Talking to Melanie Lane

My first encounter with the choreography of Melanie Lane was in 2019 when her work WOOF was part of a Sydney Dance Company triple bill called Bonachela/Nankivell/Lane. WOOF, which two years earlier had been a hit in Sydney Dance Company’s New Breed program, was for me the outstanding work on the 2019 triple bill. I had also seen Lane perform, along with Lilian Steiner, in Lucy Guerin’s SPLIT in 2018. But really I was way behind the times. Lane had already established herself as a choreographer and performer well before I had the chance to see her productions.

Lane was born in Sydney but grew up in Canberra and undertook intensive training with Janet Karin at the National Capital Ballet School. Lane recalls with pleasure and admiration the influence Karin had on her development and remembers in particular a program Karin staged in 1989 for the school’s National Capital Dancers. It featured newly choreographed works by Joe Scoglio (Midstream), Natalie Weir (The Host) and Paul Mercurio (A Moment of Choice). ‘Janet was so supportive of new choreography,’ Lane says. ‘I really got connected with contemporary movement as a result.’

After completing her school studies at Canberra’s Stirling College, Lane went to Perth to study at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA) from where she graduated with a Diploma of Performing Arts, and where she developed further her interest in contemporary dance and choreography. Between 2000 and 2014 she worked with a range of companies and in a range of cities and venues in Europe as both a performer and choreographer. Now Lane is back in Canberra and her newest work, Metal Park, will be performed by Quantum Leap, Canberra’s youth dance company, in a triple bill named Terra Firma.

After the opening in Vienna in April of The Trojan Women, a theatre piece directed by Australian Adena Jacobs with choreography by Lane, and following a brief stint in Heidelberg doing preliminary work on a dance theatre piece due to open next year, Lane arrived in Canberra just two weeks before Metal Park’s opening night. I wondered how she would go about teaching the new work, and preparing the dancers of Quantum Leap for the experience.

‘I began working with Quantum Leap on Metal Park, which is the first work I have created in Canberra, in January of this year,’ she says. ‘We had an intensive two and a half weeks of development time. It was a little challenging because of the pandemic, which was at a peak. We had dancers in lockdown, dancers zooming in and a number of other difficulties. Then I had to go back to Europe. But now I’m here and I am looking forward to getting back to work in person with the dancers. I find working with young people quite inspiring. There is something magical about the sense of imagination and creativity they have, and their level of enthusiasm and energy is thrilling.’

Quantum Leap dancers rehearsing Metal Park, 2022. Photo: © Lorna Sim

Metal Park is an extension of aspects of some of Lane’s earlier works in which she has examined links between the body and objects or props. ‘It’s about zooming in on everyday reactions we have with materiality,’ she explains, ‘and using those reactions to question how we relate to our environment. It is a way too of encouraging the dancers to work with materials—objects of various kinds— as part of their practice.’ Metal Park will be performed to a sound composition by Lane’s partner, Christopher Clark, and will have lighting by Mark Dyson.

We can look forward too to further work from Lane in Canberra. In June she will be appearing at the National Gallery of Australia with Jo Lloyd (details to be confirmed). Also in June the Brisbane-based Australasian Dance Collective will present her work Alterum at the Canberra Theatre Centre as part of a triple bill, Three. She will also shortly start preliminary work on a future production in collaboration with the Canberra Symphony Orchestra. Stay tuned.

Terra Firma, which will include works by Cadi McCarthy and Steve and Lilah Gow in addition to Lane’s Metal Park, is at the Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre, from 26 to 28 May 2022.

Michelle Potter, 15 May 2022

Featured image: Melanie Lane conducting a summer intensive for her new work Metal Park, 2022. Photo: © Lorna Sim

Kunstkamer. The Australian Ballet

7 May 2022 (matinee). Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

David Hallberg has given his directorship of the Australian Ballet a name, a conceptual idea, for us to ponder—’A New Era’. The company’s latest production, Kunstkamer, brings reality to Hallberg’s concept. Kunstkamer is a complete change for the Australian Ballet. It is a magnificent, brilliantly conceived, exceptionally performed work giving audiences (and perhaps even the dancers) a whole new look at what dance can achieve, and maybe even what we can expect for the next several years under Hallberg?.

Inspired by an eighteenth-century publication Cabinet of Natural Curiosities, and first performed by Nederlands Dans Theater (NDT) in its 2019-2020 season, Kunstkamer (literally art room in Dutch) is the work of four choreographers, Sol León, Paul Lightfoot, Crystal Pite and Marco Goecke. Cabinets of curiosities date back several centuries and were collections of paintings and other items—curiosities—from around the world and were precursors to what we think of today as museums. Kunstkamer is a dance work in 18 separate sections and, to my mind, fits beautifully within the notion of a collection of unusual, beautiful, incredible items, and even within the idea of a room or several rooms containing such items.

