When Melanie Lane was a little girl studying ballet at the National Capital Ballet School, she was fascinated by the coloured human anatomy posters on the studio wall showing different muscle groups.
“Our teacher, Janet Curran, would ask us to think about the quadriceps or hamstrings, so there was this strong visual reference to the body for making dance,” Lane says.
It paid off: Lane returns to Canberra with the Sydney Dance Company this week for a 50th-anniversary triple bill celebration that includes one of her major dance works, WOOF.
Her passion for choreography also began with those influential childhood ballet classes. “We’d have studio showings where we’d present rehearsals and productions like most schools,” Lane says. “But we were also given studio space and time to create our own choreography. A lot of schools don’t have that as part of their curriculum, so it was forward thinking and probably quite influential at the time.”
Lane studied at the prestigious Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts before heading to Europe where she spent 15 years based in Germany, working as a freelance independent artist and performer. “I’ve been choreographing since Berlin in 2004 and it’s a highly important part of my practice as an artist,” she says.
Her focus is on the body and how it works in dance, and that’s led her to make works about subjects as diverse as bodybuilders and exotic drag performers. “As a dancer, I’m interested in the trained body, how it relates to ideas about femininity, all the questions and challenges around that.”
Lane has also worked with the Australian Ballet’s Juliet Burnett to make a full-length work looking at the experience of being a dancer, their repertoire and their physical history. It’s a kind of deep, ongoing investigation into what the body does in performance and how it can work.
WOOF was made for the large ensemble of the Sydney Dance Company and is a collective work where the focus is on all 12 dancers rather than solos or duets. Lane says that the dancers work together every day as a collective troop, so the piece is about collectivity, the power of the energy and the group.
“We steal from classical dance, military actions, pop culture even club culture in the work. It’s a bit futuristic, but it’s also a ritualised spectacle that has power in numbers. It’s a democratic piece where everyone works together,” Lane says.
The piece is several years old, so coming back to it with an almost entirely new cast of dancers has also been a challenge. “I want to bring them together as a group but also allow each dancer to contribute their personal style and quality into the work. You adjust it to the people you work with and their humanity, their personalities.
“It’s all about having a dialogue with them.”
WOOF is part of a triple bill for the Sydney Dance Company’s 50th anniversary season that also includes artistic director Rafael Bonachela’s work Cinco, choreographed for this year’s show. Based on the world of numbers and mathematics, the work features five dancers to perform all five movements of a string quartet composed in the 1950s.
Bonachela says the string quartet music “is like rock and roll for me, it’s frantic, fearless, virtuosic”, adding that virtuosity in dance is also important to him.
The third piece on the bill comes from Gabrielle Nankivell. It’s called Neon Aether and references science fiction, interstellar clouds and the possibilities beyond.
The Sydney Dance Company is at the Canberra Theatre from May 2 – 4.