Penny Chivas' “Burnt Out.” Photograph by David Bowes

Rise from the Ashes

Penny Chivas' on her new work, “Burnt Out”

Penny Chivas is a superb Glasgow-based dancer and activist whose work is graceful, insightful and challenging. Her current project, “Burnt Out,” interrogates the effects of Australian bush fires, with particular emphasis on trauma, in terms of both body and the environment. Plans for the piece were put on hiatus because of travel restrictions in the wake of the pandemic. Lorna Irvine caught up with her—socially distanced, outdoors—to talk with her about her career so far, and plans for when current restrictions are lifted in the UK.

You began by studying ballet?

When I was nine years old. Yeah, look, I loved it, but things really took off for me when I joined the youth dance company in Canberra called Quantum Leap. We were devising our own material with choreographers from across Australia—our ideas and our movements were of equal importance to our technique and our themes, being valued in a more holistic way. Then I went to the West Australian Academy of Performing Arts in Perth, on the other side of the country. I did my Bachelor there, and I did my Honours at the Victoria College of the Arts in Melbourne. From that point, I wasn’t sure where I would fit in, in terms of dance in Australia. I went to live in Toronto, Canada, on a working holiday visa for two and a half years. I got really involved in the contact improv scene, and I was really involved in lots of different programs. That time still really resonates for me. 

What was it about the contact improvisation scene that worked for you?

I think it was just the level of investigation, the conceptual work that exists alongside contact, that you can dig so deep into what the body is doing, how you’re relating to other people. Being exposed to the work of someone like Nancy Stark Smith taught me about rigour in a completely different way. I guess that self reflection doesn’t exist so much in ballet training, or contemporary dance.

Less rigid, more free?

Yeah, definitely.

Penny Chivas in “These Delicate Things.” Photograph by Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

I was interested in your work with Cryptic, “These Delicate Things,” a piece I really liked, directed by Josh Armstrong.

Yeah, with Josh. That was based on the work of American photographer, Francesca Woodman. Great imagery.

Love her work—provocative and disturbing. Sounds about right!

Yeah. That was great—working with movement, working with images, disturbing the sense of time.

Also, the restriction of moving in a cube, and navigating that space. (Chivas was dancing naked in a large, transparent cube, as though trapped like an animal.)

Tricky to do it slowly. And I was also nude as well, so, obviously, that changes things . . .

Absolutely, the vulnerability.

Yeah, completely.

I wanted to ask, how did you get involved in working with choreographer, photographer, artist Brian Hartley?

I think actually, there was some call out, and I stepped into someone’s role at a day’s notice. This is probably nine years ago, now. And then, I never left that role [laughs] of being this kind of ballerina, but more free [in Brian Hartley’s interactive show for families] “We Dance, wee groove.” We’ve toured to China a number of times, and across the UK. The visual element in Brian’s work is so important and that’s particularly enticing when you are working with young children.

Penny Chivas (centre) performing with We Dance, wee groove at the Himalayas Art Center, Shanghai. Photograph by Brian Hartley

Yeah . . . transcending any language barriers. Is that something you’re interested in, a strong visual aesthetic?

Yeah, but of course movement has so many layers. But I think now we live in a visually-oriented society, with all the Zooms on our computers. I think the image is quite important in capturing the audience, before you provide the deep and delicate work only a body can do.

So it is with “Burnt Out”—obviously, you have an arresting image there. What was the initial genesis for it? Did you want to do something centred around lived experience, or did it stem from activism?

I feel like I reached the point that I wanted to make a solo work on myself. I haven’t choreographed on myself for a long time. I’ve done so much contact improv, and working for other people, I thought, ‘Okay. It’s time to do this for myself, with everything I have explored and investigated.’ Then I went home to Australia in December 2019 during the height of the Black Summer fires, and that really became the call that I had to make work about this. I thought, how could I not address that call?

Penny Chivas in “Burnt Out.” Photograph by David Bowes

How far do you think dance can go, in terms of creating a discourse?

I think, even programming work about climate change is a huge step forward. But beyond that, I mean, dance in the theatre is a collective experience. The thought of posing these questions, and the answers might be complicated, but it feels important to do it in a collective way. And I also feel that the body, and being embodied, will also really shine a light on how we interact with the world around us, dissolving this barrier of the world and us, as if they’re two separate things.

How do you see the development of it, in terms of space?

Interesting question. I want to see “Burnt Out” at some major festival, like, even the title and the picture of me with my hand covered in coal and holding my nose in this effort to breathe. I think that’s really important. It’s not something I would have said when I was beginning to make this, but to have that statement, that’s where the work needs to go.

To me, too, the detail of the sounds from [composer] Paul Michael Henry are designed to be heard in a contained space. We sampled shark sirens, we sampled the sounds of magpies imitating fire trucks because they heard the fire trucks so much. So that lends itself to a theatrical environment.

How have rehearsals been going, during the pandemic?

I have been so lucky—with it being a solo work—and that Dance Base (Edinburgh) had opened their doors in July last year. It meant I could go back in and get back to work. Getting back to work for me is still thinking and processing, and essentially dealing with the trauma of being in the bush fires, of seeing people and animals in such distress. So there’s that, and then working remotely with Paul Michael Henry, transferring large files across, video links—it’s quite bizarre, not as satisfying as being in the room, but it’s definitely something. I feel very grateful to Dance City in Newcastle that they’ve allowed a Scottish artist in. 

Getting back to work is . . . essentially dealing with the trauma of being in the bush fires, of seeing people and animals in such distress

Also, I think the visual imagery has been really key for me in developing “Burnt Out.” I stumbled across an image of me—the one I am using for the flyer—with coal on my hand. In a way that says so much—I am deeply concerned about the environment, but I’m also aware that I’ve benefitted from coming from a country that’s been reliant on fossil fuels, so there’s a sense of responsibility. I am trying to layer the visual with the somatic, hoping to create a visceral response in the audience.

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