Dani Wright meets artist Joel Bray in Melbourne ahead of his Auckland Festival appearance and finds a performer who can't be easily categorised
Take a look at Joel Bray's picture.
If you had to pick where he might be from, Bray reckons you'd probably say he looks Swedish. You'd be wrong but Bray, a 34-year-old Melbourne-based performer, is used to being put into boxes he doesn't belong in.
He's a gay, fair-skinned Aboriginal man with Wiradjuri heritage and, as a fair-skinned black fella, says he constantly grapples with having his identity questioned and having to defend it. But it's this dichotomy between what he looks like and what he identifies with on the inside that's propelled Bray's award-winning solo show, Biladurang, onwards since it debuted - and won three awards - at the Melbourne Fringe Festival in 2017.
In just three years, it's been at festivals in Darwin, Brisbane and Sydney as well as the Dance Massive programme in Melbourne; now it's coming to the Auckland Arts Festival. Clearly, going beyond the surface of identity politics to consider what it's like to feel that you are separate from classification strikes a chord.
He even named the show after a creature hard to categorise. Biladurang is Wiradjuri for platypus and the story goes that upon first seeing a platypus, Europeans believed it to be so strange – with its paddle-shaped and beaver-like tail, sleek furry body like an otter and flat bill and duck-like webbed feet - that it had to be a hoax created by sewing two animals together.
Sewing two things together reflects Bray's early years, which he says were a mix of a "white picket fence" life with his Pentecostal Christian mother and stepfather, alongside visits to his Aboriginal father's community. In high school, the family moved to Orange in regional New South Wales and he then spent only the occasional summer with his father.
As well as grappling with identity issues due to the different lives his parents led, he also felt the need to wear a mask when it came to his sexuality. "My mum loves and accepts me but she would prefer I was straight," says Bray. "My Aboriginal family never had a problem with it."
His father was one of the first Aboriginal law graduates and a significant person in his community, particularly around land rights. Bray followed him into the legal profession, studying law at Sydney University.
But, aged 20, he turned his back on a legal career and began studying traditional and contemporary dance at NAISDA Dance College, started in 1975 to train indigenous Australians in dance. He went on to study at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts, graduating in 2005 and launching a 14-year career which has seen him work with dance companies all over the world – including returning to NAISDA in 2015 as an artist-in-residence.
The idea for Biladurang began during a tumultuous time in Bray's life when he had split from his long-term partner.
"I was working in Israel, in Germany and in Melbourne – living a nomadic experience without a home and without a routine for about a year," he says. "I lived out of a suitcase and just travelled around – it was amazing, actually, and liberating."
But there was also a deep questioning of himself and without close friends and family to talk to, he started to write poetic musings without knowing where they would lead. One day, he read them aloud to himself and liked the sound of them.
"I didn't know whether I would write a book or a series of essays, I had no idea," says Bray. "But, because the words were written in hotels, it felt right to have the work set in a hotel. They are a bit like airports - somewhere that's nowhere."
He also liked the fact you can walk into a hotel room and feel like you've been there before. He recreates the types of experiences you can have in any hotel room - jumping on the bed, pulling back the curtains, eating the KitKats from the minibar and running a bath.
These moments are interwoven with the thoughts Bray grappled with as a person - feeling vulnerable in his mid-30s and suddenly single, questioning his cultural identity and wondering if he still felt Aboriginal after living away from Australia for so long.
But if Bray is hard to categorise, his show is perhaps even more difficult. It's a confessional solo described as the perfect dance-theatre one-night stand and a physical, tender, funny and dark piece of immersive dance theatre. It's participatory, with the audience wearing bathrobes and asked to contribute to parts of the performance (if they wish to); it's theatrical and has a script, yet is staged in a hotel room rather than at a theatre; and it's choreographed, but isn't solely a dance performance. The common thread is Bray's need to connect to others in what he finds as an increasingly digital and isolated world.
"I think we live in an era of an epidemic of loneliness and disconnection and a lot of the content people are consuming, such as Netflix or gaming, exacerbates it," he says. "Live theatre and performance or live music or dance offers an antidote to that."
While he describes the project as cathartic and personal, he says it also allows – and often encourages – people to tell their own stories. At one point, he gives someone a hand massage and says this frequently leads to the recipient talking about their own background.
"There are incredible stories of people who met in the circus and had children or met while fleeing the holocaust," says Bray, whose own parents met cycling over the Sydney Harbour Bridge. "Australia is full of stories of dislocation and stories are still around this narrative."
The most surprising story he heard was from a New Zealander, who told the tale of his ancestor shipwrecked on an island at the top of the North Island. There was a volcanic eruption, a bride given to a chief, then later freed, and many moments of suspense along the way.
"I wish I had written the story down," he says.
As well as baring his soul, Bray also bares his body and says the nudity comes from the need to have a bath rather than to be provocative. Does he consider it brave to bare his soul, and body, to complete strangers in such an intimate setting?
"I always hear that but it feels very natural to me. I've been a performer my whole life," he says. "I develop a relationship with the audience up to that point in the show and I wanted to fracture that slightly and create a moment when the audience becomes voyeurs."
He reckons he helps himself and those who see Biladurang to feel less alone because it opens up his internal world which is more easily seen and integrated with his outside image. That's something many of us could learn to do more of.
He often spots people in the hotel bar after the show having a drink together, having been perfect strangers before the show.
"I think that's delightful and cool that I can do something that gets people meeting," Bray says, adding that introverts shouldn't be put off by the show's participatory nature. Then again, he may well say that given that he also describes himself as 100 per cent an extrovert.
"Extrovert, exhibitionist, narcissist – you name it."
Biladurang is on as part of the Auckland Arts Festival, Wednesday, March 11 – Sunday, March 22 at Avani Auckland Metropolis Residences.