Review: Interrupting Colonial Oppression with Camp Humour

With candy clouds and audience participation, Daddy reveals a new and vital understanding of our country, writes Timmah Ball. Blak Critics is a YIRRAMBOI initiative giving voice to First Nations writers and critics.

I’ll admit, looking at the beguiling promo pic of dancer and choreographer Joel Bray spread deliciously over a cloud of fairy floss, I expected nothing less then a decadent camp romp from Daddy. I wasn’t disappointed, as that image became hyper real as audiences were ushered through the back door (pun intended!) into the vast auditorium, all smoke and glitter with his lithe body splayed amidst a pink haze, like a renaissance painting re-imagined for the Grindr generation.

There were no seats. Tonight we were going to be active participants in Bray’s dreaming, and by the look of joy that spread across faces in the audience, everyone was eager to please.

As Bray began to eat chunks of the tasty cloud, lulling us further into his magnanimous world, I started to understand the growing hype surrounding this contemporary dancer and Wiradjuri man. His 2017 sell-out Melbourne Fringe show Biladurang went on to further critical acclaim at both the Sydney Festival and Dance Massive, highlighting his unique talent as a dancer and storyteller.

On some levels Daddy felt like a further extension of this work, moving out of its intimate hotel room setting and into a more intriguing, surreal space where themes of race, sexuality and contemporary Blak identity collided in a fusion of joy and pain.

As we started to settle into the joyous camp fervour, the tone shifted slightly, with Bray asking audiences to help him create a new set. Suddenly the backdrop switched to a colonial painting as he stood before it, asking an audience member to sprinkle him in icing sugar. This participatory moment would become one of many.

There was nothing confronting or awkward about this in the way audience participation often is. Instead people willingly took on small roles, helping Bray create new imagery thoughtfully. From seeing him covered in icing sugar, which started to resemble the white-washing that has become synonymous with the colonial agenda as it piled up, to other bold images of power and struggle, he allowed audiences to become explicitly connected to a story too often people want to ignore.

One of the most compelling saw Bray back on his pink cloud, phone out. With his toned physique and exuberant gestures, it was easy to assume he was about to trawl through a dating app for his next conquest. But his dual identities were displayed as he listened to a Wiradjuri language app, trying desperately to re-learn his language.

The words he uttered sounded both natural and strange, highlighting the way those of us who have had our culture ripped apart must slowly re-build. But more importantly, it also acknowledged the complexity of contemporary Blak identity, where we must use our oppressors’ tools, be it technology or western ideology, to reconnect to our true selves.

Becoming the centrepiece of Bray’s work, he was trapped between two worlds, but never willing to give up and place blame on white audiences without looking at the larger structural damages at play.

Instead he offered us joy, cutting through the harsh realities he shared. When things got tough, he launched us into a group dance-off where the performance space was transformed into a queer club. And by guiding us through the horror of colonial history and the determination of contemporary Blak life, a new and vital understanding of our country was revealed.

Daddy premiered at YIRRAMBOI Festival 2019 at Arts House. Daddy was commissioned by City of Melbourne through YIRRAMBOI Festival, Arts House and the Arts Grants Program. It was developed as a KIN Commission for presentation at YIRRAMBOI Festival 2019 and Liveworks Festival supported by Performance Space.

Image: Joel Bray by Jalaru Photography