This transcript is from an interview that was first published on 13th of November 2018. This transcript has been edited slightly to help with clarity, the audio of this episode and more information can be found here.
This interview was recorded in the lead up to Joel’s Chunky Move season of Dharawungara.
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This interview I started by asking what drew Joel to dance?
Joel Bray: It wasn't actually dance. My father's aboriginal and my mother's European descent. And I was studying law a Sydney Uni I was completely bored and just decided I didn't want to do that anymore. I didn't know what I wanted to do. So I thought I would go and do this. I heard of this course this college called NAISDA which taught, was an Aboriginal college for dance, wasn't so much that dance I was interested in it was being in a community of black people the first time. Being surrounded mostly by other Aboriginal people for the first time and learning about my roots and opportunity to learn traditional Aboriginal dance. And the audition, I was like 10 minutes into the audition and I was like oh yeah, yeah, this is what I want to do. [2:33]
Andrew: What was it about the movement or the actual like the actual audition?
Joel Bray: Nothing I remember it was it was the first class was this kind of old style jazz kind of thing and it was like it was kind of like a West Side Story kind of by the thing which is not me and like I wasn't even that I let fell in love with the style it was just moving connecting with my body possibly for the first time because in high school I didn't do anything artistic I didn't do anything athletic I didn’t do anything musical so it was kind of weird for me to dance I was just kind of a mix of all those three.
Andrew: Why are we interested in law? What made you have this big U turn?
Joel Bray: I was on the debating team I was good at that, you know I got really high marks in high school but I didn't do any sciences so everyone was like, you're going to do law or medicine? I was like I don’t know, Law? Was a terrible decision! I was completely yeah I was not interested. [3:30]
Andrew: Do you ever draw upon law?
Joel Bray: No, but I definitely draw upon my kind rhetorical skills, being a debater, that kind of way of analysis analyzing stuff whether it’s text or the world around you or movement.
Andrew: Identity is such a big focus on most people’s lives, that identity kind of journey. What was that like for you growing up then?
Joel Bray: Well I remember being a student like a tertiary student that's been exposed to the notion of postmodern for the first time. And I remember scratching my head and not really understanding what the big deal was because you know my childhood experience of being my entire life experience at that point had been that there is no such thing as right or wrong there is no truth and false it's just infinite numbers of different perspectives that I'd experienced like the whole bunch of them you know like I would go on summers and I would hang out with my Wurundjeri father, he lived up in Bundjalung country up near Malabugilmah in a piece of old growth forest, where clearings would be used to grow marijuana and we would run around naked and roll in the mud all summer and then I go back to my white lower middle class white picket fence lifestyle and go back to church and be the ‘A’ student in school and inside myself, of course, I'm, you know, raging homosexual so like I it was weird.
So when I look back on it now I'm like, oh, people sometimes ask me how did you juggle all these things? I just didn’t, I just kind of kept them separate? They were in their own little categories. And, you know, when I was in my room, fantasizing about boys, I was gay. When I was at church. I was the good church boy. And when I was running around nude as a hippy, I was running around nude as a hippy.
Andrew: Did they ever collide?
Joel Bray: Well, eventually yeah, they had to. I managed to hold it, hold it all at bay for a really long time. But then, you know, I got out of high school and moved down to Sydney because I grew up in regional NSW. And then yeah, everything collided. Yeah. And I had to start making some choices about who I wanted to be. [5:40]
Andrew: Was it a challenging time?
Joel Bray: Yeah, yeah. Was coming out, it was engaging with my cultural identity, my Indigeneity, you know, like a real way because all of a sudden, I was on campus with other Aboriginal students. And I became an activist. I Got involved in the student representative council as a representative for the aboriginal students and started to question, you know, the role that my religion had been had had in colonization, and in the oppression of people like me and queer people. So all of a sudden, yeah, to I had to like, do a bit of a spring clean and go, Okay, what do I believe in what was true to me, and unfortunately, got kind of, we are on a trial separation that's going on for a very long time.
