"I like to work with process and collaboration," Fernando Melo says, a few minutes after finishing a rehearsal for his new work Walk-In, "because then we realize things we could not have imagined."
Luna Negra Dance Theatre will perform the World Premiere of Melo's Walk-In at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance on October 13, along with a reprise of Melo's critically acclaimed (and massive audience favoroite) Bate and Artistic Director Gustavo Ramírez Sansano's much anticipated 18+1.
Considering how enthusiastic people are about Fernando Melo's choreography, identifying exactly what makes his approach so unique can be surprisingly elusive; his originality can defy description almost as much as it defies expectations. He comes up with such a different take on things that it makes you wonder if Fernando Melo might be the only person around who could have actually reinvented the wheel. Once you've seen some of his work, you start to believe that he probably could have; by now cars and bicycles might all be rolling around on something very different, and probably something better, if he'd put his mind to that instead of choreography.
One of the reasons why Melo's work is always so compelling may be that he knows how to let inspiration take the shape that suits it best, and that's always a complicated process. Fernando Melo definitely knows what he's doing, and he certainly knows why, but when he's creating a new work he makes sure that he doesn't know exactly how it's going to turn out, at least not yet.
He likes it that way; he likes to work with process, because it's a way to discover new artistic possibilities in every aspect of dance creation, and to use those discoveries not as conclusions, but as points of departure. He likes to work with collaboration, because the most meaningful artistic discoveries are often found in shared exploration, probably more from the sharing than from the exploration.
Of course, by the time an audience sees his work he knows exactly how it turns out; by then he's sculpted its every dimension, and refined every subtle dynamic of an unusually profound thought process. His intricate and forward-looking Bate ("Heartbeat" in his native Portuguese) turned out to be a guided tour of insight and innovation. It also turned out to be a major success. It was a success in Sweden, where he originally created it for The Göteborg Ballet in 2005. It was a success in the Netherlands, where Introdans premiered it in 2009 and is reprising it the same night as the Luna Negra show, and it was a success in the United States, where Luna Negra premiered the work in 2010. Sid Smith wrote in the Chicago Tribune, "The brilliant Melo delivers ... a delightful magic show", and Hedy Weiss writing in the Sun-Times said that it was "visually and concepturally brilliant, Bate is exceptional on every level." Audiences were at least that enthusiastic; who could have imagined that two major dance companies on two different continents would reprise the work on the same night, almost seven years after its premiere.
So how in the world does something turn out that way?
Although Melo emphasizes the importance of process, his preparation is rigorous, both practically and philosophically. "I know exactly where we are heading," he says, describing the careful balance he strikes between planning and inspiration. "We have a point of departure which has been carefully prepared." As a practical matter, he continuously frames his creative work within a thorough and prepared expertise. "We make use of theatrical elements, such as the muscular and choreographed actions of a trained body, the physical environment in which the performance takes place, the soundscape, light design and costumes," he explains, describing the complex machining of Walk-In. In philosophical terms, he's equally deliberate. He describes the "exciting and complex transaction between performer and audience"; adding that it's "the nucleus of my work; what interests me is the production and communication of meaning through performance."
Although that may sound like a lot to keep track of, he's actually leaving a lot out.
Somehow, there seems to be a completely different dimension to his creative world, a bright and good-natured enthusiasm that impels the perspectives his works embody into spaces that could otherwise never be imagined. Whatever this added dimension of Melo's is, it may be the reason that his work manages such a remarkable balance between engagement and surprise.
Watching a rehearsal for Walk-In, there isn't anything surprising about the intensity and focus that Luna Negra's remarkably accomplished dancers bring to working with him, nor about the careful attention Melo gives to every moment of communication. The surprising part is the enjoyment and good will that illuminate the whole studio; everybody keeps ending up smiling. This is some process; this is something quite different.
Fernando Melo builds his process from some undisclosed alchemy of philosophical thoroughness and practical good nature. "We attempt to connect with human emotions by examining the various mental states and activities that possess us in the midst of our daily routines," he writes, describing Walk-In. But in conversation, he adds with characteristic good humor, "If you had a camera in everybody's closet at seven-thirty in the morning you'd probably see everybody doing the exact same choreography."
It's almost as if Fernando Melo can imagine so much that he's created his own understanding of process, but it's not because he needs to find more magical ideas to enchant an audience; what he's looking for is exactly what is really best for this space, this time, this work. "The piece is finished not when there is something more that you can add, but rather when there is nothing more that can be taken out," he says. It's an inclusive, expansive way to make a dance, and as it turns out, it's a way to realize things we could otherwise never have imagined.