Anh Do interview

Anh Do in his studio. Photo: Eamonn McLoughlin

Anh Do in his studio with two of the portraits in his first solo exhibition Man. Photo: Eamonn McLoughlin

When the finalists for last year’s Archibald Prize were announced, many were surprised to see that comedian Anh Do was represented with a portrait of his father.

Do himself was utterly thrilled: “Just to walk into the Art Gallery of NSW and see what was sitting in your garage a few weeks earlier hanging up there was wonderful,” he says.

“The woman who hung the exhibition said, ‘I hope you like the spot, Anh.’ I said, ‘I’m just so thankful. I’d be happy to be hung anywhere in the Archibald. I’d take cubicle three of the men’s.”

It was no flash in the pan either. Do won the 2014 Kogarah Art Prize with another portrait and currently has his first solo exhibition at Olsen Irwin in Woollahra, one of Sydney’s leading commercial art galleries.

Do famously arrived in Australia at age three as a refugee when his family fled strife-torn Vietnam in a leaky boat. Drawing on his life story in his stand-up shows, he has become one of Australia’s best-loved comedians, filling venues and popping up on TV programs such as Thank God You’re Here and Dancing With the Stars on which he was the runner-up in 2007.

Russell Crowe is going to direct a film based on Do’s award-winning autobiography The Happiest Refugee for which Do has been working on the screenplay and will play his own father.

Anh Do's portrait of his father. Photo: Eamonn McLoughlin

Anh Do’s portrait of his father. Photo: Eamonn McLoughlin

In between all that, he now spends much of his time painting in a large garage at his home on the Illawarra coast where he lives with his wife Suzie and their four children.

The solitary hours spent applying thick oils to canvas suits his temperament.

“People who know me will tell you that I’m more of an introvert than people think. Actually, a lot of comedians are and it surprises people,” he says, chatting at his home with its view of the ocean.

“I love being on stage and connecting with 2000 people but you don’t really see me that often at the Logies and all that red carpet stuff. I’d rather just have dinner with my wife and kids.”

Do has always loved art but has come to it relatively late – partly because his father, who was an alcoholic, walked out on the family when Do was 13. He didn’t see his father again until he was 21, though they are now very close.

“As a kid I loved art, loved it,” he says. “But somewhere along the line in school I stopped taking art classes because people told me if you want to get high marks in the school certificate don’t do art.

“My mum raised three kids on her own on sweatshop wages of about six bucks an hour so there was a lot of late rent and landlords knocking on the door,” recalls Do.

“When I was about 10 I remember thinking, ‘one day I’m going to buy a big house we can all live in together and we’ll never have to be hassled by landlords again’. So I went to school and asked around and said, ‘guys what’s the job that pays the most money?’ and someone said, ‘lawyers get loads’ and so I thought ‘that’s what I’m going to be’.”

Do got into Law at university. “But I couldn’t help myself. I signed up to study art at TAFE simultaneously. You can’t really do both so I ended up skipping all the law classes because they were really boring and going to all the art classes. Then, of course, comedy came along and wiped both out,” he says.

“But about four or five years ago, a comedian mate called Dave Grant passed away and a cousin of mine passed away in his late 20s. I always thought I’d paint one day after I retire, buts something made me go, ‘you know what, I’ve got to do it now’. So I went back to TAFE.”

One of the portraits in Anh Do's solo exhibition Man. Photo: Eamonn McLoughlin

One of the portraits in Anh Do’s solo exhibition Man. Photo: Eamonn McLoughlin

His solo show, entitled Man, features a series of portraits, many of them with a haunting gaze similar to that of his father in his Archibald painting.

“These guys that I’ve painted, they’re lived a full life and they’ve had their ups and downs and it shows in their eyes. That’s what interests me,” says Do.

“A lot of being a comedian is about observing people. When I’m on stage I look at people in the audience. It might be 2000 people in the State Theatre but I’ll look at a few people and make eye contact with them. It’s an incredibly powerful connection for two people who have never really met properly.

“I’m interested in everything about people. Not just, ‘what do you do for a living?’ but I want to know about their fears and their sadnesses and listen to their regrets and all of that, both sides of it, the happy and the sad. A lot of my work is driven by what makes people human.

