On November 26 the dancers of Sydney Dance Company took to the stage for the first time this year with New Breed, our annual celebration of the best emerging Australian choreography, in partnership with Carriageworks and generously supported by The Balnaves Foundation.
Proud Wiradjuri man, dancer, performer, and choreographer Joel Bray is next up in the New Breed 2020 choreographer spotlight. With early career ventures in Europe and Israel, Joel also boasts a vibrant career in Australia as an ongoing performer with Chunky Move and as an independent dance and dance-theatre maker. His work Wagan is one of four works in New Breed 2020. Read on to hear a passionate and enthusiastic choreographer speak about his inspirations, motivations, and gratitude for working with Sydney Dance Company.
Eclectic. I use movement improvisation, physical textures, recognisable dance steps, monologues, and conversations with the audience. I like to mix it up and move continuously through the unexpected. My unofficial motto is ‘use anything, so long as it’s the right thing for that moment.’ That said, making Wagan feels like a return to my dance roots. I am inspired by the sheer physical virtuosity and articulation of the Company dancers, so the work is very physical and full of dance. I’m very excited about it!
I am inspired by birds, their flights, their flocks, and their fearlessness. Wagan weaves together three distinct references.
The first is a memory I have of being out on my ancestral Wiradjuri country, watching a flock of finches swoop, dive, and dance together. That was that moment, 20 years ago, that I decided to pursue dance, and I have never looked back.
The second is a story about the crow or raven. We call him Wagan. The Wagan is my father’s personal totem and he appears in many different stories from mob all over this continent. There are lots of local variations, but the stories often speak of a time when the crow was multi-coloured, like a rainbow lorikeet, but because of his pride, he was burnt, and so has been black ever since. My work Wagan touches on this story.
Finally, I am inspired by Hitchcock’s film The Birds. This film epitomises European culture’s fear of crows and ravens – the blackbirds. The inherent racism in this fear of black is in stark contrast to the honour that Aboriginal people accord the Wagan as a wise creature and a problem solver. This work tries to subvert that and reframe the Wagan as a creature of beauty and majesty.
I am not usually a superstitious person, but I really feel the ancestors lining this up for me. My interest in the flock, works perfectly with social distancing. In a flock, the birds dance together, they flirt and flit, but they manage to avoid touching, obviously, as that would make flying tricky. So, weirdly, the restrictions have worked with the concept.
Firstly, an amazing new score by phenomenal Indigenous composer Brenda Gifford. It is truly sublime. It swoops and soars like the birds and it has guided my choreographic decision making.
The movement material has been developed by the dancers themselves and each has developed their own avian personality. There is an ongoing conversation between the solo bird and the flock. It has been a joy to work with such creative powerhouses in the studio.
Finally, the work is camp. Sometimes camp can be humorous and sometimes it can imply the macabre.
That is a tricky one. I think the answer depends on your yardstick.
Recently I went and performed for the first time out on my ancestral Country. I wore ochre for the first time in many years and I felt really empowered by the experience. There were lots of important elders and people from my community in the audience. So culturally speaking, that was a highlight.
A personal highlight was premiering my work Daddy at the YIRRAMBOI Festival last year. The work is profoundly personal, and I am incredibly proud of it.
But career-wise, this experience is a highlight. Sydney Dance Company is world-leading in contemporary dance, so to be invited to make work with these phenomenal performers, to have the advice and support of Artistic Director Rafael Bonachela and to present to the Company’s audience, is amazing. I’m still kind of pinching myself.
The book that is on my bedside table is How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy. A friend sent it to me because he knows that I am a workaholic and that I tend to neglect myself when I am in an intense period of creation. The irony, of course, is that I have been too busy to read it!
There are so many. This is going to have to be a bullet-list answer.
– Anouk van Dijk, who through Counter Technique, taught me to move bigger and better than ever before with less effort. That woman is smart!
– Jo Pollitt, my WAAPA (West Australian Academy of Performing Arts) improvisation teacher.
– Bernadette Lewis, my ‘art-wife’ with whom I have been developing a unique improvisation methodology and movement language over the past six years.
– Niv Sheinfeld and Oren Laor; two incredible dance makers based in Tel Aviv who tore the blinkers off my creative practice.
– My father: a Wiradjuri man who broke new ground in fighting for land rights and the reclamation of our language.