By Guy Webster
When you walk into Northcote Town Hall for choreographer Joel Bray’s new work, Considerable Sexual License, you are immediately part of the performance. All four performers (Carly Sheppard, Niharika Senapati, Daniel Newell and Joel Bray) mill about the space, engaging with the audience and occasionally flirting in shimmering tracksuits. The space feels like a fabulous combination of Twin Peaks and ARQ night club. There are towering curtains, dark lighting and a single circular chaise lounge at the room’s centre. It’s clear from the outset of the performance that you’ve entered a club unlike any other. ‘Think Eyes Wide Shut directed by Olivia Newton John’, a friend whispered to me before I entered. I’m happy to say that the piece, which features a 6ft unicorn shrouded in bubbles, neon paint and fourplay with a tin of Arnott’s biscuits, was all this and much much more.
Joel Bray, the inaugural Choreographer in Residence for the Melbourne-based dance troupe Chunky Move, describes Considerable Sexual License as an ode to his ‘Blak Queer fam’. Speaking with Patricia Karvelas for ABC’s The Drawing Room, Bray goes on to describe the piece as ‘peopling the empty mirror’ that ‘queer and blak’ people encounter living in a country that rarely reflects their experience. In Considerable Sexual License, Bray, a proud Wiradjuri man, takes the precolonial history of sensuality as his subject for reflection.
The show’s title comes from the observations of R.H. Mathews, a white anthropologist who was thoroughly scandalised in 1907 when he observed a Corroboree where ‘Considerable Sexual License was allowed’. Joel Bray intends to welcome us to his Corroboree – Garabari in his father’s Wiradjuri language –; a celebration of sex, sexuality and the Queerness that is embedded in Aboriginal Australia and its history.
To do so, Bray has choreographed and directed a piece brimming with conceptual heft. Those familiar with Bray’s work will be unsurprised by how the piece works with and around its audience. You can expect to be the subject of a strip tease, holding a bubble gun or wandering around the circular stage together with your peers. Our bodies are just as important as those of the four performers (though less is required of us, thank god). For a piece so interested in sex and sensuality in its myriad forms, this choice by Bray is particularly striking. Together, we are invited to participate in a choreographed reflection on the restriction and liberation of Indigenous bodies.
While I have mentioned the appearance of Arnott’s biscuits in jest, their presence in the piece is particularly affecting. Halfway through the piece, after we have been led in groups around the stage and witnessed the performers strip sensually and comedically to a soundtrack perfectly curated by Daniel Nixon, there is a sudden change of pace. Having changed into what appears to be a maid costume, Joel Bray delivers a monologue about his family history. While setting up the circular lounge with sheets, he beautifully describes the eons-old magic that he has inherited, as well as the sexual violence that colonial Australia inflicted on his ancestors.
The nudity that follows is jarring – partly because it bears violent implications, and because we, as audience members, were dancing, talking, even flirting with Joel and the other performers not ten minutes earlier. The contrast is stark and revealing. The scene, which is steeped in colonial iconography and costuming beautifully rendered by designer Nathan Burmeister, is eventually followed by the concluding climax (pun-intended) of the piece. Sporting matching underwear, all four performers paint each other with neon paint in a ceremonial sequence that builds in energy and spiritual intensity. The soundtrack is minimal at this point, provided mostly by the dancers themselves as they grunt, moan and slam their bodies against the floor and each other. Glowing with neon, the scene is one of many striking tableaus to appear in the piece, each expertly framed by Katie Sfetkidis’s lighting design.
Standing there, bearing witness to these incredible performers throwing themselves against the floor and each other, I was struck by the similarities between the orgasmic throw of a body in pleasure and the gasps and broken shapes that result from violence. ‘When I am with my Blak Queer fam, I am reminded that we are more than our traumatic history’, Bray writes in the program. The piece reflects this, moving from a lap dance scored by a club-beat to an intimate monologue; from an intimate moment to a violent one, and finally, from a violent moment to one of sensual and spiritual liberation. Like Bray’s poetry – which I stumbled upon in the lobby – Considerable Sexual License is structured as intersecting episodes, meaning that the piece can encounter these contrasting ideas side-by-side. As we stand, dance and wander around the circle of Bray’s Garabari, we exist in a similar state – beside these euphoric, and traumatic histories of sensuality that will make you dance, think and flirt in one breath.
While A Considerable Sexual License and its abstract depths will not be for everyone, it is a show that is unflinching in its interests and uncompromising in its approach. Add to this the talents of its design and lighting team and the show moves past occasional dips in audience energy as well as delays in scene changes, to deliver a performance filled to overflowing with sensual power.
A Considerable Sexual License is a feature of YIRRAMBOI First Nations Festival and Darebin Arts Speakeasy and is playing until the 15th of May at Northcote Town Hall.
Images: Bryony Jackson
GUY WEBSTER is an academic and writer living on unseeded Wurundjeri land. His work has been published by The Conversation, Horror Home Room and Review 31 and he is currently finishing his doctorate at The University of Melbourne. He tweets occasionally and with little success as @guytothewebster.