Joel Bray

Art Series Hotels –The Johnson

September 12 – 15 2018


Reviewed by Shannon John Miller




Melbourne-based artist and Wiradjuri man, Joel Bray, gives audiences a uniquely immersive and intimate encounter with his work, Biladurang, which is part of the 2018 Brisbane Festival.


From the bar of The Johnson in Spring Hill, we’re told that Bray has invited us all back to his room. He meets us at the door, scantily clad, and clutching a white towel to himself, coy and filled with false modesty and playfulness. Asking us to wait 10 seconds, he returns slightly more modest, and is at once gregarious and effervescent.


And as we enter, he continues to fawn upon us, handing out glasses and tumblers into which he pours for us champagne, branding it ‘student chic’. Urging us to don white bathrobes and be seated across the lounges and chairs of the intimate hotel room, we quickly take up the role as his would-be props, and no doubt co-performers.



The hotel room’s iconography is deliberately unremarkable. Cold off-white walls and prosceniums of hotel curtains and shades lit by warm lamps all create a lonely resort mise en scene interrupted later by a blinking neon city light from outside – a hint of the urban desolation Bray’s character is seeking solace from. He is charming, witty and welcoming; at pains to ensure our comfort and that we are connected to him.


Once settled our host abandons social pleasantries. His body twitches and relaxes and moves through a series of subtle and expressive rhythms, glitches, and representations as he attempts, through dance, to inhabit the socially awkward clichés and superficial strata of a “hook up”. We, the audience, are the objects of his desire. The choreography, while beautiful and transcendent, draws on mannerisms of coyness and seduction and as the dance takes over in its growing complexity, the hotel room is immediately transformed.



As the audience, we are also an element in his design, and he uses us, too, playing with our self-consciousness, our laughter, drawing us out of our shells as the colours of his palette. And despite the unpredictable improvisation, the work also maintains a structure. The audience is receptive to this, and we’re entreated to answer his questions; flirt even. He’s able to stage manage our social dynamics effortlessly, as if he’s directing us while playing his part, again emblematic of the engineering that goes into a first date, or the preluding foreplay to a one night stand.



Bray shares an engaging series of fractured narratives, punctuated at times by reveries of dance and movement. He shares his stories, which are sometimes funny, endearing coming-of-age tales, sometimes candid disclosures of grotesque sexual encounters hinting to a loss of self and escape into a hedonistic pleasure culture. The stories are sometimes foregrounded as profound reckonings, which explore themes of digital isolation, queer sexuality, shame, voyeurism, consumer culture, Indigeneity and lost ancestry.


Bray’s work is loosely based on the dreamtime legend of Biladurang, in which a displaced duck, subdued by a villainous water rat, gives birth to a platypus: a hybrid creature whose genetic legacy belongs to neither origin. Similarly, Bray’s character – a fair-skinned Indigenous man living in a post-colonial society – draws connections with the parable as a displaced cultural hybrid himself who uses the hotel room as a private space to reconcile inconsistencies within himself. And he successfully creates a third language, which is deeply engaging, entertaining and graceful.


Hand-in-hand, Bray leads the audience down his difficult path, and we come along willingly.


The choreography and text work well together, and some multi media and social dynamics further enrich audience experience. The show is innovative as it is experiential, funny, but also a deeply serious work of fantastic realism, and human vulnerability.


Biladurang TEASER from Joel Bray on Vimeo.

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