To Be Real

8 August 2018

Bhenji Ra stands on stage in a bright red bikini, with gold-sequined flames stretching around her hips and across her chest. A pair of red boots lace up to her knees, as she flicks a red fan in front of her face. She has been dancing—dipping and spinning along the runway—but now is still. Next to her is Leiomy Maldonado, “The Wonder Woman of Vogue”, with shining leather boots and an immense bouquet of silver gum leaves. Placing her hand around Ra, Maldonado speaks to the audience: “This woman right here, I am proud to call her my daughter.” As the crowd cheers, Ra places a hand across her mouth, closing her eyes. Maldonado continues: “Because she has started here, what I have done for the world.”

It is difficult to capture a single image of an artist whose work extends across dance, installation, video and performance works, but this moment at Sissy Ball—curated by Ra as part of the 2018 Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras— gives a sense of Ra’s importance. So significant is the impact of her work, as a mother and artist, that the vogue community in Sydney, even the arts community in Australia, can be understood in terms pre- and post-Bhenji Ra.

Vogue riffs on modern dance, cultural dance, magazine poses and runway walks. Ra describes it as an exhumation of the memories, histories and identities in the body, which are drawn out through dance, and then subverted, satirised, deconstructed and redefined. “It’s our most valuable tool of resistance that has been created,” she explains. Pioneered by black and Latinx LGBT youth in the 1980s, vogue is one part of an underground ballroom culture that forms much of the basis of LGBT+ activism and art. A ball sees artists compete in different categories, from “Sex Siren”—judged on sex appeal—to “Labels”—judged on the types and number of fashion labels they wear. Each strives for “realness”: a measure of the paradoxical truth of a performance that simultaneously satirises and earnestly inhabits normative social archetypes. Typified by extreme poses, elastic moves and an audacious confidence, vogue exists somewhere between the runway, the club and the concert.

Originally studying at the Martha Graham School in New York, one of the oldest schools of contemporary dance in America, Ra quickly found herself caught up in this ball culture. She describes an instant affinity with vogue, which enabled her to locate her own experience, as a woman of Filipino descent, within her body. “There’s a generation that’s in your blood that has been doing it before you as well, [and] that’s what can carry you.”

Structured around the hierarchy of a family unit, vogue has become more than a dance style. “Houses” have emerged as part of the ballroom scene, in which “mother” figures support their “children”. These families turn artistic mentorship into a system of lifelong support, sharing influence, knowledge and guidance and offering the matriarchal support many girls were denied growing up. Ra describes this structure as a “blueprint that has been placed before us, that has given us the tools to survive, and shows us that we can survive”. It is a blueprint Ra has encountered and passed on.

Returning to Australia, confronted by what was a wasteland of support and artistic output for trans people of colour, Ra set about finding girls and sharing the traditions she had encountered in the US, becoming a mother herself to a new community of queer people. Founding the House of Slé in 2015, Ra is the epicentre of a growing ballroom community.

Ra’s work exists in the interstices in the excess of the club; her performance style responds to the sensory overload of the space from which it draws part of its inspiration. She explains: “I think when it’s blurred and I think when it’s fluid and I think when it’s in the dark and I think when it’s shifting, that allows for a sense of becoming—but a kind of magic and maybe also a queer sensibility that avoids this kind of finitude.” It is in the snatches of light and deafening music that Ra has the ability to perform in a way that rejects certainty. At any one time she draws on cultural dance, vogue and trans identity in a “pastiche of layering” aimed at destabilising and decolonising the non-normative body.

To capture this process, Ra uses the term “archiving”, which means developing a cache of movements, histories and memories that can be constantly reassembled in her body. Ra’s practice centres around reimagining the personal and cultural narratives that exist in the Filipino and trans histories that form part of her experience. In the same way that vogue retraces “realness”, Ra chases authenticity: “It’s all archived and if I try and dig them all up at once I can re-layer them and remix them together to create something that’s more authentically where I’m at today.”

Unlike the contemporary Western dance in which she trained, Ra’s approach to art making isn’t interested in creating a choreography that can fit to any body. Instead, she steeps her work in memory, history and identity, demanding that artists be aware of their relationship to their viewer, actively controlling the access given to a particular audience and working to create new spaces for expression. “You’re on the stage and everyone’s watching you. You’re ultimately the truth in that moment and no-one else can question that.”

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