Sunday, January 22, 2023



Penny Chivas performing "Burnt Out".

Created and performed by Penny Chivas – Music by Paul Michael Henry

QL2 Dance Studio January 20th and 21st, 2023.

Performance on 20th January reviewed by Bill Stephens.

In 1999, Penny Chivas was an inaugural member of Quantum Leap. She went on to study and graduate from both WAAPA and VCA, during which she continued to dance in various QL2 projects.  After completing her studies, Chivas moved overseas where she’s forged a significant career as a performer and dance maker in Scotland.

Chivas was in Canberra in 2003 and experienced the horror of the catastophic Canberra bushfires that year. However it wasn’t until 2019, when searching for a subject for a new dance work, she remembered a paper she discovered in the family attic, written in 1979 by her father, an Environmental Biochemist. In this paper he predicted that the world would suffer significant climate change events by 2030. 

This discovery became the catalyst for her powerful solo work, “Burnt Out”, for which she draws on her memories of the 2003 Canberra bushfires to create this powerful personal response to climate change, which she’s performed as part of the 2022 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, having already toured it in parts of Scotland.

How very appropriate then that these two performances of “Burnt Out” should take place in the QL2 Dance Studio in Canberra, during the very week of the 20th anniversary of those devastating Canberra fires.

Penny Chivas performing "Burnt Out".

As the audience entered the QL2 studio, Chivas, costumed in a white boiler-suit, was already on stage, slowly collecting matches strewn around the floor.  As the lights dimmed, the audience became aware of Paul Michael Henry's gentle soundtrack in which, as the work progressed, the distant sounds of dogs barking, birds settling in trees, and running water could be discerned.

After returning the matches to a large matchbox, Chivas addressed the audience. She told them about her father’s prediction and his concern for climate change. She moved around the circumference of a large circle of light, reciting dates of significant bushfire events.  Haunting acapella versions of “The Road to Gundagai” and “I Still Call Australia Home” were interwoven into the narrative until mid-way through, the soundtrack became more foreboding and the lighting began to turn red. 

Reaching for a lump of coal, Chivas smeared her face with coal dust, and her movements and demeanour became more agitated. At the same time, the almost inaudible chatter of human voices began to emerge along with the realisation that this work had more to do with climate change than just the bushfires.

Eventually Chivas began to gasp and exhibit signs of distress as well as anger creating an atmosphere of impending catastrophe.

Penny Chivas performing "Burnt Out" 

However, despite the sincerity of her performance and the admirable clarity of her spoken dialogue, the limited choreographic palette chosen by Chivas to express her ideas made it difficult to decipher the symbolism of much of her movement. Also, the drama inherent in Paul Michael Henry's excellent atmospheric soundscape was not supported by David Bowes delicate lighting design which was re-interpreted for these performances by Stephen Gow. Given the lack of other theatrical elements, a more dramatic and adventurous lighting design was needed to support the ambition of the concept.

Penny Chivas will continue to tour “Burnt Out” throughout Scotland during 2023, supported by the Creative Scotland Touring Fund. Therefore this opportunity to see an example of her work is very welcome.


                                                             Images by Lorna Sim.

     This review also published in AUSTRALIAN ARTS REVIEW.