Not too long ago, Melbourne dancer and choreographer Joel Bray woke up next to a young man he’d spent the night with.
“He said to me, ‘That was really great, I really like daddies,’” Bray recalls. “It was like somebody poured a bucket of cold water over me. I was like, ‘What do you mean? I’m not a daddy!’. My image of myself is like this 18-year-old youth.”
The encounter forced Bray to think about his own relationship to ageing and father figures, and his place in the world, and it was part of the influence for his new immersive, participatory performance, Daddy, which is having its Sydney premiere as part of Liveworks festival this week.
The show combines dance, storytelling, live art and a whole lot of audience participation to explore some of the biggest identity, sexual and political questions Bray has a gay, light-skinned Wiradjuri man living in 2019. It’s a show about daddy issues, but it’s done with plenty of humour, heart, nightclub vibes, and bucketfuls of powdered sugar.
Bray made an immersive dance work in 2017 called Biladurang, a solo performance about Bray’s sex life and relationship to his culture, which has toured to plenty of acclaim. The original plan for that show was to create a hotel room set on stage, but at the suggestion of his producer, Bray moved his performance into the intimate confines of real hotel rooms around the country.
“It was such a rich experience making and performing that work – and I’m still performing that work – that it would almost feel weird to go back onto a stage and all of a sudden create that distance between myself and an audience,” he says.
In Daddy the scale is slightly larger, but Bray is keen to maintain the same level of intimacy, which he says is essential to getting his messages across and taking audiences into confronting and sensitive areas.
“It all lands better when I’ve developed a relationship, even if it’s just for the hour,” he says. “The actual making of the movement and the writing of the text is quite quick, really. What I spend my time in the studio on is wrestling with the question: how can I craft it in such a way that people will feel invited to participate and never put on the spot? We all have that terror of going to a stand-up comedy show and you’re that one in the front row who gets pulled up on stage.”
He does that by asking the audience to participate in simple, non-threatening ways, and while he builds the stakes, he never creates a situation where an individual will feel pressured into anything.
“I always start off with something small at the beginning. In Biladurang, it was, ‘Can someone please help me pour the champagne?’, and it’s a task where everybody goes, ‘I can do that, that’s not stressful.’”
Putting an audience at ease is a hugely important factor when Bray dives headfirst into difficult and sometimes embarrassing stories from his own life, and then wades into debates about the fallout of Australia’s violent history. And there seems to be very little that Bray won’t reveal and unpack for an audience’s benefit.
“I refer to myself as a professional oversharer,” he says. “When I started making my own work, I asked: what can I bring to the table? I’ve had the privilege to dance with amazing companies abroad and here, and have always been in the room with people who, if I’m honest, are better dancers than me: beautiful, extraordinary, virtuosic dancers. I’m not the most extraordinary writer, I’m not the most extraordinary actor, I’m the world’s worst singer. But I have a capacity to strip myself literally and metaphorically.”
What Bray uncovers in that process is often surprising and frequently taps into exactly what makes our country tick – and the personal cost of big political and social shifts. Daddy, he says, evolved enormously since he started workshopping ideas.
“It was off the back of Biladurang and another work I made last year, and both of those were kind of a lament for the culture that I wish I had or had access to. I wanted to make something more celebratory and about what I do have, but I came up against a brick wall. Especially down here, in the southeast, which was the first site of colonisation. The genocide hasn’t been absolute – and we have fragments of our culture and a really strong community – but I’ve been struggling personally, as an Aboriginal man and an artist, with the death. The lack of the songs, the dances and the stories.”
While recreating those particular dances or songs isn’t possible, Wiradjuri culture is at the core of Bray’s process and has an impact on just about everything he does. He’s recently been researching and talking with Wiradjuri Elders about ceremonies, and he says he’s become amazed at how sophisticated the performances were.
“Ceremony is site-specific, it’s immersive, it’s participatory,” he says. “There’s no audience in a ceremony, there are participants and witnesses, and that’s really informed the form of the work that I make.
“We often think of ceremony as being sombre and all high-stakes theatricality, and there were elements of that and moments of ceremony that were very serious and quiet, but they were also parties. The party would involve spoken text, it would involve dancing, and it would involve singing, which is why I work across different artforms in my work. Those silos of ‘this is dance, this is visual art, this is writing’; they’re a bit of a European concept, and a little bit outdated.”