The problem of narrative is that it necessarily reduces the world to a neat sequential representation, thereby knocking off the edges, smoothing out the contradictions and minimising uncertainties. Whereas religion, politics and literature have the tool of language to assist them in this trick, art forms like music, dance and painting need to frame their narratives in more ambiguous ways.
Thus, when the Melbourne Ballet Company (MBC) decided to wrap its 2016 programme around the ideas contained in Picasso’s classic 1937 painting, Guernica, it set itself a hefty conceptual challenge. By teasing out both the terror and the beauty contained in the artist’s response to the infamous bombing of a Basque market town ordered by General Franco’s fascist junta, MBC launched an ambitious creative campaign to examine aspects of light and dark.
As part of its overarching 2016 Intention and Desire motif, the company will present a triple bill this month entitled Empyrean containing short ballets by Tim Harbour, Simon Hoy and Rani Luther. In both Greek mythology and Dante’s Divine Comedy, Empyrean is a realm of pure light (or fire) just beneath Heaven; and as such, the three works will focus on the more light-filled aspects of the mortal condition we all share.
For Rani Luther, whose 20-minute ballet Illuminate will feature as part of Empyrean, there is a big universal at play. “I’m not a religious person,” she states, “but that idea that we’re always reaching for that kind of paradise or that better life got me thinking that we’ve all got that within us, almost on a yogic level.”
Having danced in both Europe and Australia with the likes of Nederlands Dans Theater, the Kiel Ballet and Sydney Dance Company, Luther is returning to MBC after having twins, and it is clear that she is relishing the chance to sink her choreographic teeth into such rich material.
On the topic of reaching for light, she says, “Over that is the noise, the distraction, the stress and kind of disease of human life. In this day and age, a lot of that light and enlightenment is completely covered up. But you know, when you find that moment or that breath, you can get a glimpse of it and see it within your own body.”
As a lifetime dancer/choreographer, it is entirely appropriate for her to cite the body in this context. “That’s the beauty of dance,” she says. “It’s why I love it. I find that when you can’t really express an idea in words, whether it’s an emotion or an experience, dance is a parallel for a kind of meditation.”
That said, Luther insists that “observable links” are still present in Illuminate. To what extent this qualifies as narrative remains to be seen. Back at the coalface, however, in the studio rehearsing the dancers, she is tapping into her casts’ individual personas to drive the work.
“Once the steps are in place, I really speak with them about intention,” she explains. “You know, a reach, for instance, is not just an arm out in front of you but, if you think about your heart reaching somewhere or your focus wanting to reach far beyond where you are, you kind of get that illusion.”
Of course this gloves neatly with the themes of intention, desire and transcendence embodied in Empyrean. But it’s not all spiritual and mythic. Making a work still involves nuts and bolts, not to mention the making of purely aesthetic decisions. According to Luther, “The most important thing for me in beginning a choreography is to choose the music, and it seems to take me forever. With this, I tried a lot of things, even some Bach, but I didn’t want to go that romantic, so I tried some Philip Glass. To me, his pieces just had this unearthly, almost outer space, feel and they then gave me the idea of for the title.”
Yet, aside from all the serious conceptualisation and rigorous attention to technique and detail, there is something else driving Luther this time around. The Illuminate commission marks her return to the vocation she loves.
“I’m so thrilled to be back in the arts world again after taking some time out and having my little twins,” she enthuses. “You know, after I got so injured I couldn’t dance, I sort of thought maybe I needed to look at studying something else. It was like a grieving process. Where am I? What am I going to do with the rest of my life? I thought it was almost unfair that at 35 my career had to end.”
Fortunately for her, MBC supremo Simon Hoy invited her back into the fold. Indeed, she describes the process as being somewhat cathartic. “This is so completely in my blood,” she says. “I started when I was five, professional at 17, and so it’s what I know inside and out, and I just feel so lucky now to be able to express it on the other side, as a choreographer.”
Whether Luther (or indeed anyone else) chooses to view this turn of events as part of a grand linear narrative is, of course, entirely their prerogative. As a writer, it’s tidier if it is; but as a dancer … well, it could just be another step.
By Paul Ransom of Dance Informa.