Before a wall of mirrors, five performers dance for their reflections. The room heaves with bodies and music pumps through the crowd like a pulse. The audience beyond the mirrors can’t see the performers, only screens transmitting a live-feed of the performance just out of sight. They cheer anyway.
Sydney-based performance artist Bhenji-Ra’s practice foregrounds shared authorial control, collective action and self-representation as tactics for dismantling cultural hierarchies. They explore the social function dance has held in communities and subcultures that have experienced marginalisation—in LGBTI circles, in migrant families, in colonised societies—to emphasise the lived experience of the performer. They examine the ways in which dance has functioned both as a celebration of inclusivity and as a method of confronting the dispossession and exclusion experienced by these communities. As Bhenji-Ra states, ‘there is a deep connection with what our bodies harbour [or] gather from our experience and what manifests into bodily gestures, physical idiosyncrasies [and] performance’.1 Where people have been dispossessed or denied autonomy in society, dance is a space where that dispossession cannot reach. The body remains the ‘central vessel for identity, story and expression to be performed, unmonitored and uncensored’. Rather than a fixed product suspended in a particular milieu however, Bhenji-Ra underlines the mutability of dance across generations and cultures caused by globalisation, social mobility and migration, and how these dances have been appropriated and commodified for a consumer market and repurposed by new generations. Ownership is fluid. By recontextualising these dances for a contemporary art context, Bhenji-Ra asks us to consider for whom is the dance performed, thereby demonstrating that there is more than a stage distancing the performer and the audience.
Bhenji-Ra’s work in Day For Night codified these social barriers.2 An event and exhibition presented by Performance Space, Day For Night was conceptualised as a celebration of queer performance practice in the context of party culture. Bhenji-Ra’s contribution was a dance work, You Own Everything, made in collaboration with The Pioneers, a dance crew from Liverpool in Sydney’s western suburbs. They performed a style of dance known as Vogue-Femme, emphasising fluid and feminine gestures. Vogue was developed in the ballroom communities begun in the 1980s by African American and Latino gay and trans communities. Bhenji-Ra’s work sought to challenge the public reception of vogue and return it to the personal experience of the performers. The performance was framed as a way for Bhenji-Ra and The Pioneers to share with each other their own experiences of vogue and to teach each other what they had learned on their path to dance practice, primarily via learning online. Bhenji-Ra worked with Sydney-based Korean sound artist Victoria Kim to develop a soundtrack for the work that represented this impulse for cultural appropriation of Western urban culture among non-Western audiences.
The phrase ‘you own everything’ references the iconic 1990 documentary Paris is Burning directed by Jennie Livingstone, and which documented the ballroom scene.3 The subculture of the ballroom sprang up in defiance of social exclusion, developing an alternate system where the aspirations and values of the mainstream were both replicated and challenged. The film shows contestants competing in categories based on costume, performance and appearance, emulating the posing and glamour of high fashion and other trappings of white culture and developing their own slang terminology. One audience member asked to define opulence replies ‘you own everything. Everything is yours.’
This assertion of social access and ownership is inherent to the development of vogue. Ball participants would antagonise their fellow competitors through performative gesture and ‘throwing shade’ to insult and undermine. While it was directed at one another, this antagonism replicated, distorted and disarmed the violence and abuse experienced by the LGBTI community in the world beyond the ball. Vogue legend Willi Ninja explains in the film, ‘Voguing came from shade because it was a dance that two people did because they didn’t like each other. Instead of fighting, you would dance it out on the dance floor. Whoever was throwing the best moves was giving the best shade.’
