Literally seconds into the opening scene, Chasing Smoke had their audience hooked. “Hey! Look out!,” exclaimed an audience member before he burst into raucous laughter. Ridiculing long-held and common stereotypes of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, the opening of Chasing Smoke brilliantly set the scene for the pending lessons about historical and contemporary Indigenous Australia.
Chasing Smoke was born out of Circus Oz’s Blak Flip Master Classes, a program that has been running since 2011. The aim of Blak Flip is to bring more Aboriginal and Torres Strait artists into the performing arts sector. The program works with up to 42 established and emerging Indigenous artists, 6 of which are connected to the show Chasing Smoke. Samoan-Australia director Natano Fa’anana and Indigenous producer Davey Thompson, who has been with the company since 2015, have worked closely and collaboratively with the performers to ensure that Chasing Smoke is a story that all the artists involved wanted to tell.
Thompson says the title of Chasing Smoke is symbolic of the continuous struggles experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait peoples: “We never quite get there. We never quite get to equality. We have to keep pushing and pushing. So it is called Chasing Smoke, as opposed to catching smoke.”
There is a surrounding theme of “where there’s smoke there’s fire” expressed, via a combination of stand-up and sketch comedy, dance and personal monologue, and interludes of circus gymnastics.
A sketch about a colonial auctioneer cheaply selling off parts of Australia to new settlers was greatly amusing to us First Nations peoples. However, I sensed discomfort from non-Indigenous audience members during another sketch that commented on discriminatory governmental policy by the parody of a 1950s-era cooking segment about making lamingtons. Relatable connections for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, came through the self-narrated personal stories graciously offered by each artist. These stories of identity and connection to country slowed down the performance and invited us to feel and live their experiences, each one attempting to answer the question of “Who am I?”
Throughout the show performers hilariously lip-synced their way through a deadly sound track of 80s dance music. The audience cracked-up at the mimicry of cockatoo movements used to characterise family and friends. An ode to a grandmother removed from family and country involved graceful dance work that elicited sadness and tears. Accompanying music by Geoffrey Gurumul Yunupingu made detailed floor and rope work even more mesmerising. The curtain call reminded us about diversity and the strength of culture, while reiterating that presumptions about identity are a mistake.
“250 years of oppression is being given a limitless art form to express itself. That’s what audiences are gonna see. Circus has no limits. It takes all the fun stuff and throws out all the rules. It’s nothing but Blackfullas breaking off all their chains,” says Thompson.
Hopefully, Chasing Smoke will tour beyond the Yirramboi festival. If so, I suggest grabbing an opening night ticket, and with any luck you’ll find you seated amongst a majority of Blak audience members. You’ll be given a unique first contact experience, and education about the resilience and humour of our mob.