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Token Armies: Vital organs of collaboration

Token Armies: Vital organs of collaboration is an interview with director and choreographer Antony Hamilton conducted by John Bailey, who is a freelance writer based in Melbourne.

Token Armies is presented by Arts House and Chunky Move in association with Creature Technology Co. Commissioned by Melbourne International Arts Festival.

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One of the essential skills a maturing artist develops is the ability to recognise what a work wants to be. The idea that would become Token Armies has been on choreographer Antony Hamilton’s mind for many years, but it’s not the work he originally conceived. It’s better for it.

“I planned to make a long-duration work in which audiences were able to freely come and go,” he says. “So they wouldn’t get a narrative arc, they wouldn’t get a feeling of resolution, a feeling of change, or an arc in any way.” The work as he conceived it was closer to a living painting; bodies in motion, but also in a perpetual cycle from which there’s no real escape, no beginning, no end.

The work itself had other ideas, though, and Hamilton heard them. “I’ve gotten better at listening to the work and not dictating. With this one it took a lot of me pushing myself to let go of that original vision… It pushed me to make what’s probably a more interesting piece. In the end it’s done a service to the piece in digging deeper and asking bigger questions.”

Hamilton has also been eager to listen to the ideas of others, and it’s immediately apparent that Token Armies couldn’t exist without the deep engagement of a range of artists from different fields. The evocative costumes of Paula Levis and the animated sculptures of Creature Technology Co. are more than complements to Hamilton’s choreography—they’re vital organs that keep it alive.

The result of so much collaboration is a feat of world-building that is breathtaking in its completeness, conveying the sense of a living community whose rituals, motivations and relationships may be alien to us but are still uncannily familiar.

That apparent paradox, between the unrecognisable and the intimately known, is echoed throughout Token Armies. Upon entry its world might seem dystopian or warlike, but the work is really about cooperation and refuge. It’s about “the feeling of a shared endeavour of some sort,” says Hamilton. “And what’s required of each other within that endeavour. What’s gained by those relationships and what’s lost. That’s what’s interesting to me.”

Indeed, one of the most unexpected outcomes of viewing the work is the sense of hopefulness or even ecstasy that somehow bubbles up from beneath the dark, ritualistic veneer. Audiences will interpret the work in vastly different ways, but few would deny that it ends a long way from the place it starts.

“Visually it does come across as quite threatening to begin with, but as you settle in you do get a sense of cooperation which I think is really the main function of what everyone’s doing,” says Hamilton.

“Ultimately everyone’s helping each other progress forward. There are people making plans and then devising schemes in order to do that. There’s a lot of stopping and starting, a lot of reorganising, hooking on in different ways, so they can better push forward.”

Image by – Dian McLeod