One body, two voices

Joshua Pether, Speaking Up for Dance

Joshua Pether, Photo by Ricardo Martinez Roa

Dancer and performance artist Joshua Pether is a proud Kalkadoon man who lives and works on Noongar country in Western Australia. Joshua has been in Melbourne as one of three curators for Alter State Festival, a celebration of disability, creativity, and culture.

Joshua recalls that his mother enrolled him in a ballet class because of an impromptu performance in his loungeroom. He is creative in many ways, as a visual artist and performer. However, he also has a side gig as a registered pharmacist.

Surgery to correct scoliosis has left Joshua with a physical disability that might defeat most dancers, but he has never given up. Joshua says that learning to move again was hard, but he is now an acclaimed dancer, performer, and choreographer. In this interview, Joshua talks passionately about his identity, what inspires him, and his hopes for dance.

How did the Alter State festival go? I’m interested in the session you curated with Indigenous artists who also identify as having a disability.

Alter State was great. I saw Rodney [Bell] perform Meremere and got to see Carly [Finlay] as well. I haven’t seen them since 2019. I also saw people I hadn’t seen in years. So, it was good to catch up with everyone. We had the session with First Nation artists at the Meeting Place on Thursday 6th October at the Wheeler Centre. Aunty Gayle Kennedy and Uncle Greg Muir were also in attendance (either in person or via Zoom). The meeting, I hope will be the beginning of a conversation that I think has been a long time coming about FN culture and disability. I was very honoured that these two elders in our FN disability community came together to yarn with us and offer advice on how to live as blak fellas in these two cultures. Yirramboi [Festival] is hoping to continue this conversation going into next year so it will be a matter of ‘watch this space’ for future updates. It is all very exciting. 

You are Indigenous, and you identify as disabled. How do these two influences find expression in your work?

What I call the two inherent cultures of my body – indigeneity and disability have been a reference point for my work and how I am introduced in interviews, talks etc. However, the combination of the two terms never equates to a whole understanding of me as an artist but rather separation.

My work reflects these facets of my cultural identity but is not necessarily a specific reference point to any one aspect of it. I’m hoping we can start to have more nuanced conversations in our communities about this and generate an understanding that the work we make is not a specific reference point to said identities but rather a culmination of many experiences and identities.

You are both an Indigenous and a contemporary dancer, is this another duality in your identity?

My opinion of the term Indigenous dance is in many ways antiquated and quite loaded, particularly for contemporary First Nations people. I grew up in a family that wasn’t necessarily ‘cultural’, and this is also the experience for many contemporary artists; the constant need to reference the work in relation to this can be tiring. The onus is placed on us to prove our Indigeneity and particularly so when we are referred to as First Nations artists. However, having said that I feel Indigeneity is intrinsically entwined in a person of First Nations heritage and this is reflected in ways that aren’t necessarily obvious to the observer or the artist if they don’t have that strong cultural link already. In my case, the scattered and tenuous links to Indigenous culture in my work is reflective of contemporary First Nations people and this becomes a reflection of the First Nations experience overall because of colonization. So, the work I make is inherently Indigenous but also a reflection of contemporary experiences and identities which are a by-product of colonization.

You have spoken about being bullied at school because you were drawn to dance from a young age and wanted to make a career in dance. This has been a common experience for boys; do you think this is changing?

The bullying I experienced at school was a product of the time and place and over time I have learnt to let that go and forgive, as we were all only really trying to survive in a society that was overtly masculine/heteronormative and we had to stake our claim on that to survive. In other words, we didn’t know better. My early work reflected that part of my life, and it also became a way towards catharsis and healing.

I think today, particularly where there is much emphasis placed on fluidity regarding gender and ways of being, boys can really start to access dance in much more exciting and evocative ways than they have in the past. Dance is also being seen more as a sport and dancers as athletes, thanks in part (and unfortunately) to how dance is presented on reality TV shows. I remember when I worked at a dance studio, the number of males in attendance would almost double or triple when dance was on television. It became cool to say you were a dancer or that you danced, and the general population became more accepting and interested in this thing called dance. Today I think males have an opportunity to really explore all facets of dance and movement expression without the need to feel ashamed or secretive about this.

You’ve had a formal education in dance, but you’re also trained in pharmacy. Another duality perhaps. How do you reconcile these various elements of Joshua?

