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Reviews/Contemporary dance/Dance/Perth Festival

Joel Bray busts moves and breaks barriers

21 February 2022

I Liked It, BUT… promises to reveal the mysteries of contemporary dance to audience members. It does, but Nina Levy feels lost at times.

I Liked It, BUT…, Joel Bray ·
B Shed, Fremantle/Walyalup, 20 February 2022 ·

During my 20-plus year career teaching and writing about contemporary dance, many people have ‘fessed up to me that they “don’t understand contemporary dance”. In 2017, I wrote an instructional guide, “How to watch contemporary dance”, in response. So when I read the program notes for Joel Bray’s I Liked It, BUT… and saw the unabridged title, I Liked It, BUT (I Didn’t Know What The F#%K It Was About), I felt an instant sense of artistic camaraderie. 

A Wiradjuri man, living on Kulin Country (Melbourne), Bray is a dance artist. With collaborator Stephen Nicolazzo he has created I Liked It, BUT…  in response to its full title. That title paraphrases (and, in some cases, directly quotes) feedback he has received from family and friends over his 20-odd years as a maker and performer of contemporary dance.

The result – performed by Bray – is part contemporary dance show and part TED Talk-style lecture, with a dash or two of pub trivia quiz; the off-beat input of dramaturg Luke George very much in evidence.

Bray’s aim? To help everyone connect with contemporary dance. 

Pictured is Joel Bray, performing in his show I Liked It But. Bray wears an indigenous flag t-shirt. He stands in an el matador-esque pose.
Joel Bray. Photo: Sam Kennedy-Hine

His partner for the evening is local electronic music producer/vocalist/DJ/performance artist Project BEXX. On keyboard and sound-desk, BEXX provides a score for Bray that layers the ethereal and the electronic, to powerful effect. In between she’s a sounding board for his ideas, their rapport impressive considering this is their first collaboration.

Against Project BEXX’s sounds, the charismatic Bray takes us on a trip that dives and swerves – physically and metaphorically – through the history of contemporary dance (name checking the likes of Duncan, Graham, Cunningham, the Judson Group, Alvin Ailey and more) and the history of Bray’s own foray into dance.

So far, so good. The pace is exhilarating and the audience seems engaged, even though it must be a lot of information for newbies to the genre. For those who are trained in the form, there’s the pleasurable frisson of recognition when Bray talks about why he loves contemporary dance – “the camaraderie of morning class, choreographers’ and dancers’ lateral way of thinking… and movement itself”. 

A reality-TV-style dance-off featuring four audience members loses me, however. I can understand why Bray incorporates television’s commercialised version of contemporary dance – it’s a form that everyone will recognise, and it offers itself up so willingly to be mocked. Certainly the audience seems to enjoy this section hugely, but to me it muddies the waters that Bray is trying to clear. 

In contrast is a mini-lecture-demonstration in which Bray takes the audience inside the process of choreography, explaining how he makes his own work. But given that he has just suggested that it is possible to “like/love/appreciate something without understanding it”, this section feels overly didactic. 

When he asks the audience to suggest movement tasks for him to complete, the enthusiastic answers indicate that many aren’t understanding the concepts; fair, because he is attempting to condense a process that has evolved over years of practice into mere minutes. 

Nonetheless, I love the pithy observations about contemporary dance that punctuate the work. I feel the anticipated sense of artistic camaraderie, of shared aims. In spite of my discomfort with some sections, it’s uplifting to hear Bray suggest to the audience that the joy of contemporary dance is that there is no right or wrong interpretation.

Bray is a highly engaging performer, as is Project BEXX, and there’s no doubting the warmth in the Perth punters’ applause.

Perhaps the issue here is that I am not the work’s intended audience.

I Liked It, BUT… (with Project BEXX) tours to Albany Entertainment Centre, 23 February, and Bunbury Regional Entertainment Centre, 25 February, as part of Perth Festival.

Pictured top: Joel Bray spreads his love of contemporary dance in a previous season of ‘I Liked It, BUT…’. Photo: Sam Kennedy-Hine.

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Author —
Nina Levy

Nina Levy has worked as an arts writer and critic since 2007. She co-founded Seesaw and has been co-editing the platform since it went live in August 2017. As a freelancer she has written extensively for The West Australian and Dance Australia magazine, co-editing the latter from 2016 to 2019. Nina loves the swings because they take her closer to the sky.

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