Juliette Furio talks nightmares, dark impulses, propositions and freedom of expression with young dancer-artist Aly Firbank, finding it “hard to say where the dancing stops and its place in fine arts performance begins.”
As a woman, Aly Firbank is fit in the Amazonian way and resonates positive energy and laughter. Having rendezvoused at a fountain to search for an adequate bar together, I can’t help but pick-up on some astonished looks thrown her way. But I get it. Aly has the demeanour and call to attention of the artist-dancer that she is. When I ask her to define what it is she considers herself – “artist or dancer?” – she laughs my question aside before addressing me with a serious stare, “And why can’t I be both?”
Having finally settled on a 1930’s themed bar and diner, we claim a corner table and pour over a cocktail list. She settles on a “re-styled old fashioned” and I order their driest concoction that, of course, turns out disappointingly sweet. Our drinks have yet to arrive and we have already dived straight in. Aly has a lot to say, but more importantly, what she has to say is slightly off-center and thus fascinating. She talks about night terrors that have been stalking her for the past year – ever since she made the decision to take her art practice into her own hands. The Willy Wonka River of chocolate is her safe place when it is time to sleep, but the sweet sludgy waters turn dark and gluggy with blood. A horrifying alter ego, crocodile skin stretched across its skeleton, stalks her along the bank. “The terrifying part,” she confides (as if this didn’t put my own nightmares to shame already) “is when I am strapped down, in my own bed, and it crawls over me and rips my jaws open to crawl inside me.” I am speechless and Aly looks over at me with a huge smile. “What do you think it signifies, in terms of your relationship with your art practice?” I manage to squeak in between large sips of cocktail. She stops for a minute, brows furrowed, not quite able to come to a conclusion. Hopefully that one will come with time.
Never deterred, always fighting on, she then talks about her fascination with a poem that is badly written, but searingly honest, by a man dying of cancer. I realise at this point, with absolute delight, a common thread in our off-kilter aesthetics. Aly likes what is genuine, but especially that which feels like it should be wrong. “I get these impulses – everybody does – and I’m fascinated with why we just ignore them. Why? Why do we ignore and deny those darker thoughts?” And I know exactly what she means. Have you ever had a “crazy little moment” where, say, you’ve stared at the person talking to you, with the ridiculous urge to stab them in the eye with your fork? Perhaps you haven’t, but I’m willing to bet we have all had our less-than civilised thoughts. Aly seems to know so, and she dives right into the topic with no apologies and true fascination. “When I admit to these thoughts – which, needless to say I will not act on – people usually always reply with ‘Yeah, I have this thought, or that urge too!’ and yet when we think them we behave like there is nothing going on in our heads, like we are really, truly listening to the person in front of us.” In her words, I find the subtle and yet distinct note of truth and liberation. Don’t get me wrong. I am not condoning you to stab your lunch partner with a fork, neither of us are. I am, however, suggesting that you acknowledge the feelings that come unbidden to your mind and perhaps even give a little whirl at wondering where they came from.
With that same biting honesty, Aly next walks straight into the hushed-up subject of senior members of the art world who, spying her for the young and eager artist that she was just a few months ago, made the kind of propositions you would think exist in the depths of Hollywood alone. It’s the kind of thing you obviously don’t want to come across as a young woman, no matter the industry you find yourself in. It is also the kind of thing that is almost inevitable, no matter the industry you choose. From educators in seats of power at notable institutions to independent gallery directors, there is plenty for a young female artist, who is serious about her art and her position in the art world, to contend with. What is also evident is that every battle, whether won or lost, has the effect of simultaneously deepening one’s disgust whilst strengthening self-affirmation and the right to express yourself in any given media, method and material that damn-well suits you. Like any taboo subject expressed within the public sphere, the burst of confidence that enables an initial outburst dwindles down with doubt and fear of recrimination, so we move on.
The next subject is unfortunately related in no small way. Aly began her journey as an artist by attending a classical ballet school. As her metabolism and hormones changed with the due course of puberty, she reached the dizzying height that is her stature today with alarming speed. This would cause any young teen angst in learning with how to live within yourself, let alone the stress, self-blame and plaguing anxiety when the superiors in charge of your education, health and well being regard these changes as if unnatural and blatantly outrageous. It seems “health” and “well-being” have ever so slightly different meanings in the classical ballet world. “They were older, they were my teachers, so I assumed they were right” says Aly. “It wasn’t until I went home to my older sister’s one break, and saw her absolute outrage at my health and how I was being treated, that I realised anything was wrong.” For her recent dance performance at Alaska Projects titled Blue Monday, Aly would rehearse around 12 hours a day so you can be sure that there is no lack of commitment. Rather, her practice is one that involves a rigorous training with self-respect and the right to an occasional cocktail. This month alone, she is already preparing for the next performance, Free Fall, scheduled for this weekend at The Oxford Art Factory, as well as applying to be a part of festivals and planning new ventures with dancing partner and collaborator Cassie Woodward.
Aly Firbank’s art practice consists of bodily control and movement. It is hard to say where the dancing stops and its place in fine arts performance begins. That is perhaps a matter of the viewer’s opinion. For Aly, the place, costume and décor (or lack there of) are crucial factors. Dancing at Alaska projects, on the bottom floor of the Kings Cross car park in a pristine white uniform to a routine somewhat reminiscent of ’90s workout videos, is a mash up of references, feelings and fun that constitutes one of her works. When asked what this performance “meant,” she smiles again and graciously answers “nothing.” After all, when one looks at a well-executed landscape or portrait painting, and simply appreciates the enjoyment of experiencing said work, does there need to be a lengthy dissertation as to the cerebral components that justify its existence under the banner of “fine art”? Aly doesn’t think so, and this time around, I agree with her.