Ghenoa Gela is a multi-medium performer using dance, theatre, and a bit of stand-up comedy to tell the story of herself in My Urrwai. “Urrwai” loosely translates into English as a personal style or essence so Gela’s solo production represents many aspects of her identity as Torres Strait Islander woman, a dancer and performer, and someone finding her way outside the Western heterosexual binary.
Gela opens her performance with an introduction in her native language to her family lineage and her home country. Her movement mimics the recognisable physicality of her totem animals and the flow of family trees overtop the familiar whoosh of the tide. With each identification marker, Gela turns to the audience, using direct eye-contact to make sure we’re listening and understanding the layout of her history. When she finishes, she repeats in English for those of us who don’t share her language. This process of contextualising is an important reminder of the position Gela’s story takes within a much longer history of people and place.
Following the thread of her first visit to the Torres Strait Islands where she met new family and performed her grandmother’s dance on her homeland, My Urrwai is comprised of moments and stories from Gela’s life that she has chosen as representative of her journey so far. From the racism she faced as a kid at school, to the racism she faces as an adult in public spaces; from meeting her girlfriend and telling her family about her, to the hours and hours of Island dance practise her parents forced on her. Each stories captures an aspect of Gela’s identity as a woman, a Torres Strait Islander, a performer, and a young person figuring out their sexuality. Gela effortlessly taps into sensibility of the audience, meeting people where they are, including some in-joke references for the fellow dancers in the room.
This production is more than a dance or theatre performance, incorporating many mediums like audio recording, audience participation, even a short stand-up comedy set to add texture to her memories. The tone of each scene shifts drastically from light and comical stories of friends in school to moments drenched in red light when Gela lets out the anger at oppression, assumptions, labels, and expectations. An open, black set with minimal props, largely a backstage mirror, but a soaring light panel above the stage allows for a lot of flexibility in movement as well as a focus on atmosphere and emotion. In each scene Gela is physically assured, even as her inner-self might waver, and this strength demonstrates the personal growth between these memories and the performer sharing them as a touching reflection on stage.
With such a wide range of memories and emotions, the structure of the production operates more as an overview or summary of Gela’s experiences and identity rather than an opportunity to explore any one aspect in depth. This isn’t to say the performance lacks nuance, as the scene of Gela leaning into and out of a light shot across the stage while a recording of her coming out to her mother plays overhead would argue against, but rather at times the story stretches itself too thin and skips through moments that would benefit from more time.
As Gela explains to herself and her family in My Urrwai, this is just the path she is on right now and everything that has led up to this moment doesn’t necessarily dictate where she’s heading. With so many intersecting considerations of religion, family, culture, sexuality, gender, and race, an identity is a difficult thing to express but in this production Gela puts a commendable effort into sharing her story and her talent as a rising young performer.
My Urrwai is running at the Sydney Opera House’s Studio from May 9th – 12th as part of the Festival Unwrapped