Dan Daw’s On One Condition and Aby Watson’s -ish were part of a double bill of contemporary dance exploring identity and disability on 9 September, as part of Southbank Centre’s Unlimited Festival. Review by James Zatka-Haas.
On the final day of Southbank’s Unlimited festival, Artists Dan Daw and Aby Watson hosted an incredible double bill, each giving a performance that eclipsed their abilities to hold an audience, but also highlighted for me what the festival is truly about. Celebrating Difference. A pertinent finish.
Dan Daw came on first performing his piece On One Condition. He appears in his underwear. His stage is minimal. He walks through a white door frame into a house made up of outlines. Thick white lines mark out the exterior and interior walls, whilst thinner lines denote the bed, sink and television set.
A few pieces of white furniture; a chair and fold up table sit to one side and his clothes – comprised of white shirt, black jeans and white shoes – sit to the other. He walks to the pile of clothing and begins putting on his socks. This takes him a while and is evidently difficult. No sounds accompany this introduction. It is incredibly effective in setting the tension.
It’s a good opener for Daw because his work deals with just that, the raw relationship between the audience and a performer – the discomfort many people feel when confronted with a body that is not like their own. Over the next hour or so, Daw meanders around his bare house, sharing stories of growing up in Australia, his relationship with his grandfather and the way he was treated at school.
A lot of his stories were difficult to hear, and it was evident that even the funnier ones weren’t always responded to accordingly. The audience found it difficult to laugh at a disabled performer, and that I think is what Dan’s trying to explore.
It’s a consciousness-raising work. It acknowledges that many people will find it difficult to apply the same expectations to a disabled performer as they do to a non-disabled performer, but instead of using that to cultivate alienation, Daw looks for solutions.
He lets the audience see him in a stark encounter. He’s not hiding from you. His house presents him fully and over time, through that encounter – with honesty and a pinch of humour – you become familiar with his physical difference.
Where Daw’s work rewards through its relative discomfort, Watson’s choreographic piece ‘ish’ draws you in with a loving sense of intimacy. The result of an Unlimited Emerging Commission, -ish explores ‘the murky territory that dyspraxia inhabits between the simple dichotomy of able/disabled.’
While dyspraxia is the focus here, Watson, with BSL Interpreter Amy Cheskin, playfully explore how we treat difference through the polarities we ascribe to it (steady/wobbly, able/unable, rising/falling).
Watson opens –ish with several balloons strapped to her head. She moves to the centre and begins inflating herself. She inflates and inflates until there is no room left and boom, the air blows out and she throws herself about making that squelching noise of a balloon losing all its air. It’s great to watch, suggesting both the hidden pressure that builds up over having a ‘murky’ disability and the inevitable chaos that can create.
With a soundtrack of everything from big band jazz to quiet ambience, Watson and Cheskin take us through several routines that look at those various dichotomies. Cheskin’s BSL was wonderfully theatrical. Her smaller interpretations of Watson’s larger movements were playful and subtle, and her imitations of the various instruments (with accompanying facial gestures) were just grand.
Halfway through the show, Watson asked a member of the audience for some assistance in blowing up a white space hopper using a foot pump. Whilst the audience member pumped, Watson would go through a choreographed routine.
Yet the woman, in what she called a ‘dyspraxic moment,’ accidentally slipped up and was unable to fully pressurise the ball. Seeing this, Watson broke from her routine, stopped the music and offered some assistance. It took them a while to get things going. It made for a beautiful moment that opened up some pretty interesting questions.
Yes, it affected the flow of the piece, but could this slip up instead be a celebration of the very chaos that this double bill is about? Our efforts might not always go as planned, but that is okay. It’s not something we should get angry at. Instead, we should explore and cultivate it.
Like in Daw’s piece, we need to ask ourselves what expectations we bring to works that look to celebrate difference. Do we get pissed at slip-ups or do we treat them with – as Aby and Amy did – a sense of care and respect. If we lean towards the latter, maybe we’ll learn to accept difference in the future.
It being the last night of Southbank’s Unlimited Festival, we ended on a real high. Both works for me were about recognition and acceptance, something that can feel alien when it comes to disability. But what Daw and Watson proved is that by stripping back on what we expect from these kinds of performances, we can learn to see this art, and maybe even the world outside the theatre, in a new and challenging way.