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Community has always been important to dancer and artist Bhenji Ra, who found solidarity in New York’s ballroom culture. In the wake of this summer’s devastating bushfires, she turned her focus back home, to the NSW south coast community that supported her to pursue her dreams. “It was the most incredible New Year’s Eve I’ve had. I’d never felt so intimate with my family. We were all there together – except for my older sister, who lives in Los Angeles – and with our community as well.” By Tony Magnusson.

Bhenji Ra goes vogue

Bhenji Ra.
Credit: Courtesy NGA

After a busy year spent performing and travelling the world, Bhenji Ra was looking forward to a tranquil break with her family at their Surf Beach property, just south of Batemans Bay on the New South Wales south coast.

“It was meant to be a breather, a little bit of respite,” she explains, when we meet at the Woolloomooloo studio space she shares with fellow artist and collaborator Justin Shoulder.

“We’d been monitoring the fires for a couple of days, then, suddenly, on the morning of New Year’s Eve, it was behind our house. Dad’s an Aussie laid-back kind of guy – he was saying, ‘We’ll be right.’ But the authorities were telling us, ‘You have to leave now.’ ”

Like many thousands stranded on the south coast and beyond, Ra welcomed in the new year in an evacuation centre, alongside her parents and older brother, following a day spent huddled on the beach for safety with hundreds of others beneath a glowering sky.

“It was the most incredible New Year’s Eve I’ve had,” says the 29-year-old. “I’d never felt so intimate with my family. We were all there together – except for my older sister, who lives in Los Angeles – and with our community as well.”

Ra’s parents’ property was spared. But, while heading back to Sydney, she was hit by an overwhelming sense of anxiety: “We’d been so close for those couple of days – separating so soon after a crisis like that was full-on. I wanted to go back and help with the recovery.”

Well known and widely followed for her practice as a dancer and interdisciplinary artist, Ra decided to post an appeal to her 18,000 Instagram followers, asking them to pledge money in support of those on the south coast she knew were in need of immediate assistance. “I thought, if I can create a conduit between the wider community and my south coast community, then that’s a perfect way to participate in social media,” says Ra.

In a week, she raised more than $50,000.

Ra and a friend distributed the funds to about 10 families and community groups in Batemans Bay, as well as in nearby Moruya, where she was born and raised. She spent time in these hard-hit communities too. “People appreciate when you sit down and talk, because nobody seems to have the time anymore. To be able to do all that felt transformative.”

For Ra, it was a way of giving back to people who she says always supported her – “even when I was quite vocal and ‘out there’ during high school… You know, protesting about homelessness or Change the Date.

“I won an award at 18 that I had to collect on Australia Day, and I wore the Aboriginal flag and declared, ‘This day does not exist!’ I’ve always been like that.”

A material expression of that support came in the form of a scholarship – courtesy of the Country Women’s Association and the local council – that took Ra to New York as a 19-year-old to study at the revered Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance.

Ra chose Martha Graham, the oldest professional dance school in the United States, because she was eager to be trained in a method that offered rigour and discipline. “Growing up, I’d been more engaged with street-style dance and cultural practices, so I wanted something with a solid foundation,” she says. “I wanted to go to the source of contemporary dance.

“Mum came with me for the first couple of weeks because I’d never seen a city so big. I thought, ‘Where do these streets end?’ I was really, really country!”

None of this would’ve been possible, she says, without the support of her south coast community. “So, it felt timely that I could use my platform for bushfire relief,” says Ra.

“I’m proud to be the biracial daughter of a migrant,” she continues. “My Filipina mother came to Australia as a young woman and settled on the south coast. But I’m also queer and trans, and am equally proud that my community in Sydney, which comprises a lot of queer voices, was backing me up and helping those in need on the south coast.”

 

As a young queer kid, says Ra, “I never identified as male. I was always a… question.” Moving to New York opened up a world of possibilities. “There was always this plan to realise myself within New York’s queer club culture. I gravitated towards queer people of colour – and voguing was part of their language,” she says. “Slowly, I started to embody that and, before long, I was out at the clubs every couple of nights.”

Increasingly drawn to the vibrant underground culture of Harlem ballroom, Ra began taking lessons from Benny Ninja, who had been schooled by the late Willi Ninja in the competitive and highly stylised dance form. One of ballroom’s pioneers, Willi appeared in the video clip for Malcolm McLaren’s 1989 hit “Deep in Vogue”, which predated Madonna’s “Vogue” by almost a year, as well as in Jennie Livingston’s seminal 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning and on the runway for Jean-Paul Gaultier.

When she returned to Australia after 18 months, Ra undertook a degree in contemporary dance at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts, while performing with an Indigenous voguing collective, the Haus of BlackStar, at various events on the side. Upon moving to Sydney after graduation, Bhenji founded her own crew, the House of Slé (pronounced “slay”), of which she is “house mother”, nurturing a posse of trans, queer and gender-diverse young people, most of whom have Asia-Pacific heritage.

This is a defining feature of ballroom: houses function like an informal family, offering support and solidarity to those whose “real” families may have rejected them. In the New York ballroom scene and beyond, performers from various houses compete on a catwalk before a table of judges for cash prizes and trophies.

