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

SPLIT. Lucy Guerin Inc. Photo: © Gregory Lorenzutti

SPLIT. Lucy Guerin Inc.

12 August 2018. The Studio, Sydney Opera House

SPLIT began with two dancers, one wearing a rather drab, blue-grey dress, the other naked, performing on a marked-out square on the floor of the Studio, the Sydney Opera House’s most intimate performing space. Both dancers executed the same movements in unison. At times the choreography consisted of small movements of the arms, even just the fingers. At other times it gathered momentum and was almost wild as arms flew up and around. Sometimes it was done on the spot. Other times it moved around the marked-out square. The dancers were astonishing, both of them, in keeping together no matter what the choreography encompassed. They reminded me of the best Cunningham dancers whose sense of ‘body time’ produces similar qualities.

But, in this opening section, what fascinated me more than anything else was how different the choreography looked on the naked dancer (Lilian Steiner) from the view one had of it on the clothed dancer (Melanie Lane). On the naked body the choreography showed how remarkable and articulate the dancing body can be. This is not at all to take away from the performance of Lane but it was a shock to see how much of the mechanics and beauty of Lucy Guerin’s choreography was lost with a covered up torso (as naive as that might sound).

After this opening, and also longest section, the splits occurred. Over the course of the performance the dancers stopped several times and, using white tape that adhered to the floor, divided into two the space in which they had been dancing. After several such divisions, the space was so small that the show came to an inevitable end. And of course as the space got smaller the connections between the dancers was affected, as of course was their freedom to move.

But, while the split caused by these divisions was spatially determined, there was also an emotional split between the dancers. The  unison dancing gave way to what was a kind of anger-driven connection between them. There were times when silent screams seemed to fill the air and in one tortured moment it looked like Steiner was ripping out Lane’s insides and eating them. A few recurring motifs indicated ongoing conflict.

SPLIT. Lucy Guerin Inc. Photo: © Gregory Lorenzutti
SPLIT. Lucy Guerin Inc. Photo: © Gregory Lorenzutti

But in my mind there was also a split in Guerin’s approach. At times she seemed to have made SPLIT from a totally intellectual point of view. The beautiful unison of the opening section was quite matter of fact in many respects and throughout that opening section there was no real emotional connection between the dancers and us—no change of facial expression for example. And the spatial division made in subsequent sections was also quite matter of fact. It was simple geometry. Even the timing was intellectually motivated with each section being half as long as the preceding one. So how then did we sit on the edge of our seats as the work progressed? That effect was not matter of fact but emotional involvement. Extraordinary really.

Music was by London-based electronic musician Scanner and was just a two and a half-minute sample on a loop. (I read this in an interesting article about Guerin and her musical tastes in the August 2018 edition of Limelight). It was relentless, as one might expect, but its match with the choreography was absorbing. I also enjoyed being drawn in by the lighting (Paul Lim), which moved between down lights and side lights, with the latter projecting shadows of the dancers onto a white screen at one side of the performance area.

SPLIT was a totally absorbing 45 minute (or so) show and was brilliantly danced by Lane and Steiner. I look forward to Lucy Guerin’s next show and regret it has been so long since I saw her work.

Michelle Potter, 13 August 2018

Featured image: SPLIT. Lucy Guerin Inc. Photo: © Gregory Lorenzutti

SPLIT. Lucy Guerin Inc. Photo: Gregory Lo
Badu Gili (Water Light), sydney Opera House, 2017. Photo: Michelle Potter

Dance diary. July 2017

  • Badu Gili (Water Light)

As part of NAIDOC Week 2017, and launched the night before the world premiere of Bangarra Dance Theatre’s latest production Bennelong, the eastern side of the ‘Bennelong Sail’ of the Sydney Opera House was lit at specified times during the evening by a series of stunning projections of indigenous design. Curated by Rhoda Roberts and featuring the work of several indigenous artists, Badu Gili celebrates ancient stories with a loop of constantly changing visual imagery. It was a fitting prelude to Bangarra’s spectacular Bennelong program and in many respects was ‘dancing art’. It will be shown each evening for the  next year.

