Dad Dancing

Posted: January 10th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Dad Dancing

Dad Dancing, Battersea Arts Centre, November 13, 2014

The core cast of Dad Dancing including the elusive Andy Webb

Left to right: Adrian Heafford, Rosie Heafford, David Hemsley, Alexandrina Hemsley, Andy Webb and Helena Webb

There were two December performances in London about dads, quite different in scope but united in focus. One was Dad Dancing at the Battersea Arts Centre and the other was Giulio d’Anna’s Parkin’son at The Place (which I have written about when it was performed as part of the Sick! Festival in 2013). The former is about the relationship between three dancing daughters and their non-dancing fathers (though the fathers successfully challenged the non-dancing aspect) and the latter about the relationship between a dancing son and his non-dancing father who has Parkinsons. In both performances the dads are on stage (except for the choreographed absence of Andy Webb), and both works are beautifully crafted and emotionally charged. Dad Dancing sets out to highlight the positive aspects of the father-daughter relationship but in the process the dads reveal a sometimes vulnerable underside that is touchingly human. Parkin’son is built around a more combative relationship that nevertheless contains a mutual love and respect but after close to 100 national and international performances and the creeping effects of the disease, father and son have to consider winding down. I hope Dad Dancing has a shot at 100 performances because it opens up a dialogue with the public about fathers (whether present or absent); the candour of the discourse and the raw enthusiasm of the onstage dads are cathartic.

The form of Dad Dancing is loosely set up as a theme and variations. The opening theme is all the daughters (Rosie Heafford, Alexandrina Hemsley and Helena Webb) with their respective fathers, Adrian, David and Andy (Andy actually never appears except on film as he is working but his contribution is full of surprises). So there are three pairs of pointed feet and two pairs of not so pointed feet doing a little shuffling, heel-and-toe routine. They are well rehearsed and move pretty much in unison until it comes to bending forward.

In the next section, Andy in a filmed message asks for an understudy. No volunteers, but a unilateral choice by the cast. This was my moment; I had the honour that evening of being Andy Webb, to walk in his footsteps. Literally. I was given written instructions as to how many steps to take in answer to certain quantitative questions that are displayed on a card for the benefit of the audience. ‘How many times have you been married?’ I take one step forward; David to my left takes a few more. None of the girls move. ‘How many children have you had?’ Three steps for me. The girls are rooted to the spot. I can’t remember where David ended up. For ‘How many jobs have you had?’ my instructions are to walk to the front of the stage.

Now for the solo variations; one of the daughters chooses three pieces of music from their iTunes playlist so whoever is dancing has to improvise. David hasn’t danced since his days in the Royal Tank Regiment; not promising for a solo performance, but he takes to the stage with natural rhythm. Having completed his three variations — one jazzy, one classical and one dubstep — he capers off jauntily to a waiting chair.

Rosie, Alexandrina and Helena establish their credentials by dancing like leaping gazelles after which the local supporting cast of seventeen (of all ages) joins in a long line to relate anecdotes about their respective fathers (when I saw the preview of Dad Dancing there were only the principal five on stage with Andy still at work). This is where the Dad Dancing Project is like a touchstone; nobody speaks ill of their father but there are some notable gaps in some of the relationships. Dad Dancing started off as a small-scale collaboration between three dancers and their fathers, but it has developed into a social phenomenon that recognizes the role of fathers in the lives of their children even if they have been absent. Hearing these anecdotes provides a welcome moment to reflect on our own fathers.

Each dad dances his three variations (Andy is filmed) as does each of the girls. The most candid moment is when the dads talk about the birth of their daughter, a place in which humour mitigates their emotional recall. Helena calls Andy on speakerphone to share another personal memory: his reaction to her disclosing she had started using the pill. She told her dad first on the understanding he would tell her mother.

At one point the entire cast has prepared a card on which each has written his or her hope for their respective father. They stand in a line presenting these cards to the audience and read them aloud, one by one. It is what Roland Barthes might call the punctum of a photograph, the moment when Dad Dancing reaches its emotional pinnacle and draws the evening to what might be a close. But then Adrian rides his bike around the stage with a light on his helmet to talk about his work as a geologist. It is true he hasn’t had this opportunity like the other dads, but its place in the show makes it seem one story too many. After Adrian the full cast returns to the stage to dance and invites audience members to join. Many do, and there is a celebratory feeling in the room. We all have dads but not only is it uncommon for children to perform with them, it is similarly uncommon to see them honoured in this way. Dad Dancing should be a national campaign; a lot of good can come out of it.

Dad Dancing is a co-production between Second Hand Dance and Battersea Arts Centre, co-commissioned by Battersea Arts Centre and South East Dance. Supported by Arts Council England, The Thistle Trust, Awards for All and Wandsworth Council.