Bhenji-Ra’s You Own Everything explores complexities of ownership in the cultural heritage of vogue, exploded by the subsequent emergence of the Internet and online sharing culture. Subcultures that were once obscured by geography, time and social mobility are now on view for anyone to see—reaching new audiences divorced from the original context. Bhenji-Ra manipulated this perception of ownership by devising a framework to control access to the work. The five performers were cordoned off from the audience by a wall of mirrors, to which they directed their performance. This had the effect of both replicating a dance studio environment, in which the dance is entirely self-possessed, as well as containing the dancer in a loop with their reflection, obscuring them from the audience’s direct gaze. The performance was primarily transmitted to the audience on screens via live-feed monitors, mounted high on the exterior of the structure. For the audience the effect was distancing and it confounded the expectation for live performance at an event billed as ‘an exhilarating collision of live bodies’. The crowd watched the onscreen dancers while the ‘live bodies’ were metres away, elevated in a seductive distance reminiscent of YouTube videos. The action was not entirely concealed from view however. Curious audience members could step into the mirrored space to watch the performance, but only if they felt comfortable being captured by the live-feed cameras, becoming a part of the performance. The mode of presentation therefore replicated the social structures of the dance. For the dancers, the performance was presented to their own reflected selves, while the audience perceived the work almost entirely by technology. The result was a loop that reflected and refracted the experience of the performance, deconstructing the spectacle of vogue and implicating the viewer in its mediated reception.
Vogue is one of the most prominent exports from the New York ballroom community, but it is only one instance where LGBTI culture has been commodified for a popular audience. Madonna first encountered vogue at a ball put on as an AIDS benefit, after which she manufactured her global hit Vogue, 1990, with Willi Ninja choreographing her famous interpretation. The result of this rapid exposure was to both obscure the radical origins of vogue and trivialise its importance to the LGBTI community. Vogue’s lyrics ignored the context from which the dance originated and instead idolised the mainstream Hollywood glamour the balls sought to deconstruct. As Terre Thaemlitz (DJ Sprinkles) pointed out in the liner notes to her 2009 track Ball’r [Madonna-Free Zone], ‘[Madonna took] a very specifically queer, transgendered, Latino and African-American phenomenon and totally erased that context with her lyrics, “It makes no difference if you’re black or white, if you’re a boy or a girl.” Madonna was taking in tons of money, while the queen who actually taught her how to vogue sat before me in the club, strung out, depressed and broke.’4 By doing so, she denies the specific cultural experience of the people who invented the form as a way to challenge those very definitions of race and gender, and for whom gender fluidity is a primary aspect of identification and representation. Released in the same year as Vogue, Paris is Burning was also responsible for the exposure of the scene to a global audience. Winning the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival it received critical acclaim and some commercial recognition, upon which several of the featured performers sued the production company for royalties. Eventually they settled out of court for $55,000 split between thirteen litigants.
Despite this rapid exposure and dismissal, vogue has continued to serve the LGBTI community. Further, in recent years it has experienced a resurgence in mainstream recognition. New York artist Rashaad Newsome’s video works for the 2010 Whitney Biennial featuring vogue performers Shayne Oliver and Twiggy Prada signalled the growing popularity of new variants of vogue by younger generations, in addition to its appeal as a historical cultural phenomenon. Musicians such as Azealia Banks, FKA Twigs and Le1f have continued to expose and popularise the dance form to broader audiences. Bhenji-Ra first encountered vogue via their social circle in New York, while studying contemporary dance at the Martha Graham School, and has until recently resisted incorporating it into their performance practice, aware of the fraught history of appropriation. In You Own Everything Bhenji-Ra’s complex manipulations of presentation both display the skill and artistry of the form while revivifying the intent of the original voguers to represent their own community on their own terms, putting distance between the performers and the audience. The work reinvests vogue with the social antagonism stripped of it by Madonna’s appropriation, while simultaneously celebrating the resurgence of interest in the practice afforded by online screen culture. For Bhenji-Ra, the ability of young performers in marginalised communities to access, interpret and exchange would, ‘in an ideal world, [be] the only appropriation that would happen… and not [the] brutally immediate commodification and complete thievery of someone else’s experience [and] struggle.’
Bhenji-Ra extends this exploration of the social function of dance in a recent work for Underbelly Arts, presented at Cockatoo Island 1–2 August 2015. Bowling Club Medley is a tribute to the social dance practice of the Filipino migrant community of the South Coast of NSW based in Bateman’s Bay—Bhenji-Ra’s hometown—and features the Bay Angels (Laurena Rabina Pasic, Myrna Radin, Marie Cel Arrancado Desabella, Joanne Chennock and Elizabeth Stevens), a troupe of Filipina dancers from the area. The work was inspired by Bhenji-Ra’s childhood memories of their mother and extended family line-dancing in bowling clubs and community centres. Line-dancing, which shares with traditional Filipino festive dances the qualities of duration and repetitive movement, functions as a new tradition for the migrant community, taking inspiration from both their cultural origins and their adopted society. With a Filipina mother and an Anglo-Australian father and like many second or third generation migrants, Bhenji-Ra grew up with a hybrid sense of cultural identity that drew as much from one culture as the other.