  • Made on the body. Choreography from the Royal Ballet

As an extra event during the Royal Ballet’s recent program in Brisbane, an exhibition of photographs, video clips and historical information was on show in the Tony Gould Gallery at QPAC. Six photographs by Rick Guest occupied the space just outside the main gallery space.

Photographs by Rick Guest, Made on the Body, QPAC 2017
Photographs by Rick Guest, Made on the Body, QPAC 2017

Inside, the gallery had several large screens (or scrims really) on which footage was projected. The show was lit theatrically so that it occasionally seemed that visitors were onstage themselves.

Made on the body screens, QPAC 2017
Made on the body, QPAC 2017

Other footage, some from archival sources, could be viewed on smaller screens situated on long tables elsewhere in the space. In addition to this footage, several areas in the exhibition space were devoted to the history of British choreography as made for the Royal Ballet, including a special focus on Wayne McGregor and Christopher Wheeldon, whose work we saw in Brisbane. My favourite quotes from Wayne McGregor and Christopher Wheeldon were:

I am designing an EXPERIENCE for the viewer that may stimulate their visual sense, their acoustic sense, their kinaesthetic senses, individually or all at the same time; it may move them emotionally or challenge them intellectually, and all of these are valuable and legitimate layers of meaning, or making sense. (Wayne McGregor)

Often in my own choreographies I have actively conspired to disrupt the space in which the body performs. Each intervention, usually some kind of addition, is an attempt to see the context of the body in a new or alien way. (Christopher Wheeldon)

  • At the National Portrait Gallery, Canberra

Currently on display, but hidden in a small room at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra, is a 9 minute video portrait of actor Cate Blanchett, made in 2008 by David Rosetzky. I had not come across it before but it was quite a beautiful shoot with choreography by Lucy Guerin and music by David Franzke.

Guerin’s choreography was quite simple for the feet and legs, but more complex for the hands and arms, which folded themselves into intricate positions. It was very nicely performed by Blanchett who changed clothes often and spoke throughout, largely pondering on who she was, how she thought she connected with people, and so forth. Worth seeing if it comes your way. Below is a video from the National Portrait Gallery featuring Rosetzky discussing the making of this portrait.

  • Press for July 2016

‘Dance work with a timely message.’ Preview of This Poisoned Sea, Quantum Leap. The Canberra Times, 5 July 2017, p. 18. Online version.

‘Canberrans shortlisted for awards.’ Story on Canberran dance ventures shortlisted for the 2017 Australian Dance Awards, The Canberra Times, 13 July 2017, p. 19. Online version.

A moment from 'Annette' in Great Sport!, the GOLD company, 2016. Photo: © Lorna Sim
A moment from ‘Annette’ in Great Sport!, 2016. Photo: © Lorna Sim.

Great Sport! was devised and directed by Liz Lea, who is one on the ACT-based artists nominated for a 2017 Australian Dance Award. See this link for my 2016 review.

Michelle Potter, 31 July 2017

Featured image: Sydney Opera House during Badu Gili, 2017. Photo: © Michelle Potter

Badu Gili (Water Light), sydney Opera House, 2017. Photo: Michelle Potter

Dance diary. July 2011

During July I posted only two items to this site, other than this update on my activities. The month has in fact been very busy as I have been deep in research on the career of designer Kristian Fredrikson. While I thought I was aware of the extent of his theatrical activity, I have been totally amazed at just how prolific and diverse he was since he designed his first work, the operetta A Night in Venice, in Wellington in 1962. My list of his works, which eventually will form the backbone to my book, now numbers 128, although I am not yet through searching as well as checking and confirming dates and venues.

In addition, in July I had the privilege of recording an oral history interview for the National Library of Australia with Paul de Masson. Paul’s career as a dancer and ballet master, and now as a teacher in Melbourne, has also been extraordinarily diverse. He is a great raconteur and a great impersonator—wonderful oral history material emerged. I heard reports that he gave exceptional performances as Njegus in the Australian Ballet’s recent Melbourne season of The Merry Widow. Melbourne audiences will, I believe, also be able to see him as the Red King in the forthcoming British Liaisons program.

I also finally got to see Lucy Guerin Inc’s production of Untrained, which visited Canberra on the last stop of a long nation-wide tour. What an engaging insight into how the body reveals a personality.

Michelle Potter, 31 July 2011