Take the set by León and Lightfoot and the lighting (Tom Bevoort, Ubo Haberland and Tom Visser) for example. The set was architecturally inspired and as each dance section began the screens that made up the set slid into a new formation, or lighting changed our perspective of the ‘room’. It was as if we had moved from one room of a museum to another. Of course there are other ways of looking at how the set was used. Dancers entered and left through a series of doors built into one part of the set, often slamming them noisily. Coming and going. Changing styles. Any number of thoughts come to mind.

Then there were the various sections that made up the dance component. Each section was unique and all carried allusions of various kinds—to the work of other choreographers for example and William Forsythe and Jiří Kylián spring straight to mind. The opening scene for Part II, seen in the image below, was motionless but somehow incredibly moving and, as the dancer sat there, a front curtain descended and rose again reminding us of Forsythe’s Artifact. Then there were references to various trends in the visual arts, especially those of the late 19th, early 20th century; and even allusions to other theatrical styles, Butoh for example when dancers appeared white-faced and open-mouthed.

Opening scene from Part II, Kunstkamer. The Australian Ballet 2022. Photo: © Daniel Boud

As for the choreography, it was contemporary movement—angular poses, stretched limbs, movement that often seemed quite raw rather than controlled, but often an emphasis on group shapes and unison movement.

Dancers of the Australian Ballet in Kunstkamer, 2022. Photo: © Daniel Boud

The standout dancer at the performance I saw was Benedicte Bemet, who seemed totally transformed. I have always admired her dancing but this time gone was the ‘ballerina look’ (as beautiful as that can be) and there onstage was an artist able to move into a new world when required. She was magnificent. I also particularly enjoyed the performances by Callum Linnane and Adam Bull and the very strong introductory moments from guest dancer Jorge Nozal, who appeared with NDT in the same role (described in the printed program as ‘the enigmatic ghost character’). But every dancer rose to the occasion brilliantly. I got the feeling that they just loved dancing Kunstkamer with all its weird and wonderful aspects, including the speech, often incomprehensible chatter, and the singing by the dancers that was included. The music itself was as as varied as the choreography and ranged from Beethoven to Janis Joplin and included at one stage a pianist playing onstage.

What an unbelievably incredible show this was from beginning to end! I understand it is being streamed on 10 June. If you can’t get to see it live, check out the streaming details.


Michelle Potter, 10 May 2022

Featured image: Benedicte Bemet in Kunstkamer. The Australian Ballet, 2022. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Dance diary. April 2022

  • Australian Dance Week 2022

Ausdance ACT has welcomed the beginning of Dance Week with an opening event held at Gorman Arts Centre, Canberra, on International Dance Day, 29 April.

Following this celebratory opening, the ACT organisation has programmed a varied selection of events over the week until 8 May. The program reflects the current focus in the ACT on community dance and dance for people with varying skills and interests throughout that community. There is a strong focus in the 2022 program on classes to try and workshops to experience. One of the most fascinating to my mind happens on 1 May and is the Chinese Tiger and Lion Dance Workshop—not something that is offered often! See the full program at this link.

In addition, QL2 Dance launched, also on 29 April, a 12 minute film, Unavoidable casualty. This film examines ways in which young dancers might express how they have felt and managed difficult, even traumatic events they have experienced, or seen others experience. Unavoidable casualty is available to watch until 8 May at this link. Watch to the end to see a beautiful finishing section in which some of the dancers are introduced one by one. Choreography is by Stephen Gow and Ruth Osborne.

Scene from Unavoidable casualty. QL2 Dance, 2022. Photo: © Lorna Sim
  • A story from my past

In 2019 I was in New York briefly for the celebration of 75 years of the Dance Division of the New York Public Library. As part of the event I was asked to talk about the acquisitions I especially remember from my time as curator there. It brought back memories of a rather amazing visit I made to a gallery in downtown Manhattan in 2007.

A small but significant collection of posters from the 1960s to the 1980s for performances by the Merce Cunningham Dance Company was being prepared for sale in the gallery. They were the work of some of those truly exceptional artists who collaborated with MCDC during those decades: Frank Stella, Robert Rauschenberg, Morris Graves, Jasper Johns and others. The suggestion came that I should go down to this gallery and see if there was any material I would like for the Dance Division. So off I went. There I was met by Julian Lethbridge, himself a fine artist. Julian introduced me to the gentleman who was hanging the show. There he was up a ladder in his jeans. ‘Oh Michelle,’ Julian said. ‘I’d like you to meet Jasper Johns.’ Only in New York, I thought to myself.

