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Chafia Brooks, James Welsby, Tidefolk Fictions Chafia Brooks, James Welsby, Tidefolk Fictions
photo Josh Mu

Tidefolk Fictions is an ambitious project by emerging choreographer James Welsby, a recipient of the City of Melbourne Young Artist’s Grant. Against the backdrop of the ‘fish bowl’ room at Melbourne Aquarium, the performance was a family-friendly foray that engaged the viewer gently and, occasionally, humorously.

Tidefolk Fictions acknowledges that the life aquatic ignites the imagination because so little is actually known about it. It urges us to enter a fictional realm where we can start to view the sea as more than just vast and blue. It is a timely performance. There are growing concerns about the acidification of our oceans, the effect of climate change on sea levels and of the coal industry’s effect on the Great Barrier Reef. While lacking a cohesive, single narrative, the performance consisted of eight short segments bound together by a singular theme: the sea and the fears (ecological or monstrous) and fantasies that come with it.

Story-telling and fish tales go together. Welsby’s starting point was the novel Gould’s Book of Fish by Australian writer and environmentalist Richard Flanagan. In his fictionalised account, Tasmanian convict William Buelow Gould, also an artist, obsessively paints fish before ultimately transforming into one. Vocal recordings played during the performance offered snippets of fiction—a woman with a growing predilection for bathing morphs into a scaled and gilled creature.

Opening with a melodramatic score that evokes Forty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Welsby unveils a Gould-like canvas with a finned monster after enacting a sit-in portrait session. Aiken, the subject of the painting, displays open-mouthed horror. Fair and statuesque, she couldn’t be further from the image but we enter the realm of make-believe through the picture. The dancers are now fish caught in a net; they flap about on the ground, screeching for oxygen with loud, infrequent gasps.

The unison of the four young dancers was noteworthy. In the blue-tinged environs of the Aquarium, in their matching costumes, they had the silent comradeship of synchronised swimmers. The crowd seemed to relish the demanding acrobatic aspects with one performer swung by her hands and feet for quite some time. Welsby’s choreography delves into the perpetual state of motion of the sea. The ebb and flow of tides was explored, the movement becoming unbroken and circular around the dance floor. The four performers were able to enact the intuitive dance that a school of fish engages in as it binds then separates when in danger. The dancers run in unison then change direction and cut through each other. Patterns gave way quite beautifully to improvisation.

Moving on into playfully camp territory, the performers called out the names of various fish species to be enacted (the chapters of Flanagan’s book are named after species). From the standard fish and chip shop species, Welsby shouts ‘disco-shoes-with-goldfish-in-them-fish!’ There is a particular strangeness to the marriage of dance and fish. I am thinking of The Chemical Brothers’ “Salmon Dance” or even the animated A Shark’s Tale (where Christina Aguilera and Missy Elliot do a cover of the 1976 hit song “Car Wash”).

Holding a performance in a busy space was never going to be an easy feat. The aquarium remained open to a curious public who tended to shuffle into the ‘fish bowl’ and move on in confusion. Performers Sarah Aiken, Chafia Brooks, Jessica Wong and James Welsby managed to remain focused amid the distractions, holding the floor for 40 minutes for the three-dozen or so committed viewers. Competing for attention with the silently graceful Mako and Grey Nurse sharks, the dancing was at its best when quietest, echoing the streamlined, harmonious movements of the fish. In exploring anthropomorphism, the dancers seemed to commiserate with the wild creatures trapped in glass around them. The location, which seemed to detract from the performance, was, in hindsight, one of its most important elements.

As a child I thought that the Sydney Aquarium was a glass tube jutting out into the harbour. The fish on display were in their natural surrounds while human spectators were the fish out of water, so to speak, in that fragile bubble. Watching Tidefolk Fictions made me recall this childish confusion; here are dancers who blur the line between human and fish, and between art and attraction in the Aquarium.

Tidefolk Fictions, producer, director James Welsby, choreography James Welsby in collaboration with performers Sarah Aiken, Chafia Brooks, James Welsby, Jessica Wong, sound design Josh Hogan, costumes Doyle Barrow, lighting Gavin Ruben—The Rubix Cube, Melbourne Aquarium, May 9-12

RealTime issue #110 Aug-Sept 2012 pg. 33

© Varia Karipoff; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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