Bowling Club Medley brought a dance primarily performed for fellow members of the same small Filipino community into a new context, presenting it to a contemporary art audience as part of a festival that emphasises emerging practices and experimentation, confounding and redefining expectations of both. In a white cowboy hat Bhenji-Ra led the Bay Angels into the crowd of festival-goers accompanied by music blaring from a bumbag-mounted boombox, all dancers costumed in fringed white dresses and sequined knee high white go-go boots. Bhenji Ra reframed the Bay Angels’ line-dancing costumes from being a symbol of their belonging in a particular community to a symbol of authority and difference: ‘a mini spectacle, becoming a visual that demanded to be seen wherever they went’. The Angels proudly carried the Filipino flag with them, explicitly declaring their heritage and embedding it as a key aspect of the performance. The group then launched into a lively cowboy cha-cha in the midst of the festival crowd, claiming a performance space in the thoroughfare. As both non-professional dancers and older women, the Bay Angels undermined the expected youthful demographic of emerging arts practice. Running through the Nutbush and the Hustle, the performers reinvigorated these familiar dances with a celebratory energy, recontextualising timeworn dances as a hybrid form that reflected the dancers’ migration narratives.
The coalescence of traditional and contemporary dance practice will receive a more explicitly narrative-based treatment in an upcoming work for the Asia Pacific Triennial at the Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane later in 2015. In collaboration with performance artist Justin Shoulder, Bhenji-Ra will produce a series of short films that deal with the experience of transgender people in the Philippines. This work reprises an ongoing collaboration between Shoulder and Bhenji-Ra, which most recently saw them commissioned for Artbank’s Performutations series curated by Daniel Mudie Cunningham with a work titled Deep Alamat (‘legend’ or ‘myth’ in Tagalog, the national language of the Philippines [alongside English]). Shot on location, these video portraits intend to reinterpret mythology and cultural narrative around colonisation to confront the demonisation of queer people. Bhenj-Ra explains,
Most of the stories come out of a response to colonisation and the meeting points between the Filipino and the coloniser. I’m attracted to a couple of these stories that involve the demonisation of Filipino women who enjoyed a certain amount of sexual liberation and trans women who [were] revered and held roles as community leaders, healers and spiritual mediums in society. To create distrust in [the] community, the coloniser created stories about these women whom they were incredibly threatened by. [T]hat eventuated into what we know today as the Aswang and Mananangal—two female creatures that sexually terrorise at night. These are household creatures that even my mother would warn me about.
Using Shoulder’s vibrant and surreal costumes, these works intend to explore the cultural practices that have emerged from the trauma of colonisation, celebrate the resilience and creativity of this community and ‘reify and decolonize these narratives’, making a space for them to find a new place in the community. Another upcoming work for Campbelltown Arts Centre’s Radical Democracies project, curated by Branch Nebula, will similarly revisit experiences of violence and subjugation by LGBTI people. Working with local dancers, Bhenji-Ra will combine vogue with martial arts to reclaim sites of trauma in the traditionally working class suburb. This hybrid performance will reposition the antagonism found in the beginnings of vogue as a form of self-defence, blurring the line between styles of movement often categorised as ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’.
Bhenji-Ra’s approach to performance emphasises mutability, both as its subject and its energising principle. By merging traditional and contemporary dance styles, examining the impact of secondary online environments, highlighting the experiences of the Filipino diaspora and celebrating the innovation of queer culture, Bhenji-Ra privileges the experience of transition over stagnancy. They honour dance as a form of collectively produced cultural property that moves with the people who make it, and by controlling the conditions via which these performances are received, they compel the viewer to consider the experience and identity of the performer and the context from which they have emerged.
Eleanor Zeichner is an editor of Runway and Assistant Curator at UTS Gallery.