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Fire Monkey

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by Donna Sue Robson (subscribe)
Donna Sue Robson specialises in the communication- and healing-arts. Jamie Natural Health and Healing is her energy-healing consultancy. Her modalities, workshops and boutique natural products can be viewed and purchased from www.jamienatural.com.
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Dancer Talent Burns Bright In Asia-Pacific
Fire Monkey, The Arts Fisson Company Singapore, Darebin Arts Speakeasy, Dance theatre, Victoria Chiu,Northcote Town Hall
Fire Monkey is cutting-edge dance-theatre that brings dancer craft and interpretative flair to centre stage. Pic: courtesy of Fire Monkey.


Fire Monkey positions the trauma of migration, isolation and the journeys of refugees and diaspora communities in a visually enthralling dance-theatre spectacle. It brings together Singapore's Arts Fission Company, with fellow choreographer Victoria Chiu and Melbourne dancers trained at Victorian College of The Arts. This one-act, roaming performance is breath-taking in its subtle yet powerful use of symbolism and space. The artistry of the dancers is pivotal to communicating a storyline which is essentially humanist and universal, yet manages to strike at each and every heart and ignite individual experiences of rejection, battle, struggle, acceptance and resurrection. For indeed, the power of 'fire' in Chinese folklore is to flame epic tales of transformation and rebirth. Fire Monkey does this with jaw-dropping displays of dance sculpture and a soundscape that pulsates with vibrant tribal rhythms.

All of Fire Monkey's ten young dancers are stellar in terms of their talent, professional training and stage discipline. In fact, only a troupe of technically brilliant dancers could pull this show off, and it was an absolute thrill to witness not only superb dance skills but a true dance-theatre piece that respects dancers as artists. Fire Monkey has set a yardstick in performance art, showing how a finely-tuned dancer can interpret narrative through the body, using dance technique and troupe-connection. Dancers displayed intuitive resonance with musicians which empowered visually-rich choreography. Fire Monkey is not physical-theatre- it is dance-theatre, a daring feat to stage dance as a complete and poignant vehicle for story-telling.

Fire Monkey, The Arts Fisson Company Singapore, Darebin Arts Speakeasy, Dance theatre, Victoria Chiu,Northcote Town Hall
Fire Monkey's 10 young dancers, who represent both Singapore and Australia, create a cultural tapestry that draws on folk dance and cultural symbolism to tell tribal and individual stories. Pic: courtesy of Fire Monkey.


Even though the program notates specific performances or dance sequences, Fire Monkey is presented as a one-act, through-composition show. Mention must be made of the solo performances of Singaporean premier dancers Edwin Wee and Cao Ngoc Tuan in 'When the Monkey Awakens' and 'Fire Walk 1'. Both dancers were outstanding in their characterisations, depicting the breadth of emotion that torment and conflict triggers, through their physical fluidity, dexterity and creative empathy. Their attention to gestural detail was captivating. As premier dancers, Wee and Tuan showed just what it takes to be great dancers and theatrical leads– extraordinary musicianship as well as controlled dance technique to be able to turn percussive language into a sculptured dance drama.

Music Director and Composer Joyce Beetuan Koh drove the story with an ever-changing tapestry of percussive sounds. Fire Monkey's two Singaporean musicians, Chen Kangren and Cheong Kah Yiong and Melbourne musicians Roland Cox and Simon Lewis were staged in each corner: music engulfed, drove and lifted the dancers and their inter-personal dialogue.

Fire Monkey's percussive exploration released innovative rhythms that alerted the senses. Oftentimes, musicians physically moved within the stage-set, so that they not only held space, they used space to amplify and diminish sound. It was intriguing to discover just how many ways there are to play symbols and the emotional breadth that percussion can create. Instruments were also used as cultural symbols so that music told its own story within this humanitarian drama. Fire Monkey's percussive stamp reached our core primal identity.

Fire Monkey, The Arts Fisson Company Singapore, Darebin Arts Speakeasy, Dance theatre, Victoria Chiu,Northcote Town Hall
Within the physical drama of Fire Monkey, words are superfluous. Choreographers have conjured a visual spectacular that is captivating from start to finish. Pic: courtesy of Fire Monkey.


