It’s important for me to make work that I want audiences to see rather than making work that audiences want to see – an interview with Dan Daw

Dan Daw is an Australian-born artist, currently based in the UK. He collaborates with a growing network of companies and artists to develop new dance work for UK and international audiences. Among his most recent works are Beast and On One Condition. Beast is a 2015 Greenwich Dance and Trinity Laban Compass Commission, created in collaboration with choreographer Martin Forsberg, designer Jenny Nordberg and lighting designer Guy Hoare. On One Condition is directed by Graham Adey in collaboration with Dan Daw, and in partnership with Murmuration (AUS). Its world premiere was at Skånes Dansteater in Sweden in 2015.

Dan received the Dame Ruby Litchfield Scholarship, the Outlet Dance Award, the Russell Page Fellowship in Contemporary Dance and the Adelaide Fringe – Best Dance Award.

He is Associate Director of the Sydney-based, integrated performance company, Murmuration. He works closely with a collective of multi-disciplinary artists dedicated to creating innovative contemporary dance theatre.

 

Gaele Sobott: How do you describe yourself professionally?

Dan Daw: I’m a dance-maker and artist.

GS: I know you were born in South Australia but where?

DD: Whyalla. I was born and grew up there. A population of about 20 000 so it’s big enough to be called a city, a small city. I went to a mainstream school.

GS: Why do you say that?

DD: I say that because there was also a special school in Whyalla and my grandmother fought long and hard for me to be educated in a mainstream school. I recall my mother and grandmother standing in the headmaster’s office and refusing to leave until he agreed to allow me to enrol. They didn’t want me to be in the special education unit.

GS: You were close to your grandmother?

DD: Yes, very close.

GS: How did your interest in performance start as a child in Whyalla?

DD: Performance in my family goes way back. My grandmother choreographed for calisthenics and for graceful girl competitions. She choreographed a lot of routines, including routines for my mother. My mother was national ‘Most Graceful Girl’ champion. As a boy, I remember sitting on the sides watching them rehearse their routines. Going through my family history, I came to find out that my great uncle, my grandmother’s brother, was the dance critic for The Advertiser, The Australian and the magazine, Dance. So, there was a bit of a dance culture within my family.

I developed more of an interest in dance when I joined D’faces at Youth Arts in Whyalla when I was thirteen back in 1996.

GS: Tell me more about that organisation.

DD: It was and still is a youth theatre company. When I was involved, artists were flown from Adelaide to Whyalla to lead weekly dance and theatre workshops. The workshops were more rehearsals for developing new pieces of work which were staged at the Middleback Theatre in Whyalla. The director, James Winter, and choreographer, Ingrid Voorendt, had such a huge impact on me as a teenage boy. I knew I wanted to be a performer almost immediately, but still didn’t know how I could make that happen for myself.

GS: In 2002 you joined Restless Dance in Adelaide.  How did that come about?

DD:  Restless Dance came to Whyalla in the late 90’s and performed a work called Sex Juggling. I was really blown away by it. I hadn’t seen anything like it before.

GS: What was it that appealed to you?

DD: It was dance with an integrated ensemble and the work was of very high artistic quality. I’d been involved in D’faces and it was integrated but seeing Restless that afternoon was a light bulb moment. It was then that I understood my place in D’faces and that I could absolutely have a place within the sector as an artist. I understood that this was an ambition that could become real. An ambition that I could make happen.

GS: Had you previously thought that you may not have a place in the sector?

DD: I was told by my family several times that there may not be a place. Although they supported me in the beginning and in youth theatre, they kept saying, “Just remember it’s a hobby.” I was going to have none of that.

Restless helped me really come into my own. I began to think, actually there are things happening in Adelaide, in the city, that I need to find a way to access if I am going to begin the journey.

GS: How did you access Restless?

DD: Sally Chance was the founding artistic director of Restless Dance Theatre and she set up a support, needs group at D’Faces. I became a co-tutor in that group. Sally and I came to know each other through the experience.  I kept the connection with her and when I moved to Adelaide to study in 2002, I got in touch with Restless and they said, “Come along.”

GS: You completed a Bachelor of Creative Arts at the Flinders University Drama Centre.

DD: Yes.

GS: Then you received the Dame Ruby Litchfield Scholarship to attend a Candoco foundation-course in London. What happened when you got to England?

DD: I went to meet with Candoco but I was told I had too much experience for that foundation course. So, I didn’t do it.  Instead, I engaged with Frontline Dance who were in Stoke-on-Trent in the UK to gain a higher level of training.

GS:  How long were you with them?

DD: I was with them for six-months. After that I returned to Australia to work a bit more with Restless. I was offered a contract with Scottish Dance Theatre so I joined them on their 5th anniversary tour and in 2007 performed in Adam Benjamin’s Angels of Incidence for their Spring Tour. I then worked with Kate Champion’s Force Majeure. I was on tour with them in Seoul when I found out my application to work with Candoco was successful.