Giulio D’Anna: Parkin’son

Posted: March 18th, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Giulio D’Anna: Parkin’son

Giulio D’Anna: Parkin’son, The Sick! Festival, The Old Market, Hove, March 15

Stefano and Giulio D'Anna in Parkin'son

Stefano and Giulio D’Anna in Parkin’son

It is hard to forget Stefano D’Anna. He is not a big man, but he is a powerful man, a humble, passionate man in his 60s with big working hands and a twinkle in his dark eyes who smiles at us through his white mustache and short white beard. In his native Italian he recalls the stages of his early life: born in 1949; sent to a boarding school run by priests in 1957; first kiss in 1963; first car in 1969; Jimmy Fontana’s recording of Il Mondo in 1965 (which Stefano sings for us in a rich, defiant tenor voice); first job in 1971; marriage in 1973. His life is punctuated with the changing brands of car he buys and he remembers each one with a certain romance and pride. When he marries Anna Maria, he trades in his Audi for an Alpha Romeo Giulia. Three years ago he is diagnosed with Parkinson’s and in the same year his son Guilio, who is a dancer and choreographer, suggests to his father that they work together on a dance project. At first Stefano laughs in disbelief, but now the two are touring the world with Parkin’son, a duet unlike any other between son and father.

Over the past dozen years, a growing amount of medical research has shown the beneficial link between dance and Parkinson’s. Mark Morris Dance Group and the Brooklyn Parkinson’s Group pioneered Dance for PD in 2001 and a recent study co-sponsored by English National Ballet and Roehampton University suggests that dance temporarily relieves some symptoms of Parkinson’s and aids short-term mobility, as well as contributing to social inclusion and artistic expression.

There is no doubt that Stefano D’Anna’s symptoms benefit from performing, but the physical therapy is a side effect of Parkin’son; what Giulio sets out to discover in this duet is the man behind the father as well as the man behind the son. Giulio is gay (‘It is in 2000 that I kiss a boy for the first time’), which adds a layer of significance to the interaction between the two men. They fight and spar, physically punish each other in a series of sadistic pranks (shades of boarding school cruelty) until one cries ‘stop!’ But their closeness and the desire to unravel the taboos that separate them make them come back for more, delving ever deeper into each other’s memory and consciousness to arrive at an equality that leaves father and son as partners. This breaking down of barriers draws hoots of laughter from the audience mixed with disbelief. As the program notes succinctly explain, Parkin’son is ‘a memorial and a manifesto, an exorcism of that which haunts past, present and future.’

Stefano doesn’t have the advantage of a trained dancer’s body like his son; he moves as he is. Superficially we see Giulio partnering someone with no dance training, but it is Stefano who holds our attention because he is so physically and psychologically exposed. When he arrives at the front of the stage for the first time, he stands still at an angle to us, his right hand trembling involuntarily. He looks at us without an ounce of self-pity, anchoring himself and his audience in the present moment. When he drops his trousers to his ankles and shuffles about the stage with his son like a children’s game, they are both children. It is this freedom that allows each to find his own equilibrium and which strengthens the bond between them.

Towards the end, Stefano asks his son to tell him what he knows about Parkinson’s. Giulio dances his response while his father watches. His body, which is strong, angular and hyper flexible, transforms easily into contorted, dislocated forms that become more and more incapable of movement. Stefano eventually cries, ‘stop!’ It is a moment of truth for both. As if to underline what we have just seen, we hear a sober recap of the effects of Parkinson’s: tremors, a reduced ability to move, and postural instability. Life expectancy is 15 to 20 years from the diagnosis, and medication only delays the moment when the patient is forced to stay in bed. A recurring theme of Maarten Bokslag’s subtle soundscape (when Jimmy Fontana is not pounding out Il Mondo) is a heartbeat synchronized with a grandfather clock, a subtle timeline that reminds us just how fragile life is.

Giulio is all too aware. He cradles his father like a child and imagines their future together: he will marry, he will adopt a child, he will work, he will build a house with his father’s help, he will retire and he will die peacefully in his father’s arms. In his son’s mind, Stefano is indestructible.

Parkin’son is presented by South East Dance and The Basement as part of the first ever Sick! International Arts Festival, ‘a cross-art form festival that seeks out new ways of talking about and dealing with the experience of sickness of all kinds: physical, mental, ethical and spiritual. It is about how our bodies and minds can act against us and against society’s expectations of what is normal. It is about understanding and taking back control.’

The performance is preceded by an introduction to Parkinson’s by Dr. Adam Harper, consultant geriatrician at the Royal Sussex County Hospital. Following the performance, Bobbie Farsides, professor of clinical and biomedical ethics at Brighton and Sussex Medical School chairs a discussion with Dr. Harper and Guilio D’Anna. Stefano is sitting in the front row listening to words he doesn’t understand, the unwitting focus of the entire evening. Bravissimo.