Personal Effigies: a conversation with Melanie Lane

Zoe Theodore

Melanie Lane’s practice is concerned with how alternative environments can influence our bodies’ experience of the world. Committed to exploring different forms of movement and modes of performativity, she has collaborated with body builders, exotic dancers, ballet dancers and martial arts professionals to create works that negotiate the physical effect of trained bodies. Each of Lane’s collaborators bring their own distinct physical history to her work, and her collaborative process involves delving into this history and building a new choreographic language together. Her most recent work Nightdance, for example, included cameo appearances from local burlesque performers Benjamin Hancock, Sidney Saayman and Ryan Ritchie. Their inclusion in the work also extended beyond these cameos, as she and her fellow dancers worked with the performers during the work’s development to draw upon the burlesque performance paradigm and explore the staging of seduction.

Each work begins with a new approach to the body, drawing upon the performative history of trained bodies to construct an imagined identity and choreographic language. Grappling with the potential of personal transformation, Lane constructs these fictional identities as a tool to explore different forms of performative labour. This process is evident in Lane’s work Nightvision, commissioned by Lucy Guerin Inc for Pieces for Small Spaces in 2014, where Lane invited twelve-year-old jazz dancer, Briana Corchado, to join her in creating a duet. Through this collaboration, the work imagines a relationship between a mother and daughter, or two sisters, or even the past and future self.

After spending the last decade exploring other people’s bodies, Lane returns to her own embodied experience and training, creating her first solo work in eight years for the 2018 Keir Choreographic Award. Entitled Personal Effigies, this new work is an attempt to negotiate her own physical training, exploring the nexus of her Western dance training alongside lineages of Javanese dance. Through this process of self-discovery Lane also uncovers the lasting effect of her collaborators bodies on her choreographic processes and language. Collaborating with a costume designer for the first time, they will work together to explore Lane’s personal history to construct an imagined identity through an elaborate dressing of the body. I spoke with Lane about her choreographic process and the cultural lineages present in her work while she was in the early stages of the work’s development.


Melanie Lane, Re-make (2016) image credit: Gregory Lorenzutti


Zoe Theodore: Let’s begin by talking about the work you’re developing for the Keir?

Melanie Lane: The title of the work is Personal Effigies and [at the time of this conversation] I’m really only at the beginning of the work’s development, only having had a few days in the studio. In this initial development period, I am working with different archetypes of the body, including imaginary ones, as well as personal and physical histories of the body.

In my most recent work I have been interested in uncovering other people’s physical or cultural histories that have been embedded in their bodies. This work, however, is an exercise of uncovering my own embodied history. It is actually the first solo I have made in about eight years.

As well as looking into my own personal history, I am interested in looking at the representation of the body in an external sense and am collaborating with costume designer, Paula Levis. Our collaboration is about looking into these physical and cultural histories and creating imaginary archetypes together. We are also interested in thinking about the way the body is dressed and how this dressing transforms, influences or informs the body.

The work will also include an original score by musician and long-term collaborator Chris Clark, who is also my husband. I foresee the work will be quite intimate, and this will be the first time he will perform alongside me onstage, creating a live/personal dialogue.


ZT: Can you give me some insights into your choreographic process? Especially as you’re in this process right now—how is it manifesting in this new work?

ML: I am always looking for tools for my body to negotiate, whether it is ideas or language. For this work, because it’s about negotiating my own personal and physical histories, I have gone back to the training that is embedded in my body, as well as other histories or influences that have had an effect on my body. I am also interested in dreaming up future fantasies of the body drawn from the slippery ecologies that we inhabit.

I have been looking at my ballet training and my training in Javanese dance, as well as a lot of the techniques that I have learnt from other people. During this process, I have discovered that there are these ‘other humans’ embedded in my body as well.

The choreographic process for my work for the Keir is about developing a language that is concerned with navigating these different histories and fantasies, as well as trying to uncover what lies in-between these experiences. I suppose it is about seeing how the body negotiates sitting in these in-between spaces and witnessing how the body transforms.


ZT: You regularly engage collaborators in your work. For example, in Merge, made for Dance Massive 2015, you collaborated with two visual artists, Ash Keating and Bridie Lunney. Can you talk about how you engage others in your choreographic process? How are your collaborators involved in the process for Personal Effigies?

ML: This is the first time I’ve worked with a costume designer in such an involved way. The process with Paula has begun with very interesting conversations about the possibility of dressing the body. In these conversations, we have talked a lot about the artificial body versus the natural body. We keep returning to the word ‘natural’ and how it has become more present in our language these days because things are becoming more artificial…. So, in our process of dressing the body we are questioning: what is natural and what is artificial? How do we enhance ourselves through dress or even make ourselves disappear? Or how do we transform ourselves with those textures and materials?

