Burnt Out

Penny Chivas
Penny Chivas
Dance Base, Edinburgh

Burnt Out Credit: Brian Hartley
Burnt Out Credit: Brian Hartley
Burnt Out Credit: Brian Hartley

Dance Base, Edinburgh is Scotland’s National Centre for Dance and this summer presented a packed Festival of events from 528 August. It was here I was able to catch Burnt Out‘s penultimate performance in the studio theatre.

Penny Chivas is a Glasgow-based dancer, choreographer and teacher originally from Australia and Burnt Out is her story and also our story, told through the terrifying events of 2022 when wildfires raged through Australia, with the death of at least a million animals.

Penny is on stage as we enter, methodically picking up matches, ignoring us but setting the scene. She then turns to the audience, says "hello" and so draws us in immediately to the performance and the opening section. She thanks Australia’s indigenous people (the traditional custodians) and then shows the graph from a paper written by her environmental geochemist father in the 1970s. This graph shows clearly the link between fossil fuel extraction, which causes a dramatic rise in carbon emissions, and the parallel temperature rise. A frightening start.

From here, Penny alternates between choreography, text and song to take us on a journey, which shows our culpability and denial, despite all the warning signs. She‘s a beautiful performer; each section, be it dance, song or text is thoughtful, sometimes shocking, sometimes sad, always relevant and the lighting by David Bowes brings added meaning and drama. The music or soundscape by Paul Michael Henry is excellent, weaving in sounds such as sirens, bird and helicopters to great effect. Props play an important role—her father’s paper and a large piece of coal, as well as the matches and matchbox. The simple boiler-suit is perfect, enabling us to avoid searching for obvious pretty, aesthetic beauty.

It is a complex work, multilayered but also clear and direct. She evokes many emotions as the sections shift—guilt, pain, sorrow, fear—but the work isn’t morbid, rather it's an elegy or a lachrymose. She’s a generous and eloquent performer and everything combines to bring meaning, making Burnt Out a surprisingly complete and satisfying solo performance, which left me moved and reflective.

For Penny, doing the work right now in the UK has given her the chills. "I anticipated when I first started making the piece in January 2020 that I was bringing a story from the other side of the world, one that I knew well having grown up with bushfires as a part of life. In summer 2021, I felt my Australian story was actually referencing North America, or Greece, and now in summer 2022, it is just as much about the UK as it is about back home. But it's also about a wake-up call, which seemed to go unheeded from those Black Summer fires, and that call only gets more and more urgent, more and more angry. But it's also so urgent that we have to do it well—calmly, compassionately and with an understanding of the complexity of the details involved."

Further dates: September 9, Dundee, The Space, Scottish School of Contemporary Dance; January 20/21, Ngunnawal Country (Canberra), QL2/Gorman House.

Reviewer: Dora Frankel