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Michelle Silby sits on a chair. She wears a green dress and is gesturing with her hands while facing Dan Daw. Dan sits in a chair facing Michelle and is looking at her. The background is dark

Interview with Dan Daw

Image: 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.

Accessible Arts recently co-hosted a conversation between Michelle Silby, Director at Ausdance, and internationally acclaimed performer Dan Daw, as part of Sydney Festival 2018.

Dan, who is performing his show Beast this week at the Festival, touched on many topics including what drives him, the importance of grassroots community arts programs and how he learned to take control of his career.

Discovering performing arts

Dan was introduced to drama and performance while he was at primary school in Wyhalla, SA. “I was about 12 when I discovered this amazing thing called performance. I did drama at primary school and the local theatre was running workshops every week in drama and dance for the youth ensemble.” Dan credits this early exposure for his choice of career in performance, and his passion for local arts programs. “If it wasn’t for community arts young people wouldn’t get a taste for it. How will they develop those inspirations if it’s not being supported at that grassroots level? That’s where it all starts!” he said.

He left Wyhalla for Adeliade when he was 17 to study physical acting, which is where he discovered – and ended up majoring in – physical theatre. Since then has forged a career working with top choreographers and theatres around the world including Restless Dance Theatre (Aus), Australian Dance Theatre (Aus), Force Majeure (Aus), FRONTLINEdance (UK), Scottish Dance Theatre (UK), balletLORENT (UK), Candoco Dance Company (UK) and Skånes Dansteater (Sweden).

The motivation for Beast

Dan explained his fascination with other people’s response to him as an artist with disability. “When I’m out in public sometimes I feel like an animal that’s just escaped from the zoo. The way people are looking at me and using their gaze is interesting, it’s like they are studying me, it’s never threatening but I find it odd and interesting,” he said. He responds to this intersection of ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ in Beast.

“Often people say my work is ‘political’ because I’ve got a disability. Why is that political? If it was a 25-year-old white female it wouldn’t be. Another response I get is ‘You’re such an inspiration!’ I think OK, I’m down with that, but why? If we don’t know why then I think we have a problem.”

Reflecting on pivotal moments from his past, Dan recounted a memory when as a teenager he would travel to see the Australian Dance Theatre (ADT) in Adelaide with his Grandmother. “One day we were watching the Theatre and I whispered ‘Hey Nan, I’d love to dance like that one day!’ She leaned over and said ‘Daniel I’m sorry but I don’t think you’ll ever be able to do that.’ Many years later she saw me perform at that very theatre with ADT.  She was proud as punch – it was a really lovely moment,” he said.

 Gaining professional experience

Dan has spent much of his career working in the UK due to a lack of professional opportunities within Australia early is his career. As he puts it, “I had to leave the country I loved to do the thing I loved.” He explained that back when he left Australia he didn’t have the skills and experience behind him to take artistic responsibility for his career. “I needed to perform with a company, gain the skills and understand the business behind the arts. Now that I have that behind me I’m able to come back and create opportunities for other disabled artists in Australia.” An example of this is Dan’s role as Artistic Associate at Murmuration, an integrated performance company in Sydney.

Dan’s advice for others trying to forge their artistic career is not to wait around for things to start happening. “It’s about creating your own opportunities and not waiting for people to knock on your door – no matter what who they are, they’re just people and they probably have similar ambitions to you. It’s just about saying hey how about a coffee? They worst they can say is no.”

Beast ran from 16 – 19 January 2018. 

Dan Daw stands smiling to camera, flanked by Michelle Silby on his right and Michael Huxley on his left

Michelle Silby, Director, Ausdance with Dan Daw, Performer and Michael Huxley, Interim General Manager, Accessible Arts.