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Studio practices 1, extensions: room to move

Rachel Fensham, Shelley and Wendy Lasica

In the first of a series on dance studios, rachel fensham talks to shelley and wendy lasica in Melbourne

Extensions studio, Carlton was opened in 1980 by Margaret Lasica, a leading modern dance figure in Melbourne. Initially established as a space for her company, the Modern Dance Ensemble (MDE), over the years it has been a focal point for a diversity of dance activity, including classes, rehearsals, performance, lectures, seasons of new work and workshops offered by visiting artists, including Simone Forti and Mary Fulkerson. Several generations of Melbourne dancers have been exposed to modern and postmodern dance by doing classes at Extensions.

RF Can you describe Extensions?

SL It’s a double space, one larger without columns, and a lower space with columns. Two different floor surfaces, upstairs a sprung floor with a permanent dance surface, and downstairs a composite cork. Mirrors on one side upstairs. Downstairs a couple of smaller mirrors. The upstairs space is very light. It’s close to the city.

WL It feels somehow connected to the sky.

RF How did Margaret’s use of the space change?

WL Her teaching was constant and initially she was very active with the MDE. As people left, she shifted her involvement from choreography to facilitation.

SL She started the Image seasons, which involved artists from all over Australia and overseas showing work and giving talks.
They began in 1984 and ended in 1990 and were some of the first forums for discussing and seeing a range of approaches to dance.

RF Who uses the space now?

SL Individuals and small groups use it for specific projects and on an ongoing basis. There seems to be a real desire on the part of this generation of artists to have a regular space to work in. Perhaps they realise they need time alone in the studio.

RF What about classes?

SL There’s Aikido training and various Melbourne based people teach at different times—morning and evening. In the last few years, Margaret became less interested in teaching vocational classes and more in teaching people who just wanted to move, to find out about their bodies and extend their functional use.

RF That has always been a big part of the modern dance tradition, hasn’t it?

SL I’ve tried to keep that going so that in a class you can have people with different motivations and backgrounds; some you know well, some are completely new.

RF Is that different from teaching in an educational institution?

SL In a studio there is always time before and after class, or ideas that are being thought out during the class.

WL When the assessment element is taken out, the teaching is based on the acquiring of knowledge about the body, about space, about the repertoire of movements. There seems to be more room for experimentation, even within class it doesn’t matter if you fall on your face.

RF What is your typical beginning to a dance session?

SL Cleaning the floor (laughs). It took many years to get used to being able to work by myself. I still find it difficult although I have more understanding of when it is a waste of time. Or when it’s OK to look out the window, listen to some music or play games with myself.

RF Tell me how your visiting artists project started.

WL We knew Stephen Petronio was coming to Australia and invited him to teach in Melbourne. We were awestruck by the response—people came in carloads from Sydney.

After that success, we decided to set up a program inviting dancers and choreographers, interstate and overseas, to teach in different parts of Australia and in different situations; sometimes in studios, sometimes in institutions and sometimes in companies. At the same time, we’re encouraging them to look around at Australian dance, to foster some kind of interaction between what they bring and what they see. Last year we brought David Dorfman, Bebe Miller and Lance Gries. And they all taught interstate as well as in Melbourne.

SL Now people know we are keen to use Extensions for teaching, they’re approaching us. We have also had Gregory Nash, who was in Australia for an Australian Opera production, Russell Maliphant, Lloyd Newson and Lucy Guerin…

WL …with a broad objective of trying to show different processes for working with ideas in dance. We’d also like to extend this into performance and if they don’t do solo pieces, they might make a work. Or dancers might attend workshops here and then work with the same choreographers overseas on a project. Sowing the seeds and setting up opportunities for other things to develop.

RF How do the dancers you invite vary?

WL Stephen Petronio and Lloyd Newson have different politics, different aesthetics and different ways of working.

SL When Stephen was working here in 1993 the discussions were about taking the Alexander Technique into dancing. Whereas Bebe Miller was curious about composition and the conversations after class were about ways of generating and structuring work.

RF Did you find overseas artists wanted to come here?

SL Many local artists have worked in Britain, Europe and America so generally, international choreographers are keen to know more about the context for Australian dance.

WL When they come for a major festival, they are just asked to perform and even though audiences are interested, local dancers don’t always learn about the artists’ backgrounds or approaches. In some cases, we are connecting festivals with teaching situations.

RF Is there an international dance language developing, do you think?

SL Dialogue is certainly possible although there are some conditions specific to Australia. In the studio, the differences are usually not to do with geography so much as particular interests in dance. I might have a really hard time talking with someone based in Melbourne but a wonderful time working with someone in Denmark.

RF How has the function of the studio changed now there are so many graduates in dance?

SL The establishment of vocational courses clearly changed the focus of the studio. When Margaret began teaching there were none in Australia but their expansion seems to have bypassed studio practices. Most graduates see the dance profession in relation to companies and funding, and there’s a lack of understanding of other histories of dance.

WL Studio culture has always changed in response to changing conditions. And with our current projects, Extensions is still leading in providing movement opportunities for dancers.

RealTime issue #9 Oct-Nov 1995 pg. 36

© Rachel Fensham; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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