Carlee Mellow has performed, choreographed and taught nationally and internationally over the last 13 years in dance, film and theatre. She has worked with companies Chunky Move, Dance Works, BalletLab, Stuck Pigs Squealing and NYID.

This year Carlee will perform in Kage¹s Appetite for the Melbourne International Arts Festival and will create a work for Lucy Guerin¹s Pieces For Small Spaces in December. Carlee also works as Dancehouse¹s Program Producer.

Paul Andrew speaks to Carlee about her current work with BalletLab - Axeman Lullaby.

Carlee MellowIn what time and place does this work unfold?
Axeman Lullaby is fractured and layered when dealing with time and place. There are often 2 realities being played out simultaneously. It could be suggested that the woodchopper represents the contemporary and everyday, never crossing over into the other reality which shifts from a gothic / pedestrian / installation feel into a melodramatic, cinematic ballet performed to a high-modernist score of live piano and violin with costumes that suggest 'early settlers' (1788 - 1850) and/or 'Victorian' (1837 - 1901).

That scene cuts straight into some disjointed dialogue of three women based on an historical event from 1900, retold by Thomas Keneally in his novel 'The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith'. This sends the work into hysteria, an emotional and energetic state devoid of time and place culminating in a scene from Fred Schepisi's film made in 1978 of the same event from 1900. The resolution of the work feels in the moment. The audience experiences it as you (the performer) does.

Wow! So as you can see it chops and changes around a lot. You are asked to stay very active in your navigation of the work as an audience member. For me, that is a sign of good art.

Tell me a little about the Lullaby concept behind this new work?
When we started working with the axes, we found that the sound of hitting the wood repeatedly in very simple patterns created a gentle, rhythmic score - almost like a heartbeat. Add to that the action of the swing of the axe. Imagine the beautiful arc you see as the performer lifts the axe behind them, it swings overhead and then falls to the piece of wood on the floor in front of them or the sensation you feel when watching a simple sideways swing like a pendulum or a ride at the Melbourne Show (the pirate ship!). The combination of the sound and swing, suspend, fall action of the axe creates a visceral experience for the audience, seducing or more appropriately 'lulling' them into the piece.

You have a long and loving involvement with Ballet Lab?
I received a phone call while I was in the Red Rooster drive thru on Warrigal Rd. I guess my memory of the exact location demonstrates how excited I was to be invited to work with company. The first time I was in a studio with Phil, he had us dancing (and partnering) in sleeping bags in the middle of summer. That was 5 years ago...

And your most memorable BalletLab experience so far?
It is impossible to pick one. Our tour to Transylvania, Romania and Bulgaria was full of many odd and crazy incidents. The first time the second cast of Amplification performed at the Arts Market was amazing which was then followed by a sold out season in New York - that was very special. But you know...  just being in a studio with Phil and the amazing dancers he works with is a gift. I really love being privy to the way Phil's imagination manifests into his work and the unspoken agreement of generosity and trust between him and us - the performers.
{xtypo_quote_right}I love that you can pick up a flier with a 'horror' image on it, read that it is a work by BalletLab, assume it is a dance show, enter the venue, see a room full of wood, and eventually a woodchopper chopping wood!{/xtypo_quote_right}
What are you blessed out by now in this new work?
I love that you can pick up a flier with a 'horror' image on it, read that it is a work by BalletLab, assume it is a dance show, enter the venue, see a room full of wood, and eventually a woodchopper chopping wood! Phillip thinks so far outside the square. His courage, capacity and tenacity to push the expectations of live performance is very exciting and refreshing and should be supported and encouraged.

And what is challenging about it?
The nature of the performance will be extremely challenging to audiences. It is difficult to categorise and define. You're not really sure what you're watching. I hope people engage with the ride of the show, the visceral and aural experience and don't try to intellectualise it too much. The world of Axeman Lullaby is surreal, theatrical and spiritual with a strong sense of fear underpinning it, a fear that is current and very real in our everyday lives.

Tell me a little about the relationship between the body and the score?
The live music has been written for specific sections of the work. The violin and piano aren't necessarily played in the traditional way. David not only challenges the musicians with his complex score but also challenges the potential of the instruments and the sound they produce. There is a tension and eeriness in the sound, which helps create the melodrama with the choreography. There is also a sense of storytelling, which becomes even more apparent when the musicians and the woodchopper team up to help accentuate and punctuate the dialogue of the 3 women. The full and rhythmic sound during the hysteria supports the choreography and us (performers) in executing it. The music helps drives the work with strategically placed silences to emphasis the frenetic activity with superb dramatic effect.

The last section comes back to the idea of the lullaby. The score and choreography are completely integrated as we shift numerous pieces of wood in various patterns along the floor creating a sound similar to that of gentle waves lapping the shore. It is rhythmic, calming and hypnotic and sends us into the resolution of the piece.

The indigenous back-story to this production?
Phillip's interest in cinema brought the story of 'The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith' to the work. The memory and impact of Fred Schepsi’s film sent Phil into researching the story more thoroughly and with Jacob Brown's (our indigenous performer) addition to the cast; its inclusion into the work seemed a natural progression. Phillip doesn't usually deal with topical or political issues but including this story as a reference or springboard for the work meant that images, interpretations and/or abstractions needed to be portrayed with sensitivity and respect for the indigenous culture. I mean we've only just apologised THIS year for the atrocities against the aboriginal people! I think it’s a brave move on Phillip's behalf to be extending himself as an artist, trying to see where and how his work sits in our current climate.

Do you have a favourite moment in the production?
Mmm. I love my Victorian costume. My favourite costume ever! Designer Doyle Barrow rocks!

Axeman Lullaby is now playing. For further information click here»

Top Right - Carlee Mellow in Axeman Lullaby.
Photo - Jeff Busby

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