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As a gay Aboriginal Australian who grew up in a largely white world, Joel Bray found purpose and identity through dance. His latest work – the intimate solo performance Biladurang – blends choreography and theatre in a raw exploration of his own very personal journey. “I’ve had people hug me, I’ve had people crying, I’ve had people share their stories of discovering their Aboriginality late in life.” By Steve Dow.

Wiradjuri dancer Joel Bray’s platypus identity

Dancer and choreographer Joel Bray nervously greets 20 of us at the door of his Sydney city hotel suite and ushers us inside. His underwear is strewn about the room and he asks us to put on a hotel-issue black dressing gown over our clothes and take a seat wherever we can find one. His lithe, nude body is sheathed in an identical robe.

Bray meets our apprehension with studied anxiety, nervously pouring us drinks before crumpling at all angles on the floor, his face frozen in a rictus. He bounces up and dashes onto the bed in the adjoining room, holding up a Holy Bible as though it is a haloed digest of forbidden hunks, which, depending on your taste, it may well be.

Bray talks about entering a newsagency at age 15 wearing his school uniform and selecting a magazine with a hot dude on the cover. “My cock jumped,” he grins, then carefully enunciates each word: “A real … gay … porno.” Honcho, however, carried a $19 price tag, and young Joel only had $10 on him at the time. “Bit dear, that one,” the newsagent agreed.

Bray tells us of his awakening sexuality, his Wiradjuri identity, before retreating to a bubble bath, which we all watch on a TV screen. He returns, the bubbles barely concealing his cock and balls, and then asks if any audience members know how to roll a cigarette. As one young woman obliges, he speculates his indulgence of casual sex and drugs fills an empty void.

Later, he pairs us off and has us waltz around the room. I tread on the toes of the fellow I am paired off with; he smiles charmingly nonetheless. Armed with a bottle of lotion, Bray offers hand massages, and then inveigles those individuals on the receiving end to tell their own family stories.

“I’ve had people hug me, I’ve had people crying, I’ve had people share their stories of discovering their Aboriginality late in life,” Bray tells me during our interview, as he promotes Biladurang, a show he premiered at Melbourne Fringe, then took to Brisbane Festival and Sydney Festival, and which will return to Melbourne in March for the Dance Massive festival, being performed at Sofitel Melbourne on Collins.

This show’s title, which means platypus, is apposite, as Sydney Festival’s director, Wesley Enoch, explains, being a monotreme and a duck-billed, amphibious mammal. “Who knows what a platypus is? This notion of a mix of everything, and what’s your identity in this world?”

Bray’s early life was “very white-picket-fence, lower-middle-class, poor as church mice”. During high school he lived mostly in Orange, in the central west of New South Wales, in a Pentecostal household with his devout white mother and stepfather. He also spent time with his Indigenous father, a land rights activist. Bray embraced his race and sexuality, but it wasn’t always easy.

Dance came at the expense of law school, which he dropped out of. He spent 10 years living in Tel Aviv with his partner, but is now single. We don’t really hear anything about this partner in Biladurang – perhaps the break-up is still too raw – but Bray certainly mines his single life with excoriating self-effacement.

As much as Bray is attempting to forge human connections, he also likes to combine theatre and dance. I read a review in The Sydney Morning Herald by a dance critic that betrays disappointment Bray doesn’t dance more in the hotel room. “The silo-ing of those two things feels really weird,” Bray says. “There’s choreography in theatre, and dance has music, which is a type of voice. So actually, it’s just that type of combination is right for me.

“I’ve always been a writer and a talker. I love language. But I call myself a choreographer rather than a theatre maker because my approach to text is choreographic. I treat text through a toolbox of rhythm and energy and resonance and echoing and repetition. It’s not necessarily about a clear story or the development of a character. It’s more about, I like the words as material in and of themselves.”

Bray recently performed Dharawungara, which, he says, is a Wiradjuri word that means “the passing through” of the ceremonial archway and refers to the ritual of tying two saplings together and passing beyond a threshold. Bray reimagined the Chunky Move studios in Melbourne as a ceremonial ground, with musician Naretha Williams joining him on stage as a song woman. “I’ve been looking specifically at men’s initiation rites, but I wasn’t able to find anything other than a white man’s scholarship about dharawungara,” he says.

The writings of the white amateur anthropologist and Presbyterian evangelical R. H. Mathews, whose work Bray encountered, are unreliable. In 1900, for instance, on the eve of Federation, Mathews published a map of Australia that claimed the country had only 28 Aboriginal nations. Mathews viewed Aboriginal people as objects of scientific curiosity. Bray uses dharawungara in a metaphorical sense, to mean transition, while acknowledging the realities of colonisation mean a vanishing understanding.

“On the one hand I read what [Mathews] wrote about my ancestors and I get really angry because he was a part of the whole colonial project that led to the destruction of language and community, including the loss of ceremonial practice,” says Bray. “On the other hand, I have him to thank that I even have this information.”

So he’s not had any opportunity to participate in Wiradjuri ceremony on country? “Exactly,” he says. “And that means by law I’m not a man. I’m 38 and I’m still a boy.

“The work is wrestling with that deep, earnest desire to undergo this ceremony and the sadness of not being able to do it. You only know this one guy who wrote about it, and he didn’t really understand what he saw. He would write, ‘and then the savages would circle the fire, slapping their hands against their thighs’.