But apart from the shock that the man up the ladder in jeans was Jasper Johns, the material was amazing and every poster was signed by Merce. And the escapade was also an example of the philanthropic generosity that keeps the Dance Division running. The items I selected were bought for the Division by Anne Bass and were appropriately hung in the Division’s 2007 exhibition INVENTION Merce Cunningham and collaborators.

I was reminded of this acquisition and the meeting I had with Jasper Johns when just recently I noticed, via Google Analytics, that views of the obituary on this website, which I wrote for Anne in 2020, had been steadily rising (around the second anniversary of her death).

  • Anna Karenina

Anna Karenina live (as opposed to the streamed version) left me a little underwhelmed, so I decided not to do a full review but simply to make a few comments. Despite the so-called ’rave reviews’ that have appeared in various places, I found it interesting but not a great production, despite some exceptional design and projections, and some fine dancing. It was highly episodic, which is hardly surprising given the length and depth of the book on which it was based. But for me that episodic nature meant that there was no strong through line to the production. My mind flicked back to Graeme Murphy’s Romeo and Juliet. It was also episodic in nature as it skipped from place to place, era to era. But one of its great strengths was the addition to the work of the symbolic figure of Death, powerfully performed by Adam Bull. Death constantly hovered in the background and drew the episodes together.

Apart from the problem of the work’s episodic nature, I still find it hard to understand why the ending, which followed Anna’s suicide, was so, so long and featured (and ended with) two secondary characters, Kitty and Levin. Wasn’t the ballet about Anna Karenina?

  • A new Swan Lake?

As part of a Mothers’ Day promotional email, I discovered that the Australian Ballet is planning a new production of Swan Lake for 2023! I was a little surprised I have to say but will wait to hear more before further comments.

Michelle Potter, 30 April 2022

Featured image: Poster for Ausdance ACT Dance Week 2022

Dance for Ukraine

Dance for Ukraine, a humanitarian appeal to raise money for Ukraine and its people, was put together and directed by Alina Cojocaru (Romania) and Ivan Putrov (Ukraine). It was staged on 19 March 2022 at the London Coliseum and was streamed on Marquee TV making it accessible for those of us who live outside London. It was a great opportunity to see a range of artists dancing a range of choreography, some of it familiar, some not, some filled with sadness and mourning, some filled with joy and hope. It was also a great opportunity to donate via the (minimal) cost to stream, with the possibility of making a further donation as well.

The gala opened with a dramatic and moving rendition of the Ukrainian national anthem. This powerful and emotion-filled singing by a small choir of voices led by Ksenia Nikolaieva was followed by short, spoken introductions by Cojocaru and Putrov, who trained together as children in Kyiv. Then the dancing began.

It was a initial shock that the first dance was a pas de deux from Liam Scarlett’s No Man’s Land. I am lucky enough to have seen this work twice, once with English National Ballet, who commissioned the work in 2014, and once with Queensland Ballet, who staged it in 2017. It is an extraordinary work and my initial shock was nothing to do with its appropriateness for the gala. It was appropriate as this pas deux concerns a woman’s reaction to her realisation that the man in her life was not returning from war. My feeling of shock was that we were seeing a work by Scarlett, one which I thought I would never see again. It was, however, an exceptional experience to see once more the sense of loss conveyed by Scarlett’s choreography and, of course, death is now part of the Scarlett story so a certain degree of symbolism could easily be felt. The Act II pas de deux from Scarlett’s version of Swan Lake was also featured later in the program.

Looking at the program as a whole, the standout dancer for me was Francesco Gabriele Frola partnering Mayara Magri in the Ali and Medora pas de deux from Le Corsaire. Frola is now a principal with English National Ballet and his technique and stage presence are spectacular. He is one of those dancers who gives one goose bumps from the minute he steps onstage, not to mention the gasps that can’t be held back when watching his manèges, his beats, his turns and his beautiful attention to his partner.

Mayara Magri and Francesco Gabriele Frola in a pas de deux from Le corsaire. Dance for Ukraine, London 2022. Photo: © Elliott Franks

Also highly interesting were two male solos—The Dying Swan danced by Cuban born Javier Torres with choreography from Michel Descombey and Lacrymosa danced by Royal Ballet first soloist Luca Acri with choreography by Edward Stierle. This Dying Swan was a far cry from the Anna Pavlova version with which many are more than familiar. It had a very human element to the choreography as we watched a man, whose life seemed to be crumbling under physical pressures, hover closer and closer to death, although fluttering hands and arms paid service to the original solo. Luca Acri danced his solo, Lacrymosa, to a section of Mozart’s Requiem and showed off a stunning technique full of control, fluidity and power.