The duality of having two careers has been an interesting journey. Initially, the overwhelming consensus seemed to be I had to choose between the two. It wasn’t until I did a residency at Critical Path in 2016 that the facilitator as part of that residency, Julie Vulcan, gave me the provocation to look at the two as part of my art practice and not separate. I think that has led me on an interesting journey where I have tried to incorporate parts of my pharmacy practice into my art practice and vice versa. While I feel this has not always been the case it wasn’t until I started vaccinating that I felt a strong connection to what I do with my body as a performer and to how I can use that knowledge to assist in vaccinations. This knowledge has led to situations where I’ve been able to relax people who were very needle phobic. Being able to make these connections to my art practice and another practice that seems quite incongruous to each other has provided a different perspective altogether and I am keen to see what other similarities may arise between the two, particularly as I see pharmacy evolving more than ever post-COVID.

Are you a dancer or a performance artist? Or perhaps a bit of both.

My journey from dancer to performance artist has I believe come full circle. I always knew I wanted to perform but at the same time, the body was never really my focus but rather a smaller element to a bigger picture. I think the dancer in me came from a desire that was ignited by someone prominent in the dance industry at the time saying I “would go far”. I guess I knew that the power of those words would open doors for me at some point. I kept this flame alight even after I left dance, had my operation, and then returned to dance. The funny thing is I never actually asked to dance, I was just placed into dance class after I did an impromptu performance in front of family members. For some reason, this equated with me wanting to dance and in many ways, I think this was what I always knew as part of my artistic expression.

After years of dance training and then starting as an independent artist I still considered myself a dancer but was craving something else. I began to collaborate with people outside the dance world and this opened the door to other ways of movement, expression, and performance. I have always had a strong visual arts background and I think that affected my practice as I learnt to become more independent and forward-thinking outside what I and others considered to be dance. My earlier work was a mishmash of movement, visual images, and objects that I used as choreographic devices to create “Worlds”, as one of my mentors would say. After years of honing this craft, I settled upon the description of ‘ritual’ as the overarching performance mode and outcome that my work reflects. I now consider myself to be an experimental performance artist and ritual practitioner.

Dance is very physical and oriented towards able bodies in the sense that it requires dexterity and balance. How does having a less- or differently-abled body change your mindset towards the physicality of dance?

Having a body that doesn’t necessarily conform to the stereotypical dancer’s body has been a challenge and a gift. It has been a challenge in the sense that you are up against structures and certain aesthetics that say you don’t belong in this world and a gift in the way that you stand out. This can be both positive and negative. When I first started to dance again, I was very conscious of making sure I hid the fact my back couldn’t bend due to my operation. I became so adept at this that teachers would never really know until I told them. ‘Coming out’ so to speak was very hard back then as dance was very geared towards perfection. So even though you may have been a good person you were instantly judged for your inability to conform to what was expected of you. Due to my ‘uniqueness’, I was given solo roles, and this became a way for me to shine but also in a perverse way placed my body under the microscope where the full ‘uniqueness’ was there for all to see. When it came to group or unison sections I pretty much sucked and to this day, I find unison to be both a traumatic experience and my own personal challenge to prove everyone wrong. After leaving dance training and entering independent life I still tried to hold onto the ideals of dance and placed the lens directly onto the disabled body as a vehicle for virtuosity and physicality and some of my earlier work reflected this interrogation. Now I look at dance as one part of many parts of the work where neither the virtuosity nor physicality of the body is celebrated or rejected.

Is the dance world inclusive of physical disability or neuro-diverse difference?

I feel the dance world is more inclusive of dancers with different bodies and abilities, but this is at arm’s length and never at the epicentre of dance and the ability to potentially pursue this as a career outside the disability sector. We still have a long way to go and there are still barriers to accessing education and also joining mainstream companies, but I think the conversation is more around “Do we want to?” as opposed to “We should be able to.” While inclusion is paramount to a just society, the need for inclusion in dance comes at the price of one negating some form of their experience to follow the status quo.

‘Integrated’ dance has been a buzzword for many years and a way for dance companies to demonstrate they are playing their part in being inclusive. Rather than following this pathway as a way towards a career in dance, independent dance artists with a disability such as Dan Daw, Claire Cunningham and others have been forging their own pathways; not waiting for the dance world to catch up. The phrase is now how do we ‘crip’ something rather than ways of integrating because integration has always been a subtle form of assimilation as opposed to complete freedom. The crip movement has given the power back to the community which is no longer just trying to integrate into the able-bodied world. The onus now lies on the able-bodied to integrate, rather than the other way around. Disabled artists also control their artistic expression and voice, and their own movement is celebrated rather than adjusted to fit the norm. I think we’ll see more ‘cripping’ on stage rather than integrating in the future.

What advice would you give to young dancers today?

“Just do it.” There is so much opportunity to evolve as not only a dancer but also an artist. Dance has become so convoluted and some ways obtuse, but this has led to new pathways to express the body and explore different movement vocabularies and forms.  You may end up a non-dancer such as me (haha).