this rainforest within a ship, the lighting and pace alter drastically. We are in cold storage, in a freezer, only the extremities you’d expect to see lose heat the quickest are actually thriving. They are red hot. They are fluorescent (thanks to the manufactured iridescence of glow-in-the-dark nail polish on the hands and feet, and make up too). Chan and Bichon are hummingbirds, cross-legged before each other, on a different wavelength. For a moment I can see a colour spectrum I normally cannot. I can see near ultra-violet, like a bird. Four-dimensional colour! And it had been there all along, the nail polish and make up plumage, only I didn’t know. I couldn’t see it until the lighting changed. It is brilliant and beautiful, bird vision, and it reveals that “there are many ways to view the world and as many sensory systems as there are species.”[note]Jay Withgott, “Taking a Bird’s-Eye View…in the UV: Recent studies reveal a surprising new picture of how birds see the world,” BioScience, v. 50, 10, October 1, 2000, 854–859 (accessed April 26, 2018)[/note]

Through friction, transition, humour, and play, typified by a spoken word tease with both Chan and Bichon speaking to the audience, “Replica” offers the chance to broaden one’s umwelt and slip into the feathers of another and sense the world in an entirely different way.

Gracia Haby

Using an armoury of play and poetry as a lure, Gracia Haby is an artist besotted with paper. Her limited edition artists’ books, and other works hard to pin down, are often made collaboratively with fellow artist, Louise Jennison. Their work is in the collections of the National Gallery of Australia and state libraries throughout Australia to the Tate (UK). Gracia Haby is known to collage with words as well as paper.



A Little More Action
REVIEWS | Karen Hildebrand

A Little More Action

Smuin Contemporary Ballet is a different company than when it last came to New York in 2012, five years after the sudden death of its popular founder. Michael Smuin was known for his highly accessible works full of musical theater splash. While his San Francisco based company continues to perform his repertory, it has commissioned a broad range of new work under succeeding director, Celia Fushille.

Continue Reading
Summer Fun
REVIEWS | Merilyn Jackson

Summer Fun

In its Summer Series 2024, the Philadelphia contemporary ballet company offers three world premieres by choreographers Amy Hall Garner, Loughlan Prior and Stina Quagebeur. The extended run, July 10-21 at the Wilma Theater, is just about the only dance to be seen during summer’s dog days. And what a cool and breezy show it is. Just the boost we needed.

Continue Reading
India Week
REVIEWS | Karen Greenspan

India Week

On a scorcher of a day in July, New York’s Lincoln Center launched India Week, a cultural extravaganza celebrating the variety and vibrancy of Indian culture. 

Good Subscription Agency