Small Show, Big Message

Joel Bray

Joel Bray is a proud openly-gay Aboriginal (Wiradjuri) man and one of the most talked-about contemporary dancers to come out of Australia in recent years. He talks to Oliver Hall about bringing his latest show Biladurang to the Auckland Arts Festival (AAF).

“It means not quite fitting in anywhere, which is freeing because you can define yourself outside of the expectations of others,” says Bray summarising his experience of being an openly gay light-skinned Wiradjuri man.

Bray’s work frequently comments on the communities he is part of. His last work Daddy examined the plight of gay men in the digital world.

Bray feels it’s a shame that apps like Grindr have reduced the popularity of queer spaces.

“I remember what it was like when I came out in Sydney and discovered Oxford Street, and I wish Queer youngsters could have that as well. I also think it has eroded our ability to communicate with each other with compassion and nuance. The type of chatting online we do now is so abbreviated, course and transactional, and I think that has bled over into how we treat each other in real life.”

Despite this observation, Bray is positive for the future. “Queer men [have started] making an effort to rediscover community and connection with each other, over and above transactional sex, and I think that is really exciting,” he says looking to the decade ahead.

Bray is less optimistic for the future of Australia’s aboriginal communities. Without a treaty like Aotearoa’s he believes they will struggle to gain meaningful recognition from ‘white Australia.’

“We need to see meaningful land-rights, that allows us to reconnect with our ancestral country and to protect it from avaricious miners, pastoralists and corporations. Looking at the political landscape now, I am not confident that will happen in the next decade,” he says.

In Biladurang, Bray compares his own identity to the traditional Australian story of the platypus.

“According to my peoples’ lore, the Platypus is a hybrid creature – the offspring of a duck and a water rat – who was sent into exile. I identify with her story- not quite looking right, nor quite fitting in. I think that’s a common experience for First Nations and Queer people alike.”

A unique experience, Bray performs Biladurang in a hotel room, in front of a maximum of an audience of less than twenty bath-robe-clad people.

“You can really tinker with, and tailor, the performance for the specific people in the room. When you perform for a big audience in a theatre, you can get some basic feedback from them- they are ‘with me or not’ sort of thing. But with just twenty, you can see them and get to know them quickly and so you can adapt, on-the-spot, your delivery and your repartee with them. Its super fun!”

He scoffs when asked if a show like Biladurang can break even.

“I make experimental, contemporary performance. Profit is the last thing on my mind! That’s one of the reasons why public financing of festivals like the AAF is so important, to allow artists to bring work to audiences on the basis of innovation and quality and not just on the ability to make money.” 

At its heart, Biladurang is a dance show, even if it might look like it to the uneducated eye.

“Dance is more than just high kicks and turns (though don’t get me wrong, I squeeze those into the hotel room too). Dance can be detailed- a nuance or a texture of the body, it can be something that is happening in my body while I tell you a story.”

By sharing this intimate experience, Bray hopes to impact the world for the better.

“This capitalist system we are living in isn’t working,” he concludes. “It’s destroying our communities, our mental health and our planet. I’d like to be a part of the change that moves to something new – a new system that puts people and the environment centre stage.”

Joel Bray will perform Biladurang at the Avani Metropolis Auckland Residences from Wednesday 11 to Sunday 22 March. Tickets from Ticketmaster.