Dan Daw on dancing with disability, success, failure and sexual vertigo

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December 7, 2017
Nick Jarvis
Dan Daw is an Australian born, UK-based dancer and artist living with cerebral palsy, whose practice is all about pushing the boundaries of mainstream performance, and challenging audiences’ perceptions of what ‘success’ and ‘failure’ is when it comes to physical performance.

So what does all that mean? We had a chat with Dan to find out, ahead of his performance of new work Beast at Sydney Festival 2018.

A large part of your practice is about playing with the audience's expectations of what a dance performance should involve, and also exploring the idea that perhaps ‘success’ and ‘failure’ can be the same thing. Can you elaborate on that a little bit more? What those ideas mean to you and how they’re incorporated into your performances?

“Certainly. Well, by being a performer, I suppose you could say that I'm already playing with the audience's expectations with my specific regard to dance performances and movement. My practice is interested in finding ways to push this further by interrogating success and failure as the consequences or outcomes of any performance, in direct relationship to my body’s deviating aesthetic.

“I guess this fascination I have with success and failure began when I started working with Martin Forsberg, the choreographer of Beast, in Sweden in 2014. He has this beautiful and brilliant ability to structure choreography in such a way that dancers appear to still be working on something, even when in performance.

“And this really struck me, it was kind of a light bulb moment for me, [when] I realised this set-up of wonderful precariousness, because there was something concrete, something rigid in the idea of the ‘attempt’.

“And I enjoyed seeing an ‘attempt’ happening on the stage as, I guess, a consequence of attempting work. It was a sensation of precariousness that helped me make the link between success and failure, because even in performance it could go either way, and I'm quite fascinated and obsessed by that possibility.”

What sort of reactions do you get from the audience? Is it a wide spectrum?

“I do get a lot of interesting or unexpected reactions, because I am playing a lot with the audience, like, by stymieing their expectations and challenging their preconceptions. I always see a little bit of resistance to begin with. I think perhaps audiences who aren't familiar with my collaborations come into it thinking of it, how can I say it, as ‘nice dance by a man with a disability’.

“They're surprised when, I guess, you could say, metaphorically speaking, I'm standing beside them intimately poking them throughout the performance. Ultimately, I essentially want to get them thinking and questioning. And I find generally most audiences are up to this, but some just aren't, which is okay. It makes my job harder, but it's okay.”

What's been your favourite type of reaction from an audience member at one of your shows?

“My favourite reaction, and I've had it more than once, is 'you're such an inspiration and your mother must be so proud'. And that always strikes me as funny because, I'm like, why are you talking about my mother's pride, in reference to me, when I'm a 34-year-old man? I'm still trying to get my head around that.

“I'm still like, what's motivating that? What's behind that? And that's quite funny, interesting, and slightly problematic all at the same time.”

The bio for Beast talks about licking the eye-ball of normalcy and charging down deviant paths of sexual vertigo. How does the sexual vertigo come into it? What's that concept?

“Sexual vertigo, kind of, is always being on the edge of certain things. Always tempting something, I guess. Because in the work I am naked, for a large majority of the work. It's really about teetering on the edge and playing with sex and sexuality, and what that is. And also what that is when you're looking at it from the perspective of a disabled man, or a gay disabled man, what that is and how that makes the audience feel. The audience might feel that they've got a sense of vertigo watching me being a sexual being.”

Is it a physically strenuous show? Does it take it out of you to perform it every day?

“It’s not physically strenuous, but I would say mentally strenuous. As I said before, Martin [Forsberg] works in this wonderful way where the work never stops, I'm always working on something. So, I've got all of these tasks that I have to attempt or achieve while I'm in the space, while I'm moving. Attached to what is seen, there’s all this stuff going on in my head to make it happen. So, in that sense it is quite…it does take it out of me. Yeah.”

Listen to this interview with Dan Daw from the halfway mark of the podcast above.

The title Beast, how did you come up with it? How does it relate to the work?

“I'm always struck, even now, when I'm out in public – not always, but just sometimes – I get the feeling that I'm being looked at as though I'm an animal. And I felt that this was the work to comment on that. So that's why I had no clothes on, you know? Really commenting on how I feel when the disabled gaze is on me – looking at what that is, both from my personal perspective into how that makes me feel, but also ‘how does that impact on how we are in society with one another?’ That's essentially where the title comes from.

“It did start out as Branded Beast, because I did feel a bit branded with all the labels that have been, kind of, stuck on me. Oh, you're this. Oh, you're that. But then we just kind of stripped it back and said Beast – just commenting on all of that. But also, just really honing in on the animalistic aspect, and that's kind of where the sexual vertigo comes in. Just the animalistic tendencies we all have, because we are animals and I think we forget that.”

Dan Daw performs Beast as part of About An Hour at Carriageworks between 16 and 19 January. You can also catch Dan in conversation at Carriageworks at 5pm on 14 January – tickets are free, but you need to register here.


Nick Jarvis is a journalist, copywriter and Publications Editor at Sydney Festival and Sydney Film Festival. He's written for Vice, Time Out, inthemix, Junkee and various other online media and street press over the years.
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