GS: What was the position with Candoco?

DD: Company dancer. I danced with Candoco from 2010 until 2013, then I crossed over and did a year of further development as their Assistant Creative Producer. I still performed in a couple of pieces while I did that.

GS: Did you also teach while you were there?

DD: Yes, teaching is a big part of Candoco wherever they tour. We delivered education programs, workshops depending on the demand and how local communities wanted to engage with the company.

GS: While you were at Candoco you worked with Wendy Houstoun. Can you tell me what you liked about her way of deconstructing dance?

DD: It was refreshing for me as an artist. Wendy’s process was my first experience of dance at Candoco and it really opened my eyes. The first day she started with The Tempest and only read the stage directions. We had to respond by physicalizing or enacting those directions. For example, “enter like a nymph”. How do I enter like a nymph? What does that even mean?  It was a very different approach to how I was used to working. It was also my first time to become aware that although I was a dancer, I was also very much a collaborator.

Candoco did wonderful things for me. We were dancers in the company, but Stine and Pedro always saw and treated us like artists.

GS: You danced with Rachid Ouramdane, the French-Algerian choreographer. Can you talk a little about that experience?

DD: Again, very different. That was the beauty of working with Candoco. They commission choreographers with different styles and approaches to not only increase audience reach, but to offer the dancers a varied experience within the repertory format. Rachid as a person was very quiet and very considered. Very thoughtful. His work reflected that. It was stripped back. He created a stark, raw performance space. He really found a way to draw the best from each individual in a gentle, and again, considered way.

GS: What performance piece were you working on?

DD: It was called Looking Back.

GS: His style is described as expressionist and minimalist.

DD: Yes.

GS: How do you describe your style?

DD: My style . . . I think I will leave that to others to describe. Every work I make is very different.

GS: Have the press or critics described you in that regard, attached a style to you yet?

DD: Not yet because I’m still very much at the start of my dance-making career.  That’s to be revealed. Watch this space.

GS: Are you drawn to any particular style at this point?

DD: Yes, at the moment I’m obsessed with Caryl Churchill and Pina Bausch.

GS: What do you like about them?

DD: Both Churchill and Bausch have this incredible knack for putting odd bits together that would never work on paper, ironically because Churchill is a playwright, but it works. Like Pina Bausch’s two-and-a-half hour performances of layered images that appear to be disconnected, but somehow make absolute sense.  She’s the only one who has the knack of being able to make that work. I sit there in the theatre and I’m almost crying with joy because it’s so incredible that she’s making those strong artistic choices. The joy that comes about when you think, “Wow! I didn’t even know that was possible”. It is possible. This is a person who has these ideas and for me as a maker, that’s just brilliant. I feel a sense of freedom, of liberation. Making good work is really about making your own rules. Making work that makes sense to you. I hit on something last year when I was doing some thinking about the work I want to make. It became clear that it’s important for me to make work that I want audiences to see rather than making work that audiences want to see. That goes back to how I would describe my work. It’s not about me making work just to draw audiences in but about me making work because that’s what I have to say to an audience. It’s important I maintain integrity in all I do and sometimes this does mean going against the grain.

GS: Contemporary dance has a reputation for questioning the status quo and pushing beyond traditional models of what dance is, could you talk about some of your previous dance projects and how you feel you may be pushing boundaries?

DD: I guess I’m pushing boundaries because of my position as a disabled man and maker. I don’t make work about disability, because disability is always going to be part of the work. It’s that notion of being quietly political. In that sense, I do challenge the status quo but without the soap box, letting my work speak for itself. My perceptions as a gay, disabled man will always shine through in the work. I’m repelled by work about disability. I think in most cases it comes across as having a bit of a whinge. So, for me, it’s not about crow-barring something in just to challenge the status quo. I make work because I want to make work. I don’t do it because it’s a political statement but from the outside it’s observed as a political act because I’m disabled. I like the simplicity and complexity of this. It’s something that interests me immensely.

GS: Your latest work On One Condition, is premiering at the Adelaide Fringe Festival this year. It’s a collaboration between Dan Daw Creative Projects, Murmuration and Graham Adey. Talk a little about how the collaboration with Graham happened, and about the experience of working with him.

DD: Graham Adey is a dancer with Skånes Dansteater and is emerging as a choreographer. He’s a friend. I’ve known him for a number of years and we had the pleasure of reconnecting at Skånes. I saw a work he made about one of the dancers called Modern Condition and I was really struck by the beauty, rawness and honesty of the piece. I told him how I thought it was extraordinary and asked if he would have a go at making a solo with me.  He was like, “Oh, sure. Let’s do it.” Then it was on.  The process consisted of two stages. The first was a two-week research and development stage in Malmo, Sweden. It started with lots of talking, drawing on stories from my childhood. What it was like for me growing up in rural Australia, coming of age, moving to the city, falling in love for the first time. So, lots of little anecdotes. Graham, of course, selected the stories that struck either an emotional or nostalgic chord within him. We developed a movement vocabulary and vignettes that linked the stories to one another and found a thread. We continued developing the work in this way for four weeks here in Sydney in 2015 in residence with Murmuration.

