Donna Uchizono: Fire Underground


Your absence has gone through me
Like thread through a needle.
Everything I do is stitched with its color.

– WS Merlin, “Separation”


Dancehouse. Therein we find Donna Uchizono – New York-based choreographer – artistic director of the Donna Uchizono Company. The work is suggestive, atmospheric, and yet not completely theatrical – not completely scenic or representational. It seems at times like a compilation of abstract choreographic ideas, some new and some old: a dozen or so motifs briefly developed, discretely, almost episodically. At other times these ideas seem more like the metaphorical gestures of an interpretive dance, but where the precise “ground” of the metaphor remains elusive.

Always, however, what flows from scene to scene is a mood, or a colour: anxious and uneasy.


What is the fire underground? It is a metaphor. It is anxiety and longing and frustration; it is a thing barely suppressed. It is blood smouldering under the skin. It is burning in the dark, stifled by not knowing.


Blackout. Three figures enter. Two sit down in the front row. A third stands centre stage. Lights up. It’s Rebecca Serrell Cyr. She is costumed in a greyish white dress that hangs to her ankles, no sleeves. The material is ragged at its edges. The skirt of the dress is slit all the way up the back, revealing her naked legs and buttocks. She spins, whirling a small cloth sack of grains, perhaps the size of a tennis ball. The sack is tethered to a thin chain about four meters long. Two meters of the chain is let out; the other two meters is wound high around her waist. The way the chain draws in the dress just beneath the chest gives the costume an almost classical appearance. It looks like a faded chiton or peplos. She spins and spins, varying her speed, and the intensity with which she whirls the small parcel.


There is a story to this dance. The work addresses, we are told in the programme notes, Uchizono’s twelve-year-long struggle to adopt a Nepalese child and bring her back to the United States. Is this story in the dance? Or only before the dance, as a pre-performance note? Does the story unlock the somewhat obscure symbolism of the performance? (What is the chain? Why are her buttocks exposed? What is the significance of the circle?) Or does the dance simply manifest the bodied force of Uchizono’s emotional experience? (This is what it is to wait … this is what it is to be frustrated … this is what your absence is like.)

Image credit: Ian Douglas


Cyr abruptly hurls down the sack; she stops twirling and crouches, her back to the audience. A child (Alana Lewis, the second figure), stands up. She runs in circles, clockwise, the same direction as the sack had been spinning. She traces the orbit of the sack. How many revolutions? Perhaps five? Then the child leaves the stage, Then leaves the theatre. Cyr leaves the centre and begins to walk the same clockwise circle as the girl; she smiles at the audiences, performing an enticement. This becomes more affected the more she walks, looking at us teasingly over her shoulder. The sack drags behind.


The game of smiles transforms. She looks apprehensive. She stops her circuit in front of a twice-life-sized poster of herself standing in a clean white dress with the edges properly hemmed and a neutral expression on her face which is fixed to the wall about a meter from the ground, upstage right. She stares at the poster, then looks back to the audience. She seems anxious. She continues walking, dragging the sack on a short length of chain. Notice her feet in the poster: her feet twice-life-size at our eye level. Think: what large feet.


Cyr’s buttocks are pale and particularly round; they peek out shyly between the gaping slit. They look somehow like ostrich eggs behind a curtain. They have a similar texture, the same enamelled glint under the yellow lights. The third figure – Donna Uchizono – begins to dance slowly, downstage left, near the exit. She sways slowly and watches Cyr. Then the dymanics shift: Cyr holds the skirts of her dress out from her body, in front, and her step becomes more dancerly. In this way her buttocks are more fully exposed. They jounce and twitch but never lose their glazed appearance.

Why is she naked beneath her dress? More than indicating emotional exposure, it suggests exposure and submission. Indeed, when she pulls forward her skirt I am reminded more than anything else of The Story of O:

In fact, they often had the girls go about in the chateau or the park either like this, or with their skirts tucked up in front, waist high … either directly in front, to expose the belly, or in the middle of the back,  to leave the buttocks free.

Later: upstage left, hard against the eastern wall, Cyr and Uchizono stand back to back, Cyr facing the audience; Uchizono facing the back of the stage. They gather up their skirts and hold them in their mouths. They both hold their arms overhead – distantly flamenco. Now they dance; it is unsettled but nonetheless very sensual. We can imagine Cyr’s bare buttocks pressing against Donna Uchizono. They work their way toward the audience, following the wall, small, rhythmical steps, the two-four metre, advancing on the downbeat. Hips and shimmy, hips and shimmy. Then up on the toes, cross left behind right, point left, then hips and shimmy, hips and shimmy. The music too is unsettled, eerie, plinkyplonky, but with a sway and a swagger.