“Years ago my comedy used to just be funny gags strung together with dodgy segues but recently I’ve been delving into my childhood so some stories make people laugh and other make people cry. My comedy shows these days are so much richer for the fact that there’s laughter and tears in the audience.”

Anh Do's portrait of comedian Dave Hughes. Photo: Eaonn McLoughlin

Anh Do’s portrait of comedian Dave Hughes. Photo: Eaonn McLoughlin

Do credits fellow comedian Dave Hughes with encouraging him to draw on his own experience.

“A couple of years ago me and Hughesy had just finished filming Thank God You’re Here. We were just hanging out and I started telling him real life stories and he goes, ‘mate, this stuff is fascinating, you should tell it on stage,” recalls Do.

“I said to Hughesy, ‘I want to make people laugh not cry’ and he said, ‘Anh, make ‘em laugh and cry.’ That’s probably why I started mixing in all that real life story so I have Hughesy to thank for my show becoming richer and deeper.”

Hughes was one of the first people Do painted. He entered the portrait into the Swan Portrait Prize in Perth and was selected as a finalist.

Do says that now that he paints regularly, he notices things he never did before.

“I used to look at a rusty old tap and it’s just a rusty old tap but now I see 15 shades of brown and orange and there’s even a lot of green and a couple of shades of purple. Before, it was a rusty old tap, now it’s a beautiful array of colour. These days, I can tell you the eye colours of most of my good friends. Before that I’d be stumped.”

Do has been performing his comedy show The Happiest Refugee Live for three years now but there is so much demand for it that he will take it on another national tour in May and June.

“It’s not just stand-up. There are videos and pictures and props on stage. It’s almost a theatre show,” he says.

It’s certainly an inspiring story – as is Do’s positive outlook on life.

“When we were at sea (en route to Australia) we ran out of food and water and we could easily have died,” he says. “My mum always taught us as kids that we are lucky just to be alive so you may as well make your life worth something, throw something into the hat and contribute.”

Do’s exhibition Man runs at Olsen Irwin Gallery in Woollahra, Sydney until May 10

A version of this story ran in the Sunday Telegraph on April 19

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The Arrangement

Ken Unsworth’s Studio, Alexandria, July 16

Patrick Harding-Irmer, Anca Frankenhaeuser and Susannah Lawergren. Photo: Eamonn McLoughlin

Patrick Harding-Irmer, Anca Frankenhaeuser and Susannah Lawergren. Photo: Eamonn McLoughlin

Right up front I need to say that Anca Frankenhaeuser and Patrick Harding-Irmer – who together with Susan Barling and Ross Philip make up Australian Dance Artists – are close personal friends.

As a result, I haven’t featured or reviewed any of the wondrous work that they have done in Sydney over the past two decades. Now that I have my own blog, the time has come to rectify that, while declaring my connection.

Last week, in collaboration with eminent sculptor Ken Unsworth, composer Jonathan Cooper and The Song Company, Australian Dance Artists (ADA) gave seven performances of a production called The Arrangement, which a small invited audience (around 50 each show) was privileged to see.

The seeds for ADA were sown in 1993, when independent choreographer Norman Hall worked with four dancers from four different generations (Elizabeth Dalman, Harding-Irmer, Barling and Gideon Obarzanek) on a production called 4 Generations. (A history of the company can be found on their website www.australiandanceartists.com).

The four performers that make up ADA are senior artists (veterans, in dance terms) who have had long, prestigious careers in contemporary dance. Among other credits, Philip danced with Sydney Dance Company from 1977 to 1992, while Barling was a member of SDC from 1978 to 1991. Frankenhaeuser and Harding-Irmer performed for 15 and 17 years respectively with London Contemporary Dance Theatre during the 1970s and 80s.

Their experience brings an emotional depth to their dancing that speaks reams.

Since 2000, ADA has collaborated with Unsworth (now 84). Their productions – which are part-performance and part-installation, frequently with live music – are something of a mindf**k. Stunning visual images from the wonderfully whacky world according to Unsworth, which often have you feeling like you have fallen down a rabbit’s hole, combine with profound connections between the four dancers whose choreography is a response to both Unsworth’s imagery and the music.

