Artistic director of Melbourne’s Travel Art Dance Company, Meah Velik-Lord, sat down with Melbourne freelance journalist Annabel Boyer to talk about her upcoming production, the Black Rider.
Shadowy forests, silver bullets, love and madness, The Black Rider album is a dark fairy-tale, wrapped up in the gristle and bone of Tom Waits’ music and voice. German folklore embedded in everyday American, given a twist that shines on an undercurrent of deeper themes. In just two weeks time Melbourne’s Travel Art Dance Company is set to perform the Black Rider through dance. But it’s been a long road since artistic director, Meah Velik-Lord first came across the album, all the way back in 2003.
“I was working with Tom Waits’ music for another production at the time,” she says, “not with a narrative, but sort of exploring the themes in that piece. The beautiful and the bizarre and the way those two elements really spoke through the music. I picked The Black Rider up in a bookshop, just buying it as an album, not even knowing that the Black Rider was a play or anything like that.”
Already a Waits fan, she immediately loved it, at least most of it. But it wasn’t until she read the short synopsis of the fairy tale, printed in the album cover that she became aware of the album’s history and it struck her as the perfect material for a dance performance. It was the album as a whole, she says – the artwork, the layout, the lettering and the story, neatly retold in two paragraphs – rather than just the music, that gave flight to her imagination.
“I have to say there are some tracks on it, that are really difficult to listen to, as listening,” says Meah, “but putting them in the context of the story makes it quite a different experience. And that comes through when we are working on it.”
When Tom Waits originally wrote the music it was as a collaboration that harnessed the talents of director Robert Wilson, writer William S. Burroughs, as well as his own, on a musical play. However, he did not sing it for the original play, and only released an album of the songs, singing the songs himself, some time later. Like so much of Tom Waits’ music, the album ranges widely from gentle romantic ballads to pieces that seem more like machinations from a factory floor.
It has taken seven years since that first glimmer of inspiration for the TADC’s production to become a reality. And now after beginning work on the production earlier this year, they are just two weeks away from the final performances. The production is entirely made up of originally choreographed and improvised dance, and as far as the company is aware, it is the only production of the Black Rider to be done entirely through dance.
“It is completely different now to what I thought it would be.” Says Meah, “In my head, it was a full staged production with amazing sets and effects, with people dropping in and out of the stage floor and things like that. Now we’re in the Northcote Town Hall, which is a really beautiful venue in its own right, but it does have its limitations. We’ve had to be a lot more creative and in the process of distilling it down, it has become a lot more raw.”
Another major challenge has been to tell a clear narrative while dealing with the fact that some songs from the original play were not included in the album. But Meah says that sticking with the album as a point of inspiration has been a very conscious choice. Elsewhere the performers have dug in to their own collective experiences for inspiration, along with the story. Over the last few years, Travel Art Dance Company has done a lot of work using the themes of collective memory and archetype. The group has been able to draw on this work as they develop the Black Rider with its age-old themes of love and Faustian bargains.
“People have brought in their own cultural heritage, the ideas and stories that people are holding in their heads.” Says Meah, “I think that process has fed in to wanting to do it in a much more human way. Technically, it’s still a dance work, but I would say that it’s become something more like physical storytelling than what audiences might typically think of as “dance” . It is a combination of choreography and improvisation and the real driving force for us has been having an outward expression for the music and the tale.”
Travel Art Dance Company will perform the Black Rider from the 27th to the 29th of October at the Northcote Town Hall.