Just what the hell are you playing at, Daddy?

The buzz surrounding the return of Robyn Orlin’s Daddy, I’ve seen this piece six times before and I still don’t know why they’re hurting each other was unavoidable.

The newsfeed on my Facebook account boasted several status updates from people begging for tickets to its three sold-out performances. Could this award-winning work, which premiered at the Dance Umbrella in 1998, return to pack yet another punch?

The programme suggested that Daddy, as it is informally known, explores “politics in the arts in terms of performance empowerment and ownership of space”.

This objective is adapted by its six protagonists and a handful of extras forced into a series of “collisions” as they each negotiate the stage.

Caricatures of themselves

Orlin’s invisible presence and role as choreographer is highlighted by a fictional cellphone conversation with Gerard Bester. Their exchange, in which Bester repeats what Orlin says out loud, centres on her decision to remain in Berlin and the potential cancellation of Daddy.

The performers, playing caricatures of themselves, all want a place in the spotlight. In her ridiculous party glasses and ill-fitting pearl- studded grey wig, Toni Morkel made relentless appeals to the audience for funding for her “dancing ducks”. She set three of them free on stage at one point, letting the yellow motorised plastic toys interrupt one of Nelisiwe Xaba’s stoic solos. Morkel’s character seems to send up the desperation in the dance world to sustain a practice, even though the result produced remains a mechanical reproduction of the same kind of dancer.

Xaba’s presence dwarfed the dancing ducks that waddled at her feet, maintaining a statuesque presence that counterbalanced Morkel’s intrusions. Xaba’s diva-like demands were attended to with adoring dedication by the uniformed Thulani Zwane. As the performance proceeded, he revelled in the naive and co-ordinated dance style of an African youth dance troupe that stormed the stage.

Bester anxiously verbalised instructions and alterations to the proceedings, trying, in his words, to “save Daddy” from cancellation, passing snide remarks about Orlin’s fame, the dance world and audience expectations.

Between classical and contemporary
The satire was heightened when Bester poked fun at the international art festival preference for contemporary work produced by African choreographers. He asked seasoned dancer Pule Molebatsi on to the stage to do something “African”. Generally, the piece hinted at the tension between the contemporary and the classical.

Finally, a hefty Dudu Yende surprised the audience with her arrival at a moment when audience members were invited to accompany the dancers in a pairing-off onstage.

Disguised as an audience member, Yende flaunted her voluptuous ­figure in an attempt to secure Bester as her own. Her presence upset the expectation of what the ideal dancer should be.

At times, in the piece that seemed like an unstructured romp, the group actually danced together. Having decided to don rose-printed nighties, they performed a pastiche of a tightly co-ordinated, kaleidoscopic Busby Berkeley number to an overhead camera that displayed their efforts on video monitors positioned in the four corners of the theatre.

Bridging the divide
Their routine, simple and synchronised, had an element of the ridiculous. Yet Bester wryly asserted the profundity of their gesture, which he claimed to be a pioneering example of Orlin’s genius.

The audience played a key role in Daddy. They were expected to respond and perform themselves. They were threatened, controlled by the performers’ commands and made into the dance partners the performers required to fulfil the piece. The divide between audience and performer was bridged. Dancer and non-dancer were united in a romantically equalising gesture of reconciliation.

The show thrived on contradiction, unlikely juxtaposition and relentlessly undermined its audience’s expectations of what constitutes ­contemporary dance.

The production’s frenetic pace rarely allowed for cool contemplation. Daddy‘s continued currency seems to lie in the fact that as much as the contexts in which it is performed may change, it is able to identify new “weaknesses” to target.

Its slapstick, tongue-in-cheek, provocative, promiscuous, ironic, sarcastic, self-referential and critical character remains part of the strategy Orlin has adopted. Daddy is still fighting fit, though this was apparently its last performance.

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