Andrew: He might come back?
Joel Bray: He might come back, you never know.
Andrew: You just finished your Brisbane Festival show based in a hotel room, maybe talk a bit more about that work?
Joel Bray: Yeah. So it's called Biladurang. Which is the Wurundjeri word for the platypus. I made the work last year for the Melbourne fringe. I did it in the Sofitel hotel.
And yeah, it's an intimate performance for about 15 to 20 people and the premise is that I met them all downstairs in the bar and just spontaneously invited them all up to my hotel room. And then I kind of get there and I'm like, pour them a glass of Champagne and was like Oh, shit, I didn't really think past this point. And then the work in the premise is a little bit like, you know, having to entertain these people for an hour. And the only thing I have really at my disposal is what's in the room and my own personal life story.
So yeah, so then this, this is kind of, I utilize everything in the room. So the Gideon Bible, the Kit Kat in the mini bar, the bathroom, the TV runs all the music, my computer. So basically, the remit I gave myself was not to bring anything into the space but to use what was there. And it's kind of comes from vocal storytelling to movement and back again. [8:00]
Andrew: Incredibly intimate in that sense as well. Like a small audience within that space. With a show that's always quite different, based on them.
Joel Bray: Intimate literally and metaphorically, like everyone's half you know, arms length away there's a moment, there’s a scene where I give everyone hand massages with the toiletries from the bathroom. And intimate metaphorically because I really seek to strip myself literally I get naked but also to kind of be as honest about my experiences and my poor decisions as a young adult and the struggles I have been fair skinned and Aboriginal and just not, I don't seek to answer any questions because I don’t have any answers to these questions but going yeah this is me right now in 2017 now 2018.
And audiences have responded incredibly and it's going really well. I did a season at the Darwin Festival and like you say just at the Brisbane Festival.
Andrew: And the audience I guess becomes almost a bit of a co creator in that space as well.
Joel Bray: Yeah and I have a really short attention span so I love to show that is different every time.
Yeah exactly it has to it has to modulate and change depending on sometimes I do three shows a night so it'll be at six o'clock, eight o'clock and 10 o'clock show and there are three completely different audiences yeah like get some six o'clock shows with all biddies that have turned up. Compared to the 10 o'clock show which is a whole bunch of like you know bogans from the suburbs of Brisbane turning up a little bit charged up like they're two very different shows.
Andrew: Do you ever get halfway through a show and think did I do this in this show or the first show?
Joel Bray: Completely! Once it like you know I did like I did in Brissy I did 13 shows in four days and I'm one of the things I tried to do is remember everyone’s name because it helps like getting them asking them to do things or whatever. And then at some point it just gave trying to remember names because I just had tried to hold hundreds of names in my head. You know, and I’m just like ‘You in the blue shirt!’ [10:22]
Andrew: You've danced all around the world do you find that different spaces and places inform the way you dance or the way you relate to an Audience?
Joel Bray: Yes, but probably more accurately it's the other dancers in that space who informed me so I was in Israel for nine years and Israeli dancers, Israeli dance makers have this roll up your sleeves Let's get down and dirty and just make it kind of a vibe. Which is great the end result is often not what you would call polished dancing.
But that kind of the world could go to shit tomorrow we might not be here so I have to make it now or I won't make it kind of attitude that was thrilling and really exciting and it's something when I come to Australia which is the complete opposite strategy so decorous and you know interested in things like Occupational Health and Safety which Israel is not even a concept you know. And bureaucratic my god this country is bureaucratic but the end results are more thorough and more research more considered.
