• Cella

Dan Daw Creative Projects: Beast
Bay 20, Carriageworks, January 17
Narelle Benjamin & Paul White: Cella
Bay 20, Carriageworks, January 18
If there was an underlying trend in the dance on offer in this year’s Sydney Festival, it could best be described as a shift towards the smaller scale, less mainstream types of dance practice and performance that are championed by the independent and community dance sectors. With the exception of Wayne McGregor’s Tree of Codes, this year's "big-name" act from overseas (and one which will not be discussed in this review as it was reviewed previously in 2017 when presented as part of the Melbourne Festival), the dance/physical theatre performances were home-grown, brief but memorable.
Both Cella and Beast were presented as part of the Festival’s About an Hour program at Carriageworks, which encouraged audiences to purchase tickets to shorter performances at a lower price point. With some shows presented at different times; overlapping and contrasting with others so that it was possible to see two, or even three short performances in one evening (or to combine one show with a leisurely meal out) this was a curate-your-own evening type of arrangement, and the concept fit nicely with the modern/industrial design, and vast capacity of the Carriageworks venue.
Beast, a solo work choreographed by Martin Forsberg and performed by Dan Daw, is centred around Daw's self-described "otherness" as a professional dancer with a disability that affects his ability to move.

Despite being only three quarters of an hour, Beast is a slowly-evolving work. In the beginning, Daw stands, half hidden by a screen between him and the audience. Covered in white powder the one arm we can see looks like a mannequin, those perfectly plastic moulded bodies that are identical in their conformity. The twist comes when the work starts and he appears now in front of the screen. Daw’s nudity at this point is still censored by strategically placed black squares on a metal frame, and the audience is left to wonder exactly what kind of disability this performer has. While there are references in the programme to Daw’s "otherness", his "deviating functionality" – there is no mention of what his disability actually is. Daw gradually traverses the stage on all-fours, picks up a tray of ceramic cups – struggling to hold them steady, and balances, quivering to music, in a position that looks very much like a Pilates exercise (hundreds – for those of you familiar with Pilates).

A quick Google search after the show revealed that Daw has cerebral palsy, and a further Google search explained the varied symptoms of cerebral palsy. I understood much more, at that point, than I had during the show, but how many audience members were moved to search this information out for themselves…. might it have been better to include this in the program?

Beast by Dan Daw
Dan Daw in the slowly evolving 'Beast'. Photo: Prudence Upton.

Cella (Latin for cell) is choreographed and performed by Paul White and Narelle Benjamin. Despite the minimalist, repetitive nature of much of their movement, there is also extreme virtuosity in the variety and difficulty of partnering moves the two dancers undertake. Both are highly accomplished dancers – just watching the way each could articulate their spine, so controlled, yet finely expressive, as they circled each other in a series of rolls across the floor – was a thing of beauty. Karen Norris’s lighting design was excellent in that it created a dark space, with shadows, without obscuring the dancer’s movements. The costume of rehearsal wear – loose fitting pants and tops – meant that the viewer's eye was drawn to the performers' extremities (hands and feet), as well as to their head movements and torsos (when certain movements revealed them). Composer Huey Benjamin’s score (with additional music by The Necks and Colleen) mirrored the repetitive minimalism of this work
In terms of structure, the first hour of Cella was very well arranged. But in the last fifteen to twenty minutes, when the dancers started painting each other with ink, and White pushed a platform with stairs into the performance space that they continued to dance in and around, I must admit starting to lose interest. A trick of the eye in the arrangement of their bodies in the final tableau meant that the two dancers seemed to form one extraordinarily long body, with Benjamin’s head and body, and White’s legs. Cella is an excellent work but with some judicious edits, it could be even stronger.


Top: Highly accomplished dancers: Narelle Benjamin and Paul White in 'Cella'. Photo: Prudence Upton.

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