GS: Do you tell the story through spoken performance as well as dance?

DD: Yes, I do. There is a lot of text in the piece. It is very much an autobiographical work with a few of Graham’s wonderful trademarks in there too.

GS: What themes do you explore within that autobiographical structure?

DD: We explore sexuality, family, education, home and the struggles and barriers I’ve faced.

GS: Do you address the intersections of disability and queer experiences in this work? If so how?

DD: I do. I tell the story of the first time a man told me he loved me. Again, not bashing the audience over the head with it but subtly introducing these seemingly little episodes in my life that I realise, upon reflection, were quite monumental. It’s about dropping those seeds and those experiences that have led me to where I am now. Not dwelling on them but joining all those dots.

GS: You mentioned barriers and described yourself as a disabled man, what barriers have disabled you in terms of your dance career?

DD: Where I’m at now the barriers I did face don’t exist anymore because I have developed the confidence to know who I am, what I’m interested in achieving and how I can make things happen. But in the beginning, it was very difficult because there was this gigantic gap I had to jump across to get from dancing with Restless to dancing with a professional touring company. When I was dancing with Restless, I found it very, very hard. I struggled a lot in making that transition. I didn’t realise at the time that I should have probably asked for more help.

GS: What was the nature of some of that struggle?

DD: The lack of opportunity here in Australia to do what I wanted in dance and be paid for it.  I got those short-term contracts with Scottish Dance and touring with Kate Champion doing amazing things but then came back to Australia and had to sign up for unemployment benefits. To speak frankly, tall poppy syndrome didn’t help either with peers saying I was getting “too big for my boots.” I was simply trying to be the best I could be. It was this toxicity and limited thinking from my peers in Australia that was a major setback for me and the reason I needed to leave. Candoco came as a breath of fresh air as it put me on the most amazing path within a supportive culture that’s not forever trying to cut me down to size. Brilliant!

GS: What do integration and inclusion mean to you in dance?

DD: For me integration and inclusion mean that I have a place. That I have a voice. That I can do what I have worked long and hard to be able to do.

GS: What changes would you like to see in Australia to ensure that disabled dancers have equal access to dance education, dance platforms, choreographing and production opportunities?

DD: I think it really starts with education and how dance education can be made accessible. I mean this in a non-tokenistic way. I would like to see all young people going to school, irrespective of disability, having the right to the ambition and the choice to say, “When I grow up, I want to be a dancer.” At the moment, I don’t think that choice is available to disabled, young people, because they don’t see enough disabled dancers working in Australia at professional level. If there are no disabled dancers at professional level, then educational institutions, and tertiary institutions aren’t going to say, “Okay, we need to open our doors to include disabled dancers.” It also means touring disabled dancers from overseas in Australia, because exposure to role models is important. There are companies in Australia who are doing this, but there need to be more.

That’s why in founding Murmuration, I have decided to come back to reconnect and re-engage with the dance sector in Australia. It’s important that professional avenues are available to disabled artists. It’s important that disabled artists have a viable and fruitful career in Australia, that they don’t have to leave the country to achieve it. All I ask is that people leave their “poppy cutters” at the door. I’ve no time for it!

GS: We also have the right to the dance as audiences.

DD: Absolutely. There is a whole part of culture that dance audiences are missing out on. It’s either ballet, ballet, ballet or contemporary dance only open to a select few. There’s a whole other world out there that I find far more exciting and interesting.

GS: Before we began this interview, you were talking about Murmuration’s workshops with the Young Americans.

DD: Yes, they’re a group doing a theatre and leadership course who are over here from the United States. Murmuration formed a skill-share collaboration with them so they can get a taste of what it’s like to work in an integrated context. They learn that dance is not always about 5, 6, 7, 8 . . . repeat after me. It doesn’t always need to be this prescriptive.

GS: Why do you start at 5? Just wondering.

DD: That’s a very good question and not something I can answer. Why do we start at 5? That might be the title of my next work.

by Gaele Sobott, Sydney, 5 February 2017

A photograph of Gaele Sobott, a blond haired woman wearing dark-rimmed glasses in modern style.Gaele Sobott is a writer and producer. She has published essays, children’s books, short stories, and the biography, My Longest Round: the Life Story of Wally Carr. She participated in the Australia Council’s inaugural Sync Leadership Program in 2014 and is director of Outlandish Arts. Gaele is an Access2Arts board member.