So I guess I try and make some kind of sandwich of the two things, like polar opposites, Yeah completely Israelis and Australians like polar opposites I remember I came back the first time I came back for a holiday I went to coffee shop with my mother and I like clicked my fingers to call the waiter over and she was horrified grabbed my arm pulled the dash, ‘What are you doing!’ and I was like I'm just because in Israel because you don't do that the waiter won't come you know like and that little picture for me is that it's kind of a perfect essence of the difference between Australians and Israelis. [12:24]
Andrew: Yeah, and that interesting thing about I guess being informed by the people you've surrounded by making work.
Joel Bray: I've been incredibly blessed to be working for the last four or five years at Chucky Move because the little tribe that we've got here including Anouk but the other dances are seriously bunch of the most talented rigorous thinkers and movers around. It's like been an absolute joy and that's totally influenced what I do and how I do it.
Andrew: It's sometimes really hard to articulate what those influences are or how it influences you better. Are their particular things, particular moments, or?
Joel Bray: Yeah, I would say use of improvisation in the creation or the discovery of material. There's a playfulness here that we use, and a look in genders that allows you to arrive at places I never could before, that appear coincidental but they're not really in a way they're engineered actually and I don’t know if this makes sense but a kind of three dimensionality like using the space behind your body not giving preference to the up, down access yeah there’s a thing here that's really special that's really you know, we still do it I've been working with them but still sometimes I'll pause look around at other moving bodies man you guys are incredible.
Andrew: That's really nice.
Joel Bray: It's real nice great way to go into the office yeah. [14:15]
Andrew: The opposite could be quite awkward. So you're developing a show at the moment for chunky and what's the premise of this work?
Joel Bray: So the work is called Dharawungara which is the Wurundjeri word for to pass through and it refers to the moment in ceremony when they I mean some of it is a secret so I have to be careful about what I reveal and don’t but it's about passing through a ceremonial archway. Which is interesting because actually really a common feature of ritual from all over the world.
So my interest in this the very beginnings of this idea actually happened when I was reading an article that I stumbled on the internet back over a year ago when I was in the process for Biladurang and I found this article written in 1907 by a gentleman anthropologist by the name of R.H. Matthews, terribly colonial dude right, who embedded himself with Wurundjeri people still living tribally or semi tribally that was the era of missions and pastoral stations. And there was a ceremony that occurred a place near the Macquarie marshes which is where my great grandfather was from and we'll probably have been alive at that time so I like to think that he was there at this ceremony that this anthropologist documented.
And the work is a kind of a dilemma it's my deep desire to do that initiation ceremony so that I can be considered a man by Lore by my people but the ceremony to my knowledge perhaps there are some people who are maintaining it that I don’t know about, but to my knowledge is no longer around.
And R.H. Matthews anthropologist was part and parcel in the colonial project that took that from me, yet thanks to him, I know about it. And I would like to resurrect it so the dilemma is how do I resurrect or breathe life into a ceremony that was taken from me and that I don't know about.
And my proposal is, invite a whole bunch of people into the space to be witnesses and lets just give it a whirl that's what Dharawungara is going to be an attempt to use my contemporary toolbox to breathe life into an ancient ceremonial practice that was taken from us as an active resistance. And it could totally fall flat on its face but that would be interesting as well. [16:51]
Andrew: Well I mean its that real it's that tension between somebodies account too and that colonial lens that is looked and captured, to then re-interpreted, in this day and age based on… it so so loaded.
Joel Bray: It's so loaded and he had no idea what he was seeing you know he would like say things like oh yeah watch the men running around in circles flapping their arms against their legs pretending to pretending to be ducks you know. Of course that's not what was happening there was some there was ancient law encoded into that that have been handed down from generation to generation to generation and a Wurundjeri man looking at that would have understood volumes. And all he saw was a bunch of men running around, you know, flapping their arms against their thighs.
So, you know, actually I don’t know how to do this, you know, like, but the attempt is interesting. So, yeah.
Andrew: So is the audience. Does the audience play a role in the in the shape of this work as well? Or are they more passive?
