Not many wake up nearing 50 with a desire to swing dance. Damian Callinan had such an epiphany or more accurately a senior crisis. He is, he freely admits, a little over mid-life.
“I’ve always wanted to partner dance. I had a postcard on my fridge for two years to do swing dance lessons and I thought I’ve got to do this. It was early November and the show started late March, so I kind of just jumped in the deep end.”
Was it arrogant to think that he could swing dance in three months? “Totally,” he says. “It was more expedience than arrogance … there was a bit of cockiness.”
In the first two weeks, the comedian did 10 lessons in 10 days, mostly undercover. “There was a number of days where I was going ‘What I have done?’” Realising it was important to show the failures, he rewrote sections of the play as he learnt to dance.
“Shag is a street dance that evolved doing the prohibition area. A lot of the research I did doesn’t appear but the spirit does. The hold in shag is almost like a ballroom dancing pose - the steps get closer together. I did the first two hours of a shag workshop - I was terrible. Couldn’t get past the first basic step. I made it half-way through and then I just cut and run.”
Asked if the show will increase his audience’s life expectancy – Callinan laughs. “Yeah two, three, maybe four years. Laughter is a tonic but laughter and dance - you put those two together and ...”
Swing Man is currently touring regional Victoria thanks to Regional Arts Victoriawith Wodonga next stop this Friday. His chief swing collaborator and training partner Genevieve Wallis is also touring this week. She’s the director of two dance troupes in Melbourne and shares the role with other renowned swing dancer Jeanne-Clare Storace on a rotating week on, week off, basis.
“We offer a workshop before the show. It’s been really fascinating - the group that come are a bit older than I thought and old time dance. I’m yet to get an explanation of old time dance. You reach a certain age and do old time dance. None of them will say what the steps are.
“It’s really interesting watching them adapt to the group. It’s not particularly demanding but we get a sense of what they can do - most of them haven’t touched the floor for decades so we get them to touch their knees instead.
“We teach a solo Charleston Stroll - like the Nutbush of swing dancing. There’s always that person who turns the wrong way at the beginning. It’s like art imitating life and then you see the joy of someone getting something right. Some of them have that moment and it clicks – just hugging and high-fiving – they are having their own moment.”
Damian Callinan didn’t grow up in the country but his trademark pull up a stump and have a yarn humour is reminiscent of rural Australia. He has an awareness and humility that is rare for urban comics.
“My Dad was a school teacher and taught in country schools the first 15 years. We spent a lot of time going back to those schools. From a young age, I was sitting in farm houses and sipping cups of tea talking about dairy farming - I loved getting out of Melbourne. And then for some reason, particularly when I was touring, I made an effort to get to know where I was – and that’s what led me to doing shows like Town Folk and Road Trip.”
Callinan is no stranger to performing on the regional circuit – especially with Town Folk “where I go into the town with a documentary filmmaker and make a show about the town”. He senses that there’s a willingness in regional towns and cities to retell their story with a new narrative that is not necessarily present in our big cities.
“The most global issue in Australia in general is that regional Australia is having to reinvent itself. Take Burnie in Tasmania. They’ve done a really good job at re-positioning themselves as a makers’ town rather than revolving around a mill.”
Other towns have embraced racial diversity like Shepparton and Wagga with Albury-Wodonga on the way.
“You occasionally come across a place that is down and doing it - where the national conversation has taken over. In Katanning - in the wheat belt of WA – they are generations ahead of what’s happening with murals of their muslims and sheiks.
“In film too, country towns can adapt more quickly than urban centres where the enclaves are more divided.”
Callinan saw this while filming The Merger in Wagga last October where he plays the lead character Troy Carrington and wrote the screenplay. The film is adapted from his stage show of the same name. Though the film is fictional, the themes of inclusion and acceptance are as relevant as ever.
“I get a lot of people who think I’m from the country because of The Merger. I’m currently writing a play about town hall communities – I’m drawn to the regional story. I think regional towns are a bit clearer on what their stories are … My story style is empathetic – I sit inside the story. Creating empathy for the characters ... why are they like they are? Why do some people skew towards single mindedness?”
The genesis for the stage show The Merger was thanks to a commission from Vic Health. The brief: racism in regional communities. After performing at Adelaide Fringe and Melbourne Comedy Festival in 2010, the show toured regionally – by 2012, it had a life of its own.
The Merger film premiered at the Melbourne International Film Festival on August 11 to encouraging reviews – with some placing the film in the league of The Castle. Time will tell. It premieres in Wagga on August 28 and in Albury on September 6.
“I’m not getting ahead of myself. We can’t really be compared with them because they’ve got pedigree. I’ve very proud of what we’ve made and in the great football parlance – ‘just taking it a day at at time’.”
As a comedian and performer that has bucked the trend with his unique style of ‘on-the-road’ storytelling, what has been nice Callinan says is the recognition from his own industry – receiving well wishes from all corners.
“People are recognising that I’ve worked very hard to get here - and the respect has been very humbling. I feel like those talking about the success of the film is due recognition of the unorthodox path that I’ve taken and unorthodox subjects that I choose to tackle.”
Swing Man performs at The Cube, Wodonga on Friday evening at 7.30pm. Tickets are still available and there’s a sizzling swing dance workshop before the show at 5.30pm.
What: Swing Man
When: August 24, The Cube, Wodonga
Tickets: from $29, less for group bookings
Time: 7.30pm show + 5.30pm for the Swing Man Workshop
What: The Merger
When: September 6, Regent Cinemas, Albury
Time: 7pm TBC
Tickets: from $20
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Alison Plasto is a digital producer for Fairfax Media. She also worked on The Merger.