Much in this piece appears to be self-referential, which is perhaps why Uchizono speaks of her method here as beginning in a formalism.

See Uchizono a meter or so down stage of centre. She holds two small sacks tethered to chains about sixty centimetres long. Are they Japanese kusari-fundo, hand-held weapons consisting of a length of chain with a weight attached to each end? They look like weapons. She spins them almost like a gunslinger spins his pistols. The scene narrows around her. Now she is lit from behind by a single medium spotlight. This creates an interesting – even perhaps very beautiful – effect where the twirling chains look like solid wedges of colour carving the air. Now they no longer look like weapons.

It is poi spinning, that hippie-ish performance art with weights attached to ropes. Uchizono begins a long routine of twirling. Though it’s not a technically very demanding routine, there are some very pretty figures. And Uchizono has used poi spinning as a contemporary dance form before: as early as 1991, in her “It Comes in Threes”.


At other moments I thought of the “State of Heads” (1999), the way the women gathered up their skirts — sometimes in front, sometimes over their faces — and exposed their calves and thighs. (Compare picture.) Then, more distantly, I thought of the duet in “Approaching Green” (2005), the part where Michelle Boule never touches the ground, always standing on the feet of her partner: in one scene here, Rebecca Serrell Cyr puts her weight on the sack, crushing it. She then performs a few dance steps standing on the sack as much as possible as if trying to keep it between her and the fire underground.


Cyr approaches Uchizono in the corner. The lights dim.  Uchizono is proffering the two poi spinners; only they don’t look like poi spinners. They look life fetishistic devices designed for an unknown but very particular purpose. This is effect is partly because of the cruel, clean sparkle of the chains, the suggestive anonymity of the sacks and the shininess of the black leather-looking loops to which the chains are fixed. But it’s also partly to do with the atmosphere of anxiety and disquiet — the dissonant music, the chiaroscuro lighting.

There is this undertone of deviance all through Fire Underground; it belies the human-interest pathos of Uchizono’s adoption story. Bondage, submission, exposure, flagellation: all of this is implied.

Uchizono wraps the chains around her throat and pulls them tight. Is it the waiting and wanting, the desired end always out of reach, always frustrated, that gives this work its erotic edge?


See Cyr and Uchizono side by side. A flurry of arms, tracing broad slashing figures. Feet rooted to the spot. We are building to a climax, we think. They suddenly embrace. And then just as suddenly they reel – feet unstuck – like drunkards. Dazed? Exhausted? Uchizono is held up by Cyr. This becomes her role, to support the other, although she herself is unsteady. This collapsing duet finishes with Cyr lowering Uchizono gently to the floor. She remains crouching centre stage.

Image credit: Ian Douglas
The dance is finally broken up by Cyr’s chain. A way of wiping clear the scene. Big, swooping, helicopter whirls, bringing us back to where we began.

Fire Underground, Thursday 15 August 2015, Donna Uchizono, Dancehouse, 150 Princes St, Carlton North.


6 thoughts on “Donna Uchizono: Fire Underground”

  1. Curious. On Saturday night, the orbiting (and the kid’s running) was counter clockwise. Around the 2/3 mark, Cyr (briefly) changed to clockwise. When she began, the spinning was roughly the same speed as the Sufi whirling dervishes. I thought that might have been significant… until it varied.

  2. Curious, indeed. I would sooner doubt my own memory of it than think that something so important was changed from Friday to Saturday. I too thought of desert tribes at the beginning, but more because of the walking not the spinning. I thought of Le Clezio’s Desert and how “the routes were circular, they always led back to the point of departure, … but that it was a route that had no end, for it was longer than human life.”

  3. This was one of those instances where I thought circumstances (injury) forced a change that actually pushed the work in a more interesting direction (clockwise or counterclockwise or otherwise). I take it that in previous performances Donna has performed Alana’s role? But I thought having the three bodies on stage, and having Donna as more of a voyeristic presence in the early parts of the dance, made the whole thing more complex and unsettled.

  4. I think this summed up the performance beautifully, truly a great price of writing! I am Alana by the way, the one in the performance.

  5. As an answer to what you two have been saying… Yes, Donna had an ankle twist/fracture, and Beccy, had thrown her back out in a previous dance. They were originally thinking of getting a kid, but the kids they did a small workshop with in New York couldn’t come. They contacted my drama school, for a child.

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