Joel Bray: Let's say their witnesses more than participants. Yeah, but witnesses are more involved than observers. Does that make sense? Yeah, and I do appeal to them to help me a little bit for ideas, trying to create a bit of a hive mind in the space that might help activate this, but just their presence, the energy of their presence and their intention and their love, hopefully they love you. It would help stroke the fire of this ritual.
Andrew: So what's your process in terms of making work like this?
Joel Bray: Yes. I love this question because I don't have the foggiest idea what my process is. Because it seems to be different completely different every time I make a new work.
Andrew: But in terms of this work, I guess, like what, how are you making it?
Essentially processes can be so loaded,
Joel Bray: I walk into the studio and how do I do it? Yeah? I think Yeah, so I have been writing a lot in my previous works, I wrote in order for that to be read to be heard by the audience. But this time I've been writing a lot and then improvising in response to the writing and then writing in response to the improvisation and so on and so forth kind of creating this kind of loop. And I've been responding to the article itself, in a kind of a weird way, like, I found this ancient, if I just keep pouring over like an ancient scripture. If I just keep pouring over it and repeating it like a mantra, maybe something will pop out of it.
Which of course hasn't happened, but something has happened. And I'm responding to that. Okay, so flapping my arms against my thighs, you know, what can I do with that, and I've been just improvising a lot, filming myself observing the improvisations noting down what interests me and then using that as a kernel for a new improvisation.
And then I've got two weeks left, basically, to make it to a half weeks left basically, now have a really, really clear idea of so what are just need to kind of press play, I hope or I'll get two days into it and go, Oh, no, not needs to be something totally different. I think. I think I know what I'm doing now. [20:51]
Andrew: How exciting. I mean, you said at the start about finding dance and being in the audition, this is what I want to do, having spent so long actually doing that. What is it about dance that continues to hold you what is it that you want to keep saying through dance?
Joel Bray: So much! I think dance more than any other art form has the ability, okay, think of a reverse like film allows you to take you know, think like a film like Avatar, can take enormous expanses of time and space and condense them down into the screen on your computer. And you can traverse time and space in a massive way. Theatre is really good at taking you to the now to the here you see in real time what's happening between these characters. Dance has the ability to take the moment and to expand that out. So you can almost you can take one thing or a few things and really pull them apart and really understand something simple like whole work like Swan Lake, that one thing and you get to unpack it.
So that's one thing I really like.
Dance allows the possibility for authentic human to human encounters that I think are becoming more and more precious in this digital world where I can sit at home order my Uber Eats and have some guy around on Grindr and watch everything on Netflix never have to have any organic interaction with another human being. I love sitting when I go to see dance I try to sit towards the back because I love to see how the audience sways and bobs and moves and laughs and giggles because they're having a visual physical response to what they see, and that's real and that's awesome I think.
Andrew: I think it's one of the most powerful platforms for those reasons.
Joel Bray: And just the moving body is fucking amazing so good yeah. [23:04]
Andrew: It transcends language can transcend culture you can literally transform people in that moment and add music.
Joel Bray: Drunk or magic?
Andrew: It’s magic. After this work what's next what's on for the rest of your year?
Joel Bray: Straight after we close were heading off with Chunky Move on tour to do Complexity of Belonging which is a work that Anouk made four years ago. Was the first work that I was in here actually. So we're doing that to Western Europe. And then I'm going to take a little bit of a holiday for a few weeks. Then I've got Sydney Festival season of Biladurang and I have a new commission from the Yirramboi which is the National Indigenous Arts Festival in Melbourne it's a co commission from Yirramboi and Performance Space and that work is going to be very Queer and naughty and immersive and edible, that will be a edible work.
Andrew: An edible, naughty queer work? Amazing.
Joel Bray: That's why now making something that my mother can come watch because she's not going to be able to come watch them. [24:23]
Andrew: You won’t want her there?
Joel Bray: I would love her there. But I wouldn’t want to put her through that.
Andrew: Well thank you so much.