Together, Unsworth and ADA have presented work at a range of different venues including the Art Gallery of NSW, Cockatoo Island and Unsworth’s studio in Alexandria, where he has created a stage and a small auditorium with three rows of church pews.

The Arrangement, which, like all their work was totally financed by Unsworth, features a newly commissioned score by Cooper for piano, cello, flute and clarinet. A song cycle with settings of texts by A.E. Housman, Federico Garcia Lorca, W. H. Auden, Barnabe Googe and Rainer Maria Rilke for six singers, the score also includes musical interludes.

With Roland Peelman, director of The Song Company, as musical director, the music is beautiful and well suited to dance.

For The Arrangement, staged at Unsworth’s studio, Unsworth dug a pit beneath the stage especially and moved a pillar to extend the stage width-wise.

The production begins with projections (AV design by Tim Hope) of the dancers’ faces. Unsworth then glides across the stage behind a black shape suggesting the back of a piano. With his long, silvery white hair gleaming in the lights, he turns his head from side to side like one of those galleries of clowns at the fairground where you attempt to throw a ball into their open mouth. Then, sounding a large tuning fork like a magician conjuring the show with a wand, the music begins.

The non-narrative production is full of arresting images and vignettes around themes of ascension and descent, levitation, love, consolation, the passing of time and the inevitability of death – at least that’s what I took from it. Unsworth has never been one to spell anything out.

Early in the production, a singer (soprano, Susannah Lawergren) rises angel-like from the illuminated pit beneath the stage through a trap door, disappearing through a hole in the ceiling, chanting “again, and again, and again”. Later she descends in a space-age looking bubble (pictured) and at the end of the production descends back into the pit.

The vocalists all have a fair amount to do while singing. Alto Hannah Fraser flies through the air on a swing. (Mathew Lynn’s portrait of Unsworth in this year’s Archibald Prize features the sculptor on a swing, referencing Fragonard’s famous Rococo painting The Swing). The six-strong vocal ensemble climbs a frame along the back wall of the stage and pass wine from glass to glass. An archangel-type figure in long golden gown with stick arms and legs (baritone, Mark Donnelly) is suspended over the stage from an overhead track.

Visually, as in all the collaborations between Unsworth and ADA, the tumult of images never ceases to surprise and delight, enhanced by Pamela McGraw’s costumes and Eddi Goodfellow’s lighting. Barling reclines in a quivering bed of flowers, Philip interacts with a leg and arm from a mannequin, Harding-Irmer hangs listlessly in a hammock while Frankenhaeuser clambours over him in cajoling fashion. A large doll crosses the stage on a wooden rocking horse as a baby’s cries fill the space and, in a beautiful moment using video, Frankenhaeuser appears to levitate.

The choreography is by the four dancers, with Hall as choreographic collaborator. One of the most powerful moments is a duet between Frankenhaeuser and Harding-Irmer. He stands on an illuminated ball, back to the audience. From behind him, Frankenhaeuser’s hands, arms and feet float and flutter in a dance of their own. Appearing at his side, her body seems charged with an agitated, buzzing energy, which she then plucks and flicks from her, channeling it into his body until his hands and arms start to shake as hers had done.

The duets between Harding-Irmer and Frankenhaeuser seem to speak of nurturing and symbiosis. Those between Philip and Barling suggest something spikier, edgier, more tempestuous and perhaps combative.

Without the budget of a big commercial production where hydraulics and computerisation make for fluid scene changes, some of the scenic elements judder, clank and bang but that is part of the charm of a production, hand-made with so much love, unfolding there for us, so close to us.

The collaborations between Unsworth and ADA are unique, idiosyncratic and special. There is an element of the weird and wonderful as well as the impishly playful, yet the work is underpinned at every turn by a sense of humanity and layered emotion. It is a shame these productions aren’t being picked up and given another life. I’m surprised festivals aren’t tuning in. As it is, Unsworth and ADA have already started talking about the next one.

* The singers from The Song Company also included Clive Birch, Richard Black and Anna Fraser, while Ollie Miller played cello, Lamorna Nightingale played flute and Jason Noble played clarinet.