Et in arcadia ego: Melanie Lane’s new dance opera

Melanie Lane's 'Arkadia'. Photo by Gregory Lorenzutti.
Melanie Lane's 'Arkadia'. Photo by Gregory Lorenzutti.

Dystopia may well be the current nightmare of choice, but that has not stopped some of us dwelling on the notion of utopia. Indeed, people have long envisioned forms of paradise, some in the afterlife, others more Earthly. From the meditative to the murderous, we have concocted spiritual practices, political ideologies, and speculative fictions in pursuit of the utopian dream.

Now, in the depths of a southern winter, the bright utopic light will be imagined once more, this time as dance opera. When Australian/Javanese choreographer Melanie Lane brought her new work, Arkadia, to the stage at Melbourne’s RISING Festival in June, five dancers embodied the age-old longing and, more importantly, hinted at the deeper questions. How do we construct our utopias, and what does that say about us?

Arkadia is drawing on stories that have been told over and over again across many different cultures, and also a lot in science fiction,” Lane explains. “I was very interested in that space, particularly the fictional realm. It’s a way that we can create distance from our reality in order to reflect on it, which felt like an interesting space from which to create a dance work.”

Although the term Arkadia (or Arcadia) refers to a region in Greece, it has long been synonymous with the idea of pastoral paradise, therefore merging the physical with the abstract. Likewise, Lane’s Arkadia maps the ideal onto the corporeal.

“There’s a lot of mythology around the body in those spaces,” she reveals. “A lot of my work in recent times has been unpacking mythology as a way to look at the body. This work in particular is inherently a way to think about death and what happens to our bodies. Obviously, a lot of these mythologies and stories come out of that wondering about the unknown.”

Since utopias – and dystopias – are replete with mythic figures, many of them anthropomorphised, the body itself is transformed. As Lane says, “In researching this, there’s so many different mythological figures, whether they’re gods or aliens; and they have these supernatural bodies. That’s kind of what we’re exploring with this work. What is the supernatural body?”

The meta-mortal body theme is further underscored by the use of 3D animation. Tokyo based gaming animator Kim Laughton has created “this really beautiful, hyper-real environment in which the performers exist.”

Choreographically, this helps to blur normally stubborn lines. “So, that’s really part of it, having the dancers push into this fantasy or fictional realm…But we’re also diving into this idea that, in death, what do you bring with you?” Here, we revisit the gaming world, where death is not the end, simply a reset.

Infused as it is with grand ideas, Arkadia is billed as a dance opera. Indeed, as the work was being developed, Lane and her co-creatives realised that it was “kind of operatic.” Big existential themes, epicness, etcetera. “So, we really just leant into that,” she recalls. “For example, with the composer, Chris Clark, he’s been working a lot in film recently, so we’re going for the really virtuosic and dramatic, which is something that is often shied away from in contemporary dance.”

If this sounds highly technical and maximalist, Lane is quick to remind us that the work is gentle, rather than bombastic. Likewise, her creative approach was nowhere near as militant and punishing as many of our so-called utopian visions. Arkadia grew out of improv and dialogue between Lane and the five dancers.   

“This group are really striking in what they bring to the work,” she adds. “We do a lot of deep research into the themes we’re working on, but also, each dancer digs into their own understanding of what these things mean to them.”

When it premiered at Substation in June, Arkadia perhaps prompted a similar reflection. What does the idyllic look like to us? Who gets into our utopias, and who doesn’t? Or, as Lane might put it: what will we bring with us?

By Paul Ransom of Dance Informa.

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