In a stuffy rehearsal room at the Victorian College of the Arts, choreographer Stephanie Lake is rehearsing her new show Colossus, part of the upcoming Melbourne Fringe Festival.
Forty-odd dancers sit in a circle, twirling their feet in unison. A pulsing, insistent electronic beat kicks in, and the circle expands as the mass of bodies stands up and shoots around the room.
It’s a sizeable crowd, but there are still a few missing. On the night, there’ll be 50 dancers on stage at the Arts Centre. There’s been some talk about the stage they’re performing on not being big enough. “It’s going to be a challenge,” says Lake. “But dancers are very good at spatial management.”
Lake has choreographed all over the world, from the unpredictable, genre-bending studio Chunky Move in Melbourne, to the Queensland Ballet and the prestigious Theatre National de Chaillot in Paris. Colossus is a homecoming for her. She’s wanted to develop something on this scale since she was a student at the VCA almost two decades ago.
Lake has found new spatial freedom in working with a mass of people, as I observe during the rehearsal. Performers jump seamlessly between moments in unison and solo manoeuvres, between mass ecstasy and mass stillness.
She’s also working with sound in a way she hasn’t before. Performers add a physical element to the music (composed by Lake’s partner Robin Fox), smacking their lips or hissing en masse. The resulting sound is odd and uncanny, and works in a way that wouldn’t with a smaller crowd. And yet it still feels intimate and personal.
When the music stops, the crowd of dancers is a red-faced pulse of breath.
Lake looks up from her notebook. “Uh, it’s hard to count at the end there,” she says to her dancers. “How are you doing it?” She seems genuinely curious. There are no distinct sections to the music, no verses, no chorus. Nothing to grip onto. Just a flood of beats they’re feeling out with their bodies.
It’s not dissimilar to how the audience will have to interpret the piece. Colossus is not technically theatre, because there’s no narrative. It’s not really a musical performance either, because the melody is as visual and physical as it is audible.
Without a clear storyline or structure, Lake uses abstract language to direct the multitude of dancers during rehearsal.
“Left hand like a vine,” she says. “Now, grow onto your face. Now the Neapolitan ... now the scary genitals.” At that last command the dancers look down towards their navels, then snap their necks straight up, facing the audience.
“It works to more of a rhythmic logic, an emotional logic,” Lake tells me. “That’s the beauty of the form. It’s ambiguous, and absolutely open to interpretation. Maybe that’s why I’m a choreographer and not a theatre director.”
The dancers are all students, around half from the VCA, with varying levels of experience. “There are quite a few who are at a really high level here,” says Lake. “They’re one step away from professional standard.”
Developing Colossus has been a collaborative process between Lake and the performers, but in the end, she says what the work is about is entirely up to the individual.
“I’m interested in seeing them as people, not just replicas of me … They’ll bring their own experience and associations, sometimes very personal.”
That goes for the audience and the dancers.
Colossus is at the Fairfax Studio, Arts Centre Melbourne from September 26 to September 30.