The success of this dance-theatre production rests with choreography direction, and knowing that dancers and musicians have both the need and skills to interpret story in their own language. Dancers know what their bodies can do, and know how to use them to express mood, emotion, tension and connection. A musician knows how to draw-out new and almost unimaginable sounds from their own instruments, and to magically interplay sound to create a brand new score that augments the dancers' bodies. The collaborative process of Fire Monkey successfully honours and articulates this dynamic: the dancers were given choreography along with a 'keyword' upon which to focus. They allowed their bodies to reinforce the 'narrative's essence' necessary for continuity, and yet added exquisite program detail. Dancers played several characters, yet the audience was never confused by the multiplicity of roles or over-activity. This delicate balance is Fire Monkey's creative genius. When musicians added their skills and histories, dancer-interpretation changed, and an enriched dance-scape took form. The result is a poignant, emotive narrative that still leaves so much open to audience interpretation. Tension builds and attention is transfixed, as the complete dance-visual allows us to create our own stories.

Choreographically, Fire Monkey is a masterpiece. Choreographers Victoria Chui and Angela Liong should be acclaimed not only for their vision and talent but also for their commitment to cross-cultural collaboration. Their brave artistry has pulled together inspirations and craftsmanship from dance, theatre, physical theatre, performance art, circus and live-music traditions. The artistic integrity of these choreographers was clear: they managed to set a clear structure that could withstand dancer-musician interpretation. Fire Monkey is exquisitely composed, lead and directed.

Fire Monkey, The Arts Fisson Company Singapore, Darebin Arts Speakeasy, Dance theatre, Victoria Chiu,Northcote Town Hall
Four percussionists concoct a fluid yet dramatic rhythmic soundscape. Pic: courtesy of Fire Monkey.


Fire Monkey was described as a 'roving performance' but had a slight twist. It was the audience that was invited to 'rove', meaning that if you wanted to change your seating, you were encouraged to do so. As soon as I accepted this invitation, my perspective changed which in turn challenged my personal involvement and contemplation. This was yet another theatrical element that Victoria Chui and Angela Liang used to great effect, creating spatial complexities or even movement vortexes that were audience-driven. The dancers did lead us outside at the end of the show, which was an empowered metaphor to 'a new assembly'. An upward gaze in the courtyard of The Northcote Town Hall revealed a concurrent multimedia projection, as well as a flashback to the umbrella dance sequence that showed the cultural past in continuum.

Fire Monkey uses cultural symbolism that may be unfamiliar. However, there is simplicity and universality within much of the symbolic representation e.g., fire represented by a long, red silk cloth was manipulated to show destruction, allure, transformation and recreation; and the dancers' own bodies simulated 'monkey moves' that set the story in 2016, the Year of the Monkey. Australian audiences will appreciate Chinese dance-styles so beautifully exhibited by Singapore's Arts Fisson Company which, character-driven, incorporate gesture and facial art. The umbrella, as a symbol of 'protection', was clear but quickly took on a more sinister meaning as a dagger as the story of 'Fire Walk' unfolded. Wonder and mystery were constant teasers in this show, again the mark of intriguing story-telling.

There are not enough superlatives to describe Fire Monkey. It is a cutting-edge dance-theatre masterpiece that sets the standard for pure dance drama in this country. I love how this genre and team respected dancer and musician artistry, bravely showing how drama can be told through dance and music alone. The collaborative nature of Singaporean and Melbourne arts professionals proves what can be achieved with a global vision, a disciplined framework and artistic humility. I urge venues, sponsors and producers to get behind Fire Monkey, for it deserves full and extended nation-wide seasons. Fire Monkey is a definite 'must-see' for Australians to contemplate the emotional complexities of refugees and diaspora communities and stands a statement of unity in the Asia-Pacific art and humanitarian communities.

Fire Monkey, The Arts Fisson Company Singapore, Darebin Arts Speakeasy, Dance theatre, Victoria Chiu,Northcote Town Hall
Fire Monkey is an exciting dance-narrative that shows the physical body to be an instrument of artistic and emotional beauty. Pic: courtesy of Fire Monkey.


Fire Monkey is an outstanding artistic achievement. You are well-advised to look-out for future work from Arts Fisson Singapore, Angela Liong, Victoria Chiu and Joyce Beetuan Koh, and to support any upcoming projects of these exceptional dancers (Edwin Wee, Cao Ngoc Tuan, Geraldine Phang, Monika, Titisa Jeamsakul, Delia Tan, Isabelle Beauverd, Tra Mi Dinh, Ben Hurley and Sarah Mealor) and musicians (Chen Kangren, Ceong Kah Yiong, Simon Lewis and Roland Cox).
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Why? information and future events
When: 7pm and 2pm Saturday Matinee Sessions
Phone: Check website for bookings
Where: Northcote Town Hall 189 High Street, Northcote
Cost: $33 full price and $28 concession
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