There were some items that were not so steeped in sorrow. I enjoyed a beautiful performance of Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky pas de deux danced by the magnificent Marianela Nuñez partnered by Reece Clarke and also a work I had never seen before, one of Ben Stevenson’s Three Preludes danced by Junor Souza and Emma Hawes. The Stevenson work, danced around and on a portable barre, was quite simple but beautiful in the way it showed an arrangement of shapes that can be put together by two dancers working with a strictly classical vocabulary. Then there was a performance of the grand pas de deux from Carlos Accosta’s production of Don Quixote performed with panache by Miki Muzitani and Mathias Dingman.

Miki Mizutani and Mathias Dingman in Don Quixote. Dance for Ukraine, London 2022. Photo: © Elliott Franks

Other works included a section from FAR by Wayne McGregor, an extract from John Neumeier’s Lady of the Camellias with Alina Cojocaru and Mathieu Ganio, a section from Bournonville’s La Sylphide, a work called Ashes choreographed by Jason Kittelberger and danced by Natalia Osipova, and a section from Kenneth MacMillan’s Requiem.

Cojocaru and Putrov have said ‘We are united in our belief that art can and must stand up for humanity. So many of our fellow artists believe the same and have joined us to show their support for the people of Ukraine in this moment of need.’

Michelle Potter, 26 April 2022.

With thanks to Elliott Franks for permission to use his images. The streaming of Dance for Ukraine on Marquee TV ended on 24 April.

UPDATE: Availability extended until 2 May.

December. Jake Silvestro

2 April 2022. The Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre

The work of Jake Silvestro defies categorisation. He is at once a dancer, a circus performer, a physical theatre artist, and a visual artist. All these qualities appear quite clearly in his solo show, December.

As we enter the theatre for December, our eyes are drawn to a dimly-lit stage covered by detritus that looks initially like rocks but turns out to be large sheets of crumpled paper. A fireplace without a surrounding wall sits in one downstage corner. We can hear the sound of birds chirping in the background and, as the show proper begins, the lighting changes to a reddish glow. Silvestro walks into this setting and rustles around in the scrunched paper. He uncovers some items including a small box, which we later discover is filled with pieces of chalk and other materials used for drawing; and a curved piece of wood of some sort, which later turns out to be part of a Cyr wheel. December is Silvestro’s personal reflections on the disastrous fires that consumed parts of the Australian bush in December 2019 and into 2020. That reddish lighting of course suggests those fires! And the set suggests a burnt out residence.

Throughout the piece, Silvestro moves around the set sometimes in a slow, thoughtful walk, but most times with spectacular leaps, runs, tumbles and jumps. He sometimes uses the props on the set as aids or additions to his movement. A dance with two chairs, one untouched by the fire, the other damaged, which he uncovers from amongst the crumpled detritus, shows us his skills in incorporating objects into his choreography. His interest in the visual arts takes over on a number of occasions and he manipulates large pieces of cloth so they become a background for his drawing and painting. He takes out some chalk from the box he found and draws geometric patterns on the stage floor. I wonder what he is doing but decide he must be drawing the floor plan of the burnt out residence. Or perhaps how the house will look when he rebuilds.

Jake Silvestro performing in December. Photo: © Ian Sutherland, 2020

At one stage Silvestro picks up some pieces of fabric that he fashions into items that represent people. One represents a baby. He cradles it in his arms. Another is a head (of a woman, a partner perhaps). He touches it lovingly and then dances with it. A storyline is in there somewhere but it’s up to us to make it up.

Two particular moments stand out for me. In one Silvestro picks up the piece of curved wood he has rescued from the crumpled mess on the floor and joins it to another larger piece of circular material so that a Cyr wheel is created. He is a fabulous performer on this item of circus paraphernalia and his whirling and spinning while inside the wheel are breathtaking. In another he adds a brightly coloured shirt to his rather workman-like costume (that of someone who has been fighting the fire perhaps), picks up some brightly coloured hoops and proceeds to engage us with a brilliant display as he manipulates the hoops, letting them play up and down and across his body. It is a particularly joyous moment compared with most of the rest of the work and suggests perhaps that there is hope for the future.

December was an engaging show filled with many emotions and some great movement. I wish, however, that there had been some sort of handout, or information board in the foyer, that at least gave credits. I have no idea who did the lighting, who designed the soundscape, who was responsible for the setting and so on. Some of us like to know, especially if we are writing up the show. Perhaps next time?

Michelle Potter, 5 April 2022