Joel Bray: I Dance, Therefore I Am

Joel Bray is an established dance artist living and working in Naarm Melbourne, and a proud Wiradjuri man whose practice springs from his cultural heritage.

His works are intimate encounters in unorthodox spaces in which audience members are invited in as co-storytellers to explore the experiences of fair-skinned aboriginal people and contemporary gay men in an increasingly digital and isolated world.

Joel spoke to us about his journey to dance, what it takes to translate his vision into movement and shares some great advice for how to be a dancemaker who’s stuck in a rut.

Joel Bray

Ausdance VIC: So, Joel, welcome. Let’s start by talking about how you came to dance.

Joel Bray: Thanks Marty. I came to dance quite late, actually. I was a pretty nerdy, bookworm of a kid. I didn’t do anything athletic. I didn’t do anything musical, and I didn’t do anything artistic. So, it’s kind of ironic that I ended up in a art form that blends these all together.

I had a vague idea that I was interested in dance, and I also knew that I was interested in political change. It was actually my dad who suggested I go to NAISDA, which is the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Dance School. And I was in love after my first class. I caught the bug. And I’ve been doing it for 20 something years ever since.

Ausdance VIC: Can you tell us more about your work?

Joel Bray: I think of my works as a plat that weaves together, dancing, speaking and audience participation. Then I apply that to a particular thing that interests me.

My earlier works talked about what it’s like to be a fair-skinned Aboriginal man. As you can see, I could be Swedish. Every black fella has someone like me in their family. So black fellas know its not an issue. They understand it. But I think for a lot of non-Indigenous people, it can be something to grapple with. I’ve talked about that a lot.

But I’ve since been on an personal journey with my own country, my own family, and my own community of reconnecting and rekindling.

My recent work, Garabari, thankfully, has stopped being about how hard life is for a fair-skinned black fella. And has become a lot more about the power of ritual, of gathering, of corroborree. It is the last big work I made for Arts House in Melbourne in December, and it was my most ambitious work to-date.

Anyone who’s seen my works, would notice that they’re episodic in a way. Each new work picks up on a thread that was left unfinished in the previous work.

Ausdance VIC: How do you negotiate the protocols around indigenous culture and contemporary dance? There are obviously some things that are sacred that can’t be shared.

Joel Bray: Yes, some things can’t be shared. It’s important to ask permission before sharing anything but for those of us in the southeast, this can be complicated. There’s been so much cultural dislocation so knowing who are the rightful custodians of the cultural knowledge can be unclear. I think the only answer to this is time and relationships. When I was first thinking about Garabari, I went to Wagga Wagga 12 times and hung out. Each trip was between three days and two weeks. I was just hanging out, having cups of tea, and letting the process happen organically. It feels a bit like a dance creative process. You follow the thread or the interest and don’t go in with an agenda.

In the beginning, the elders didn’t tell me anything of significance. It was just everyday stuff. And then at some point, they started to take me out to sacred sites. Some of the uncles showed me some men’s stuff that I can’t share, unless it is with other senior men. It was an incredible honour. They didn’t know me, so it was lovely that they felt safe with me.

I also had some really interesting conversations about coding. The idea of coding is, you put it in the work, but it can only be recognized by people who know what they’re looking for.

Garabari, contains coding that the elders recognised, and they loved it. I do that on purpose because that’s how First Nations knowledge works.

Someone can walk in off the street and get something out of it. But it also be something that Blackfellas or my family or elders, can come in and see the hidden layers of meaning inside it.

Ausdance VIC: What role does personal reflection play in your choreographic development and how do you work through difficulties that can arise in this process?

Joel Bray: I write a lot. And only a very small amount of that ever ends up in a show. My writing is often personal and it can come from anywhere, and it’s really rich material to create dance from.

I’m happy for everyone to know my dirty laundry, but I understand that a lot of people aren’t like that. You can use this personal reflection or experience as source material to make your dance, but because it’s being coded into choreography, the meaning is abstracted to a certain degree. People will connect with it. They’ll understand, shame or unrequited love or longing or whatever you are exploring, and connect with it on a physical level. But they won’t actually learn the dirty details of the story.

All these things; falling in love, experiencing grief, they’re corporeal experiences. There’s the data – it was my grandfather who died – but the experience of it is something we have in our body. One of the good things about writing is that when you write, you can be really specific about it. And then when you choreograph based on the writing, it just keeps the essence of that emotion. I think that’s one of the great things about dance.

Ausdance VIC: So writing can transform a specific experience into choreography? 

Joel Bray: There’s actually a technique for doing this. It was given to me by an amazing choreographer called Paea Leach and I sometimes share this in workshops I teach to aspiring choreographers.

If anyone ever has blank canvas syndrome, you know, you walk into the studio on day one, you give yourself a warmup, and then you’re like, “Ugh, now what?”. Get out your phone, put a timer on for 10 minutes and write a stream of consciousness. Don’t worry about what it means. Then read it back to yourself. Then put your camera on and another 10-minute timer and improvise dancing to what you wrote. Then you write in response to your improvisation. And then improve what you write. Just keep doing this. And at some point, something happens and you are able to get into a flow.

This looping really helps me. The material hardly ever gets into the work, but it’s a way to get started.

Ausdance VIC: It’s like having a conversation with yourself. You’re going back and forth until something comes from it.

Joel Bray: Absolutely. Something will grab your interest. It’s a good skill because often we’re on our own. Artists are working with very limited resources. We don’t have much money to actually make the work. I’m doing pretty well for an artist and often I’m the only person I can afford to have in the room! So this is a great way of being your own dialogue partner.

Ausdance VIC: You’ve talked a lot about this linkage between the universal and the personal. Would you say that dance and the body is an almost perfect location for the two to meet? 

Joel Bray: Absolutely.

I made a work called Considerable Sexual License in 2020. I’m interested in gatherings and orgies are like a type of gathering. My original provocation was that it was going to be an orgy between the performers and the audience. But I couldn’t figure out how to make that happen in a smooth way. So it became this exploration of sex.

We’re doing these daggy, silly strips in colonial maid outfits for each other. Then right when I’ve got the audience all softened up, Carly Shepherd, an incredible aboriginal performer and dancemaker in her own right, and I performed this slow, haunting scene of implied sexual violence. And this was based on stories we’d heard from our grandmothers about their experience as domestics in white households. The performance then ended with a densely healing ritual. It was a big emotional rollercoaster for the audience but one we could take them on through dance.

Ausdance VIC: Of all the art forms, dance is one you keep returning to, isn’t it?

Joel Bray: Yes. I love words. But ultimately, I love the body. I love dance. I love dancers. I love the way we and choreographers dance. I love our approach. I just think there’s honesty and beauty and poetry that dance as an art form can get to that other art forms can’t.

I’m in the middle of making a new work for Malthouse Theatre and I’m lost. I have no idea what I’m doing. Which happens every single work, so it just means I’m on schedule (laughs). This show came about because I went to Malthouse and I said “I want to make theatre.” I’m sick of doing four shows and then having to pack the show up again. I want in on this theatre action! They do 22 shows in a season, you know? So, I’m halfway through and I’m pretty much making a dance show despite my best intentions. I just love it. I can’t get away from it.

Ausdance VIC: Thanks Joel, that was informative and entertaining. Let’s catch up again soon.

Joel Bray: A pleasure, Marty. I’d be happy to chat again.

Joel Bray will present his new work Homo Pentacostus at the Malthouse Theatre in May 2024.

You can follow Joel’s dance and choreography adventures via his website and on Instagram @joelbraydance