The collaborative process with Chris is very fluid—it begins with conversations and then he develops sketches which I flip through and select. For this work, the process is very new for the both of us. As he is performing live, we have been working together on long improvised sessions. He is working predominantly with live cello.


ZT: And are you finding that the idea or the potential of dressing your body is influencing your choreographic process for Personal Effigies?

ML: Absolutely. It is actually really interesting how your character or demeanour is influenced by dress. In this process, we are trying to draw upon my Javanese heritage, alongside influences of my time in Europe, as well as an imagined future. There is a strange combination or collage of history that is emerging and intersecting.

While it has been tricky to define those representations of the body, we currently have a few key concepts forming… The idea is that Paula will create some prototypes, so I can start working with them on my body as soon as possible—allowing the dress to become a part of the choreographic process.


ZT: In your past work, I get the sense that you tend to begin with an idea and then extrapolate. How do you find an appropriate choreographic vocabulary for each work?

ML: My last few works have been concerned with working with bodies that have a very specific physical training. For example, for Re-make [which was commissioned by Chunky Move for Next Move 2016] I worked with Juliet Burnett [a previous soloist of The Australian Ballet]. This work became a lot about her teaching me about her physical experience and training so that I could understand it and then negotiate her experience with my own choreographic tools.

I had a similar process with my work WonderWomen, where I worked with two body builders, Rosie Harte and Nathalie Schmidt. During the choreographic development of this work they taught me all about their physical experience and training. I trained with them and even did their diet and then tried negotiating that experience with the choreographic tools in my body.

For my most recent work, Nightdance, I invited local exotic dancers, burlesque and night entertainers to conduct a series of workshops from which we learnt a spectrum of physical tools around seduction and entertainment in public space. This largely informed the language of the performance and I invited some of these artists to appear, as themselves, in the work.


ZT: Despite these disparate forms of performativity and choreographic languages, can you talk about the commonalities between them?

ML: I’m very interested in how the body negotiates our environments and informs how we experience the world. Both these works have been concerned with bodies that experience specific physical training. In addition to these works, I have also trained in boxing in Taiwan for my work Titles, as well as working with a young jazz dancer, Briana Corchado, for my work Night Vision as part of Pieces for Small Spaces 2014.

I’m also interested in working with material objects, exploring the body’s relationship to inanimate things. I believe we are always in dialogue with inanimate things, even in a subconscious way. I think this interest comes from my mother’s relationship to objects. She has polio and uses objects to help navigate her through the world. It is also very hard to define where it starts and ends in her body. This interest also relates to ideas of different representation of the body, because when I envisage my mother’s body it includes those pieces. I have always been interested in applying this idea to movement.


Melanie Lane, WonderWomen (2016) image credit: Hannes Kempert


ZT: Can you talk about how narrative functions within your work?

ML: That is an interesting question… I never really try to create a score; it usually evolves within the work as it finds its own language and then its own narrative. For this issue of Runway, however, Runway has also commissioned a video artist, Leyla Stevens, to make a video work responding to my work.

During this process, Leyla asked me to write her a score in relation to my work for the Keir—which I did. This was a really interesting process as I wrote an imaginary score for a work that I haven’t made yet to enable us to have a clearer dialogue. This may or may not influence the work…


ZT: Can you talk about the influence of your Javanese heritage in your work?

ML: My mother is Javanese and travelled to Australia when she was very young. Once she arrived in Australia she only returned to Java once or twice, so in the past I didn’t have a very strong connection to my Javanese heritage. This connection has been ignited in recent years, as I have done some projects in Indonesia that have brought me closer to the culture.

During this time, I trained in Javanese dance taking private classes in Solo, which is the heart of where the Javanese dance is studied. There are so many different [dance] traditions in the whole of Indonesia, and I come from central Java, where the classical Javanese dance of the Kraton (palace) is very strong. [This type of dance] is very refined and the technique is strict. It is very slow and very meditative for the women, while for the men it can be much more dynamic. I have also trained in Sumatra, learning Pencak Silat, which is more like dance derived from martial arts.

While this [cultural lineage] is something that is embedded in me, I don’t speak about it directly in my work. It is something, however, that I am interested in drawing out and looking at a little closer. Having spent almost half my life in Europe and away from this culture, the influence of these lineages in my work are still forming, it is still a learning process.

Zoe Theodore is a freelance producer, writer, editor and curator based in Narrm, Melbourne. She was the Co-Editor of Dissect Journal’s third issue and has...


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