Ushered into an intimate tent past two open fires, the audience are greeted by a mock anthropological “Aborigine” scene. The sarcastic narration quickly sets the scene for Chasing Smoke’s playful tongue-in-cheek tone. Combining circus, dance, and a bit of comedy, this production from Australia’s only entirely Indigenous circus group is a celebration of identity and story-telling.
Constructed as a series of vignettes of solo, duos, and group performances, the production balances reflective moments with more high-energy good-natured humour about Aboriginality and contemporary Australia. In one unexpected skit, Pearl Tia Thompson transitions from a conventional housewife of the 1950s to Aretha Franklin to Michael Jackson to all three members of Destiny’s Child and more in a creative stream of lip-sync remixes acknowledging Black excellence in the music industry. Another scene saw a circus-off with the women and men of the group trying to out-do each other in stunts and tricks mixed with friendly banter and showing off.
Interspersed with the overt showmanship, each performer had an opportunity to share their personal stories about family, identity, and what brought them to circus. Lara Croydon tells a particularly inventive creation story about her family using metaphor and her juggling skill while Thompson dances through her disconnection with her unknown heritage and Ally Humphries uses her acrobatics and contortion to illustrate the story of her grandmother’s time in a mission. These scenes are more contemplative and create a solid grounding for connection between the audience and the performers which solidifies the aims of this production.
Dylan Singh and Johnny Brown offered truly impressive performances of their respective specialties. Singh’s symbolic trapeze work was a feat of strength and his flips and gymnastics were great. With his history of balancing rugby and dance, Brown’s acrobatics and dance were captivating in his unusual use of body and rhythm. These two also performed a moving duo mixing elements of competition with miscommunication in their mirrored movements.
Directed by Natano Fa’anana, co-founder and creative director of the contemporary circus company Casus, Chasing Smoke is making its Sydney debut at Bondi Feast after winning a Green Room Award for Best Contemporary Circus in 2017 and Best Circus & Physical Theatre at Adelaide Fringe this year.
The production stresses embracing personal identity despite the narratives imposed by other people’s expectations and the unique experience of building a sense of self as an Indigenous person in a colonised country like Australia. In the closing moments, Croydon again dons her 1950s narrator costume to bake a metaphorical cake combining all the elements of living under white supremacy while Indigenous. But she stretches to make the point that the finished product of these stories of history and family are the performers on the stage and they are as human as anyone else, even if, technically, they’re part lamington.
Chasing Smoke is running at Bondi Pavilion’s Parlour Tent from July 9th – 13th as part of Bondi Feast.