Australian-Indonesian dancer and choreographer Melanie Lane, right, with Lilian Steiner in Lucy Guerin's 'Split.' (Photo courtesy of Lucy Guerin Inc.)

Dancer Melanie Lane Rediscovers Indonesian Roots


AUGUST 14, 2018

Jakarta. Clad in a simple, knee-length grey dress, Melanie Lane glided around Komunitas Salihara’s black box stage with her partner Lilian Steiner in an intense, emotionally gripping dance called "Split," choreographed by Lucy Guerin from Melbourne, last weekend.

The dance was Lane's fourth performance in Indonesia. The Australian-Indonesian dancer and choreographer is the daughter of Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s English translator Max Lane. She told the Jakarta Globe before the show on Sunday (05/08) that she started seriously exploring her Indonesian roots through dance 10 years ago.

"My mother is Javanese. She’s from Jogja [Yogyakarta], but I grew up in Australia. I didn’t have much contact with Indonesia, only in the last few years, when I started coming here more. The first time – apart from when I was a kid – was about 10 years ago, when I worked with [Belgian choreographer] Arco Renz," said the Sydney-born Lane, who now goes back and forth between Berlin – her home for the last 12 years – and Melbourne.

Some of the projects Lane had done in Indonesia include the 2014 Indonesia Dance Festival in Padangpanjang, West Sumatra. With Arco Renz and other choreographers, Lane lived there for a month to create a new dance piece with students of the Indonesian Institute of the Arts (ISI) Padangpanjang.

Fadilla Oziana from ISI Padangpanjang in 'Krisis' (2014) by Belgian choreographer Arco Renz and Melanie Lane. (Photo courtesy of Melanie Lane)

Lane did another collaboration with Renz and famed local choreographer Eko Supriyanto, called "solid.states," first performed in 2012.

For this project, Lane learned the basics of traditional Javanese dances though she admitted she's still only a beginner in this area.

Melanie Lane in 'solid.states' at Taman Ismail Marzuki in Jakarta in 2013. (Photo courtesy of Jean-Luc Tanghe)

Lane also worked with fellow Australian-Indonesian dancer Juliet Burnett, the niece of the late legendary poet W.S. Rendra, choreographing "Megatruh," a ballet piece inspired by Rendra’s writings, performed by Burnett in Jakarta in 2016.

In the same year, both dancers created and performed in "Re-Make," a piece commissioned by Melbourne-based dance company Chunky Move.

Melanie Lane, in black leotard, and Juliet Burnett in 'Re-Make.' (Photo courtesy of Gregory Lorenzutti)

Before their Jakarta shows, Lane and Guerin also went to Bandung, West Java, for a three-week workshop with Ensemble Tikoro, a choir group that uses death metal vocal techniques.

"Through these projects, I started to reconnect with my cultural background. To reconnect with it in the later stage of my life and career – I'm now 40 – is obviously different to growing up with that connection from when you were still a young person," Lane said.

Lane said dance has helped her bridge the gap she had with her Indonesian roots.

"As an adult, I’ve kind of re-entered this relationship with my cultural heritage and I’m really interested in questioning how it manifests through the body. That’s kind of the main reason why I’m trying to keep coming back [to Indonesia], to understand how I can relate to this culture even though I haven’t been brought up here, and basically learn from the people here, especially through the performing arts," Lane said.

Lane said dancers rely on muscle memory, not just to remember routines, but also to rediscover their identity.

"What I’m learning as you get older is – especially as a dancer – you start to learn that your body is holding a lot of history. I start to realize that I do have some connections to this culture, through my mother, by the way she carries herself in the world even though she lives in Australia. When I come to Indonesia, I can recognize those behaviors… I guess that’s something I’m learning about myself. Somewhere inside my body or inside my history, there’s something from this culture. Coming more and more to Indonesia, this understanding starts to become bigger," Lane said.

Lane is currently embarking on a world tour for Split, the dance that earned her nominations for the Helpmann and Green Room awards.

In October, she will be back in Indonesia for a six-week fellowship with Asialink when she plans to learn Topeng Jawa, or Javanese masked dances.

Lane said she's especially curious about how storytelling operates in Indonesian traditional dances.

"What I find interesting about Topeng Jawa or other traditional performing arts in Indonesia is the storytelling. It's quite different to Western contemporary performance, which can be very abstract," she said.

Another – this time even more personal – project Lane has in the works is a series of interviews with her father for a short documentary about his work in Indonesia and his relationships with the authors whose works he’s translated.

Lane's father Max now lives in Yogyakarta, where he's opened a reading room and library called Open Page with his partner, the playwright Faiza Marzoeki. The Indonesianist and translator has been active in the local literary scene since the 1970s, translating Pramoedya’s "Buru Quartet" – for which he was sacked from his job at the Australian Embassy – and Rendra’s "The Struggle of the Naga Tribe" among many.

The dancer said she wanted to know her father’s perspective "as someone who comes from Australia, how he experiences Indonesia through the Western lens."

"I want to dig a little deeper into his experience of Indonesia and think about that in a storytelling kind of narrative and then perhaps even transfer that into dance storytelling," she said.

Lane said her Topeng Jawa project and the interviews might even come together as one.

"These may or may not kind of come together. I think they will be separate, but I’m not sure yet. Let’s see what happens…. It’s just the beginning. I don’t think I will finish anything in six weeks. This will be mostly research first," she said.

When asked to comment on the Indonesian dance scene, Lane praised its strong traditional foundations and growing contemporary scene.

"It’s hard to say – not living here – exactly the complexities of it, but I think Indonesia has an amazing tradition of dance which a lot of other cultures don’t have, so that's something unique about Indonesia. The traditional dance has given a lot of power to the dance history here, but I think the contemporary work that’s coming out of Indonesia is [also] really exciting," Lane said.

Lane said the scene faces the classic challenge for artists everywhere: lack of funding. But she has seen many great initiatives by established artists for younger dancers, such as the Sasikirana KoreoLAB & Dance Camp that Lane took part in as a workshop mentor last year. The bootcamp gathered 20 emerging choreographers from all over Indonesia. Lane called the camp "a great way to build and develop contemporary ideas."