“Obviously that moment is encoded with deep religious, spiritual, legal significance. He just didn’t see it.”

 

Bray’s father is the Aboriginal land rights activist Christopher Kirkbright, who helped drive the creation of the NSW Aboriginal Land Rights Act of 1983. Kirkbright and Bray’s white mother, a nurse, Jane, also had a daughter. Kirkbright then had two more children with the now federal Labor frontbencher Linda Burney. He wrote a Wiradjuri dictionary, becoming fluent in the language through teaching himself, although Bray didn’t have a strong sense of being Wiradjuri per se as a child.

“I had a strong sense of being Aboriginal – Koori – but I would say that’s not uncommon. In the ’90s, the sense of political solidarity was Koori or Aboriginal or Indigenous. You always had an understanding of who your nation was. There is a renaissance at the moment of that sense of nationhood.

“Making Dharawungara with Naretha Williams, who happens to be Wiradjuri as well, made me realise there’s a specificity to our experience as Wiradjuri people. Aboriginal people in the south-east are starting to stand up and say, ‘Yes, we got fucked over by colonisation earlier and harder than those in Cape York and Western Australia, but our culture is [also] powerful and alive and authentic.’ ”

After his parents split, Bray spent a couple of summers during high school with his father in Murwillumbah but most of his teenagehood in Orange, involved in the ongoing Pentecostal faith of his mother, now Jane Bray, and stepfather, David Bray, who gave Joel two more siblings.

It was actually his Wiradjuri dad who first visited the church: “It didn’t stick with him,” says Bray, “but Mum found something in it.”

The family attended church four times a week. There was also youth group, prayer group and tent and healing ministries, revolving around a church satellite outpost in Molong, 35 kilometres north-west of Orange. “I was a lay preacher at 14, 15, the same time I was buying the pornography.” Bray laughs. “Sexual deviance in the church? No!”

As a teenager, Bray loved scriptural analysis the way he loved to analyse poetry. “My love of theatre actually started in the church, because the Pentecostal church is very theatrical, with rock music and people speaking gibberish. They call it speaking in the tongues of angels, but actually it’s just really good improvisation.”

Did he convert anyone to the faith? “Oh yeah, yeah, yeah,” he says. “Did my best to convert all my friends at school. They thought I was completely bonkers. My regret is I didn’t really treasure my relationships with those people; I was just treating them like potential recruits.”

What is his faith now? “God and I are on a very long trial separation.”

The moment Bray started to dance also “involves drugs, like a lot of things in my life”, he laughs. “I wasn’t so interested in dance per se. I did really well at school, and people said, ‘Oh, you’re going to be a doctor or a lawyer.’ I went, ‘I guess I’ll be a lawyer.’ I was at Sydney University studying arts/law and was just so not interested.

“I got involved in student activism; got arrested chaining myself to trees. We were so sure we were going to bring on the revolution. I decided to drop it all and go to NAISDA, the National Aboriginal Islander Skills Development Association college, which was at the time in Sydney, now on the Central Coast. I went because I wanted to be part of a community that was black, with traditional dance and song and craft.

“I’d been calling myself an Aboriginal activist, but I didn’t have any real connections with Aboriginal communities outside of my own family. But there was this other event 18 years ago, a student conference at Bathurst – on Wiradjuri country – and we were all students, we got super high, and I remember the dawn when everyone else was asleep.

“I jumped over a barbed-wire fence and came to a hill with a tree with no leaves on it, and there were all these birds swooping in this beautiful kind of choreography. I thought, ‘There’s no function here; they’re not doing it for breeding purposes or to eat. They’re just dancing’,” he says, grinning while enunciating the word sotto voce like a morsel of magic from his mouth. He immediately came to the realisation, “I think I want to do that.”

Between the ages of 25 and 35, Bray lived with his then partner in Tel Aviv, a hot spot city for dance. There he honed his craft, but life in Israel also presented frustrations.

“It fitted my personal narrative of being the outsider,” he says. “Israeli people are warm and loyal and wonderful [but] the Israeli state is finely crafted to make anyone who’s not ‘in’ feel very ‘out’, whether you’re Palestinian or a Filipino indentured labourer or someone like me on a spousal visa, they would find all these subtle little ways to make your life hard.

“You couldn’t get an ID number, which meant you couldn’t shop online with a credit card. I got work [creating dance], but everything was a complete hassle. It didn’t matter that I paid my taxes and spoke Hebrew fluently.”

What does dance give him?

“Dance is the best thing ever. One of the difficult things about dance is you can’t really put it into words. That’s one of our challenges in building audiences for what we do. It’s in your body. If I watch a dance show, I’ll often look at the audience, because you’ll see them swaying or bobbing or responding physically and they’re not even aware of it, because the process is not a cognitive one; it’s a body-to-body transmission.

“If I have one criticism of my art form, it’s that we took something everyone used to do, and we said, ‘Now we’re going to do it, and you’re going to watch us.’

“Dancing is innately human. Maybe that’s why I’m wanting to get everyone up, and we all dance.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 26, 2019 as "Spirits moving". Subscribe here.

Steve Dow
is a Melbourne-born, Sydney-based arts writer.