Charming and heartbreaking: Robert Reid on Biladurang, Joel Bray’s performance about the cultural damage of colonisation
Joel Bray’s Biladurang is charming, welcoming and heartbreaking. It makes for a deceptively warm and friendly show, with a gently bitter taste of colonisation.
We’re met in the foyer of the Sofitel and taken up in groups to the 44th floor by an elevator. I can’t help but check the elevator’s capacity against our numbers – it can take 22, there are 11 of us. It still feels crowded. We gather outside the lifts high up in the hotel and wait for the rest of the audience.
Our usher delivers an Acknowledgement of Country on behalf of Bray and, as she leads us around the corner to his room, she encourages us to take photos of Bray during the show. Bray is “a bit into himself” she tells us, though we’re not supposed to tell him she said that, and he’d probably love to see any photos we take of the performance.
One of us is encouraged to knock on the door. From inside the room a voice calls out for us to wait a minute. The door opens a second later, revealing Bray wearing nothing but a strategically-held hotel towel. Awkwardly, endearingly, he apologises, saying that he’s not quite ready, and the door slowly closes on him once more. When he returns he’s more sensibly attired in tighty-whitey underpants and one of the complimentary hotel dressing gowns. We enter at his invitation and introduce ourselves, one after the other. He gives the first few of us an armful of dressing gowns, suggesting we put one on and distribute the rest between the remaining audience.
We don our gowns and find seats, around the walls, on couches and the bed. The room is strewn with clothing, a motley of drinks glasses and other evidence that suggests there’s been a party. Bray enlists a few of us to pour champagne for the rest. We all take a glass. The experience has a convivial air and puts us quickly at ease. Bray introduces himself, welcomes us again, shifts awkwardly from foot to foot: the host at a party he’s anxious should go well.
This anxious shifting slides into larger and more exaggerated movement, becoming a dance of uncertain social interaction. Rolling from one foot to the other, against the wall, down to the ground, muttering “maybe like this”, “what if I…” – uncertain how to start maybe, uncertain where to begin. Although, of course, we’ve already begun.
Eventually he makes a leap and begins. He tells us stories, personal stories, stories of how this show developed and how it’s progressed, stories about his sexual awakening, the struggle to buy gay porn in a country town, of finally managing to purchase it, of frantic masturbation followed by immediate self-loathing. Stories of his life as an artist, of drugs and smoking and drinking and almost anonymous sex.
Alongside these there are also stories of his family, of being confronted at school gatherings for indigenous students where he’s challenged about the lightness of his skin, stories of memories with his father at protest marches, his family history, and traditional stories of the land and animals. These narratives all tumble out of his gorgeous face and beatific smile, in between moments of dance.
The dances sometimes hint at traditional dance forms of First Nations ceremony (a familiar arc of leg here, stomp of foot there, an attitude and posture that is almost recognisable as Indigenous practice breathing underneath all the dance training). At other times they echo the physical self-harm that accompanies depression and anxiety (banging his head into walls while sobbing and throwing himself under the covers of the bed, almost smothering himself in a white doona that takes on the shape of a giant box jellyfish rising and falling on top of him as he thrashes around).
I’ve had nights like this alone in hotel rooms in strange cities, too.
Bray is an attentive host: he encourages one of us to fill the other’s glasses when the silence of our watching becomes too much for him. He goes for a bath at one point, turning on a closed circuit camera and tv so we can see him in the bathroom next door. We can hear him in there, he’s infuriated at himself because his phone is missing and he worries it may have been stolen by the guy he was fucking here last night.
We watch him in the bath, which itself becomes a dance in the same elusive slide from physical signs of depression into professionally trained movement work. Once he’s finished, he calls out from the bathroom to one of the audience (he hasn’t learned his name, he’s not great at remembering everybody’s names) and asks her to help out by going to the lighting desk by the bed and changing the lighting state.
The real joy of this work is the relationship Bray strikes with his audience as participants. Throughout the performance we are present with him in the room: we never slip into the watching non-space in which audiences are overwhelmingly expected to exist. Bray’s audience answer him casually, as if the host of a party has just asked everyone a question.
This interaction gradually becomes greater as the evening progresses. We pair up and dance with each other, awkwardly holding a kind of ballroom dance pose. My partner says that she’s not much of a dancer. Neither am I, I tell her, let’s just hold each other and sway gently. Well, that’s the plan, but Bray also gets us to do a couple of moves, swinging out and back in, and even a dip (in my pair I’m the one who gets dipped, it seems more polite).
He gets us to open the window blinds around the room and reveal the – it must be said – stunning view of Melbourne available from the 44th floor of the Sofitel. You can see all the way out over the city and across the bay. Big ships are out there on the water and clouds gather on the horizon.
He tells us the story of Biladurang, the story of the platypus told by the Wiradjeri, part of a song line shared along the eastern coast. Bray says that he empathises with Biladurang, with her oddly made and misshapen platypus children, out of place even at home because they don’t look right. Here is the heartbreak of Bray’s Biladurang: his yearning for a language, a story, dances of his own that were taken from him by colonisation, creating a void that he fills the void with sex, drugs and training. Dancing someone else’s dances.
As desperately sad as his story is, the telling of it never feels like anything but a party thrown by a friend, from drinks and awkward beginnings to the post-party comedown, complete with hand massages and sharing of personal histories offered by the audience. People want to tell Bray their stories after hearing his. It’s pretty incredible, actually.
And I’ll never look at a Kit-Kat the same way again.
Biladurang, created and performed by Joel Bray. Dramaturged by Daniel Santangeli, music by Kate Carr, host Sofii McKenzie. Presented by ArtsHouse at the Hotel Sofitel, Melbourne, as a part of Dance Massive. Until March 24.