For many people, the thought of being pulled up on stage is as appealing as root canal treatment.
But performer Joel Bray says there’s something about an intimate hotel room and a small group of people wearing bathrobes and sipping champagne that helps make audience participation less daunting.
Not that Bray’s Sydney Festival show Biladurang requires you to take part.
Biladurang – a Wiradjuri word meaning “platypus” – is an hour-long monologue/participatory chat/contemporary dance show staged in a suite in the QT Sydney. An audience of around 20 wear bathrobes and enjoy a glass of sparkling while moving between rooms with Bray.
The show, playful and serious, was born from heartache and came about after Bray’s nine-year relationship with his Israeli partner ended. The pair met while dancing in Portugal, after which the Sydney-born Bray moved to Israel. Then it all fell apart.
“The upshot was I lost my spousal visa so I couldn’t stay in Israel, which meant I lost everything: my house, my job, everything. I found myself wandering the world, doing a bunch of projects in Israel, Germany, France and Australia; this strange period where everything had been thrown up in the air but I hadn’t yet landed anywhere. I was also processing a lot of loss and trying to establish where I wanted to live,” he told Broadsheet.
It was while living between Airbnbs, hotel rooms, artist residencies and friends’ homes that he began writing his thoughts on scraps of paper. “I’m a verbal processor, but didn’t have anyone to talk to,” he says.
It occurred to him those scraps of paper held the beginnings of a new work, so he applied for a Deadly Fringe grant – a Melbourne Fringe program that every year commissions two emerging Indigenous artists – and was successful. He received funding, a producer and a deal with the Sofitel Hotel in Melbourne, where he devised the work.
The show’s title stems from a creation story his grandmother told him about the platypus, an odd creature that is neither duck nor water rat, that’s forced to leave the warm waters of the Snowy Mountains lowlands.
“It’s a story of exile and of not fitting in. I’m a queer man who grew up in a religious household with my white mother but spent weekends and later summers with my Aboriginal father and black brothers and sisters; the only ‘goy’ [gentile] on the block in Israel, and a fair-skinned Aboriginal. So it really resonated with me.”
The show debuted at the Melbourne Fringe Festival in 2018, when it was awarded best performance, and went on to tour the Darwin and Brisbane festivals.
During the show Bray talks candidly about his sexual awakening, the racism he experiences as a fair-skinned Indigenous person and his pride in being a Wiradjuri man.
“It’s me taking a pause and asking, ‘How did I get here? Who is this person?’ A lot of it is about my relationship with men, sex and drugs, which are a major part of contemporary gay culture. So a lot of it is me going, ‘You’re 38 and you’re still doing this, is that okay?’ I don’t make any judgements.”
He welcomes input from his “guests” but stresses it isn’t imperative to take part. “Some comedians pick on the person in the front row, making them awkward and the humour is in that. That doesn’t interest me at all, I want to make a space where everyone feels super comfortable, so no one is ever put on the spot,” he says.
The bathrobes break down the audience-actor structure of the show and provide a “set” for the otherwise plain hotel room.
In one section he offers his guests a hand massage and, after telling his backstory, invites people to share theirs.
“That’s my favourite part. Australia is an immigrant country so there are stories of parents who met in the Hungarian circus; people who discovered they’re of Indigenous heritage in their forties, or stories of parents escaping the holocaust. The richness of the personal and family stories in Australia is amazing.”
Bray says his desire, first and foremost, is to give people an entertaining night, something contemporary dance often fails to do. He also hopes to give people pause to consider our shared history of displacement in Australia and the place of its original inhabitants.
“It’s comedic, mostly me laughing at myself,” he says. “I’m not the most virtuosic dancer but I’m willing to peel back and reveal my inner self to an audience. And I think audiences respond to that. Sometimes you get to hear for the first time a thought you’re too ashamed to share and when you hear someone say it aloud you think, ‘I’m not alone’. And if I can achieve that with my art then I’ll die happy.”
Biladurang is playing at the QT Sydney from January 11 to 20. A waitlist for tickets are available.