While ballroom’s roots can be traced back to the Harlem renaissance of the 1920s, it came into its own in the late 1970s and ’80s as a tool of resistance and self-expression among black and Latinx trans women and gay men. Historically, voguing has been characterised as a kind of choreography of sublimated violence, in that, instead of fighting, rivals from different houses would “dance it out” to see who was the better performer. Embodying the politics of queerness, balls are subversive, sexy, raucous and lengthy affairs.

Voguing has evolved considerably over the past few decades – the Old Way of the 1980s (symmetrical, precise, linear and graceful) gave way in the ’90s to the New Way (rigid and contorted, with plenty of locking and mime-like movements). Today, the exaggerated and theatrical Vogue Femme form is particularly popular. The scene continues to thrive across the US, in Europe and indeed throughout the world – it’s especially popular in Russia.

For the past three years, Ra has been the driving force behind the Sissy Ball, Australia’s pre-eminent voguing event. This year’s ball, held at Sydney’s Enmore Theatre, saw New York-based performers Tati Miyake Mugler and Omari Wiles delight an ecstatic crowd while Ra, a consummate host dressed in a patent-leather Barbarella outfit designed by Haus of Hellmutti, was full of wit and verve as she guided competitors from seven Antipodean houses through seven categories.

While Ra is happy to witness ballroom’s increased visibility, she is mindful that admirers should be aware of its history and utility. “It’s a bizarre and beautiful cultural form that has been so important to so many people’s survival,” she says, noting that, for many trans women, “passing” for a cisgender woman is a way of ensuring one’s safety in a world where hate crimes against trans people are regular occurrences.

“There’s some real deep therapy about being able to celebrate lives and voices that are so vulnerable and have gone through such struggle,” she continues. “When we’re voguing, we do it with a sense of joy and lightness, because that’s what it gives us. It’s a bubble we can exist in for a moment until we have to face the realities of the real world.”

 

The intersection of visual art and performance is where Ra feels most comfortable. In 2016, she was awarded a mentorship to study with British–German contemporary artist Tino Sehgal. “He’s incredibly spiritual and looks at time as this non-linear thing,” she says of the man who’s been described as an “art choreographer”. “What I learnt from him is that dance can function in many different spaces and take many different forms. Just as art can be bought and sold, so can dance.”

While working with Sehgal at a festival in Vienna, Ra had the opportunity to perform with Canadian musician and queer-feminist icon Peaches. “She’s like a mother to me,” Ra exclaims. “She’s generous and has so much time for people – she reaches out a lot. Again, she works across art and performance, like Tino, who’s all about working with the body in a gallery context.”

Increasingly, Ra is making work to be viewed in gallery contexts. When we meet, she and Justin Shoulder, whose mother is also Filipina, are putting the finishing touches to In Muva We Trust, a digital video set to be projected onto the concrete facade of the National Gallery of Australia as part of its annual Enlighten Illuminations commission. It is the fifth in a suite of works titled Ex Nilalang, Tagalog for “creature” and “creation”, by the pair. They make work together as Club Ate (pronounced “a-teh”), named for the Tagalog word for “big sister”.

“We’re looking at Mother Nature, at birth and regrowth, nourishment and care,” Ra says of In Muva We Trust. “We’re taking signs and symbols from both our queer world and our shared Filipino diasporic vocabulary and mixing it all up to create visions of the future.

“You can almost see Parliament House from the gallery, so there is a sense of urgency – we want to be direct yet poetic, and maybe subversive as well.”

 

The Philippines is Ra’s happy place. She has been visiting regularly for the past few years, and the land of her mother’s birth has played a significant role in her trans journey. Before Hispanic colonisation, Ra explains, the archipelago was “incredibly progressive in its understanding of gender variance, women’s rights and sexual liberation”. Spending time there encouraged her to “start manifesting who I was”.

Ra has two tattoos, both from the Philippines. On her right shoulder is a traditional batok from the north, made by mambabatok Apo Whang-Od, a Kalinga artist who recently turned 103 and is popularly known as the last traditional tattoo artist in the country. “This symbolises rivers, mountains and prayer,” Ra says, tracing the subtle design. Her second, which runs down her torso in red ink, is a Filipino kris, or ceremonial dagger, from Mindanao, the Philippines’ second-largest island, where she has spent the most time. “It signifies a kind of untouchable spiritual being, but it’s also a sign of defying colonisation in the south, where Mindanao is,” she says.

Initially, the idea of transitioning medically didn’t hold much appeal for Ra, because she realised a lot of Filipina trans women hadn’t gone down that route “and there’s freedom in that”.

“But as I grew older, I became more curious and began hormone replacement therapy,” she says, noting with care that everyone’s path is different. “Many trans people have starts and stops, and that’s okay, especially if you don’t feel safe or supported. I had a lot of care and love from my family, and I feel grateful for that. It led me to explore and go after my dreams – to go after myself, basically.”

She writes eloquently on Instagram about “the longing desire to see myself reflected in my image”: “In a world where we thirst for the glow up, it’s easy to forget about what those of us go through in order to become.” And she takes her advocacy, mentoring and “mothering” work seriously, stressing the importance of journeys over destinations.

“There is power to be found in all the different stages along the way,” she says. “When I meet young gender-variant and trans people, I tell them, ‘You’ve already arrived, you’re here now.’ Understanding your wholeness – your completeness – right now is the best thing you can do for yourself.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 29, 2020 as "Going vogue".

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Tony Magnusson
is a Sydney-based writer and curator.

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