North Melbourne Town Hall, Melbourne, Victoria, August 24, 2017
A stagehand dressed in black makes the most of their invisibility cloak to move props into position. The great horned owl makes the most of their night vision to seek out their prey with efficiency. Swoop, snatch, gobble, gone. A human night owl stays up late, night adapted, like their namesake, their form revealed only by the screen’s cold glare as they tap at the keyboard. Wrangling deadlines, devouring novels, gambling their savings, postponing the activities of the day—who knows? Such is the endless allure of nocturnal creatures.
In Edward Hopper’s painting, Night Windows (1928), a woman in her illuminated apartment goes about her private affairs unaware of my gaze. A voyeuristic composition, Hopper has made me a ‘peeping tom’ whether I wish to be or not—to view the work is to peep. Is she, too, postponing the tasks of her tomorrow? The emphasis here is not upon Tennessee Williams’ “kindness of strangers,” but rather their loneliness, a shared loneliness, one shadowed by intimacy. In a pink slip, she is bent over, spot lit against the black of night as I, the viewer, lean nonchalantly against a lamppost. And in Melanie Lane’s new choreographic work, “Nightdance,” she is Lilian Steiner in flesh-coloured pants rendered golden goddess by lamplight. One thing is certain: night is made of shadows and in said shadows one can lurk. The cover of darkness, the ability to conceal, magic made not by sleight of hand but by the shift change between the sun and the moon. You can watch and not be seen.
From folklore’s werewolves to the Porto Rican coarse-haired Chupacabra (“goat sucker”), come the full moon, come the descent of night, all creatures come out to play and give rise to night terrors and thrills. Ghouls and golems not detectable during the day are made manifest by night. From the margins of medieval manuscripts come men with dogs’ heads, the Cynocephali, to tap at your windowpane. As Steiner, Gregory Lorenzutti, and Lane prowl on all fours across the darkened stage, such are my thoughts. In dog pose, their collective gait is stiff (humans do not have the supple spine of canines, no matter how fit) and otherworldly. Beguiling too. “Nightdance” reveals this awkward-easy transition into another world distinct from day to be liberating and emboldening. Come the night, you can reinvent yourself. You can release your alter ego. You can strut. You can prowl. You can shimmy. You can seek to entrance. You can even become your own kind of werewolf. Or muscled were-mouse, as Lorenzutti, shows. You can watch and be seen.
As “Nightdance” celebrates, when the edges are softened by shadows, you rewrite the ills of the day that has been. You can chase oblivion. “Forget your troubles, come on get happy” like Judy Garland sings. And while “Nightdance” at its core, “investigates the physical experience of the nightclub, and its seductive promise of transformation, primal temptation and sublime release”1 this transformation, temptation and sought release is universal. Laneways and lounge rooms may be your nightclub, forests your podium, it need not matter, the effect is the same: new rules are written at night. In contrast to the bright light of day, night time is the velvety embodiment of promise, secrets, and a bookworms’ uninterrupted bliss.
Hopper’s intimate strangers are Lane’s “both friends and strangers” in the nightclub, evoking a “collective spirit” in a space “designed to stimulate our emotions and senses.”2 As Steiner and later Lane sit on the ground with their legs extended upwards in a tight forward bend, making their forms into a teardrop shape, I am reminded of Skiapodes (or Monopods) who were known to have a single leg and oversized foot, Steiner and Lane albeit a more glamorous embodiment. As Pliny the Elder described: “they are in the habit of lying on their backs, during the time of the extreme heat, and protect themselves from the sun by the shade of their feet,”3 the temporary identities the dancers assume within the work echoes the temporary identities we can all assume in a nightclub or similar terrain. “Shout Hallelujah, come on get happy.” And while this work feels very much an insight into Lane’s own passion, it is inclusive as it summons up the intensity of the club experience, of standing too close to the speakers so as to feel the vibration through your body and in doing so feel your own body disperse into a series of sound waves. From a seat in the back of the theatre Ryan Ritchie emerges, slinks forward, microphone in hand, and takes to the stage as if to say: ‘you can too. Join in.’ A realm crossed between audience and stage, if you’ve a white suit spare. “I am drawn to these spaces because they are full of bodies that are performing, dancing and watching each other. Realms where we simultaneously become an actor and audience.”4
Track change and the low purple lights make mountains appear upon a large sheet of black floor drapery. Where the light hits their peaks, contour lines appear like a map, and as the dancers move, they too shift. Nothing in “Nightdance” is tethered, not appearance nor feeling, nor geography. What was previously a subterranean world, lit from above by holes that appeared bored into the ground (thanks to Ben ‘Bosco’ Shaw) has changed. One moment several light shafts suggested the underworld, later a warehouse, a desolate train station, and finally an alleyway, with a falafel in hand.
And lo! as incandescent guest artist Benjamin Hancock takes to the stage, I am magnetised. A glittered figure completely encased from heeled foot to dunce’s conical crown. With two long fingers upon each hand, a fantastical, nocturnal Aye-aye (Daubentonia madagascariensis) if ever there was. An omen of ill luck in Madagascar, perhaps, at Arts House, something else! The Aye-aye in the forest uses its long middle finger to tap upon trees and listen for wood-boring insect larvae, and in Hancock’s incarnation, the Aye-aye is larger than life, sublime, and hybrid. One part Aye-aye to one part headless Blemmyae with a face in their torso and a mouth like a horseshoe from a medieval manuscript, those headless creatures proving night is myth, and myth is night.
Moments within the work make me feel like Hopper’s voyeur, propped up at the bar, watching other people doing the doing while I sit still in the audience. Other moments feel more inclusive, like when Hancock draws you hither with an outstretched long-curled finger. But not too close. This light is taken. This dance too.
Melanie Lane, “Nightdance,” Arts House website: http://www.artshouse.com.au/events/nightdance/
Melanie Lane, Artist Statement, “Nightdance” programme, Arts House, Melbourne, Victoria, 2017, 3: http://www.artshouse.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/Arts-House-Nightdance-by-Melanie-Lane-Show-Program.pdf
Pliny the Elder referenced by Maria Beville, “Monsters as We Know Them: A History of Named Monsters,” The Unnameable Monster in Literature and Film (London: Routledge, 2013), 32
Melanie Lane, Artist Statement, “Nightdance” programme, 2017