Reviews/Contemporary dance/Dance

Joel Bray – ‘Daddy’ a heartfelt sweetener for unresolved pain

4 March 2022

Despite tackling trauma, the soul of dance theatre work Daddy is playful, discovers Patrick Gunasekera.

Content note: this review discusses trauma caused by colonisation.

Daddy, Joel Bray ·
Studio Underground, State Theatre Centre of WA, 2 March 2022 ·

At a time when extraordinary hope is emerging from the growing mainstream celebration of First Nations languages and cultures, Daddy – created and performed by Wiradjuri choreographer Joel Bray – reminds us that self-determination takes many forms.

Bray’s own experience – typically sidelined but common – is of an absence of cultural knowledge. This work recognises his drive to find strength and joy in other ways.

Raucous and immersive, this dance-theatre performance is presented in the Studio Underground, on a pale blue square surrounded by tall blue sequined curtains. Poised on a fairy-floss cloud, wearing shiny pink underwear, Bray begins with child-like gestures of desire that merge with deeper expressions of sorrow, alternating with poses of doll-like stiffness.

Bray then greets his audience one by one with irresistible pleasantry. He patiently invites us into a playful, participatory experience by creating a series of tableaus with volunteers, modelled after Western art motifs of love and decadence.

As the tableaus shift to evoke colonial imagery, palpable trauma enters the room, meticulously embodied. Dances that begin cheekily then shatter into fervent endurance tests, occasionally joined by self-flagellation or showers of “snowy” sugar.

Bray’s sensual physicality is at once yearning, confident and unrelenting, his performance interspersed with spoken scenes or monologues.

Through these vignettes and other storytelling tools, he shares the disruption of his family lineage through colonial and sexual violence, the cumbersome frustrations of learning his culture from YouTube, and the inevitable snapping beneath the pressure to heal without justice.

The intergenerational harm discussed in Daddy is inseparable from Bray’s body; he expresses this as an endless hole that needs to be filled, and conveys the burden of living with this to his audience through a haunting choreographic refrain that pacifies his grief.

But the soul of this work is playful. Even Bray’s ownership of his emptiness and resentment shines with humour, and his reclamation of his body through sexuality is buoyant. Without having been taught his culture or language growing up, he vividly redefines his wholeness as a queer and light-skinned Wiradjuri man.

As a biracial and queer Sri Lankan, I found many parts of Daddy resonated; its immediacy and rawness both compelling and deeply confronting. If the themes of having little knowledge of your culture or language, or using sexual intimacy to ease trauma, would land close to home for you — enter this show with care.

Though Bray shoulders the majority of this work’s massive physical and emotional labour, many acts of comfort, fun or complicity within Daddy are shared by the audience. As is typical of well-delivered participatory performances, the care Bray extends to his audience is reciprocated, enabling his colonial trauma to be mutually held and explored.

Seeking reciprocal care from non-First Nations audience members is a brave but important move, and the request was warmly received on Wednesday night. Beyond the theatre, this responsive act of love may encourage further participation in critical conversations about the realities of colonial trauma.

The show ends where it starts — the audience helps create an especially fun and messy tableau. To me, this structure echoes the dynamic nature of living with complex trauma; full of intricate, harrowing journeys through unfinished business, but ultimately defined by joyous resilience.

Though Daddy ends without a clear conclusion to Bray’s story, the audience left buzzing – perhaps fulfilled by the many emotional connections woven between viewers and performer. Through live participation, we had experienced what it means, not only to live with cataclysmic cultural loss, but to escape the daily dystopian task of surviving this loss… by seeking shared intimacy and pleasure.

For anyone with a story similar to Bray’s, Daddy may offer unprecedented validation and healing; but prepare to leave feeling heavy at first.

Daddy lovingly demonstrates the impacts of colonisation on one Wiradjuri man, and how he dares to live as fully as possible amidst ongoing colonial violence. Engaging, sensitive and purposeful, Bray’s work makes a vital and courageous contribution to First Nations storytelling and representation.

Pictured top: Joel Bray in ‘Daddy’. Photo: Court McAllister

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Zal Kanga-Parabia

Author —
Patrick Gunasekera

Patrick Gunasekera is a queercrip Sinhala artist working across performance, visual media, and writing. After reading a poorly written review on a show about disability, he got into arts writing to critically engage with touchy topics that affect him personally. He loved the monkey-bars as a kid because he wanted strong arms. Photo by Zal Kanga-Parabia.

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