Placing a clutch of juggling balls on the table between us in Circus Oz’ cavernous Collingwood HQ, proud Kamilaroi man Dale Woodbridge-Brown, MC and acrobat extraordinaire, describes himself as a triple threat – Aboriginal, gay and adopted.
Although his day job requires him to stand out in a crowd, growing up in the small NSW town of Mungindi (population 700) he preferred to bask in the reflected glory of his sporting sisters. While he was certainly active, running around, playing tennis and swimming upstream, they were the footy stars. Turns out he’s not too shabby either.
“Coming from a country town, most kids are really good at sports,” he says. “It’s all we have to do, really. I didn’t realise I was pretty good until I came to this city and made a bunch of friends. I’d be like ‘I’ll race you to that pole,’ and you’re kind of like, ‘you guys are really slow. You suck. You city kids need to get out a bit more.'"
After the family relocated to Dubbo, Circus West lessons in their primary school sparked something of an obsession for big sister Montana. “She was actually the circus star back then and had crazy skills on stilts and stuff. I was just like, ‘whatever.’”
Instead Woodbridge-Brown studied dance at Brisbane’s Aboriginal Centre for the Performing Arts. He was 23 and in his third year when Circus Oz’ former artistic associate and indigenous programs coordinator Josh Bond approached him to try out for the company as part of their BLAKflip outreach program for Indigenous kids.
“I came down for a week, back in the old building in Port Melbourne, and maybe a month or two later Bondy called me and said I got it,” Woodbridge-Brown says. “Next thing you know, I was here in Melbourne. Who gets a full-time job in the arts not even finishing school?”
“If I knew myself then I’d have booted myself in the arse, I was such a little shit.”
In that first year, Circus Oz took him to New York, having never left the country previously. Five years on, they’ve just returned from touring their latest big top extravaganza, TWENTYSIXTEEN, to Brazil before kicking off the Australian leg with a Melbourne season of turbo-charged acrobatics, including a 21-person juggling act, on June 15.
Leaving the structured world of dance behind for the creative freedoms of Circus Oz, where he was expected to create his own acts, proved challenging. “If I knew myself then I’d have booted myself in the arse, I was such a little shit,” he laughs. “It was more lack of knowledge than a lack of focus. Once I got here and I started to see how much work you have to put in and I was taken under the wing of a few of the older performers who put me on the sidelines of their acts so I could see how it works.”
Woodbridge-Brown’s unstoppable gift for the gab and quick comic tongue, effortlessly exuding mischievous charm, stood him in good stead when he dislocated his elbow last year just before the Melbourne season, leading to reconstructive surgery. “I was out of the game for a bit and when I started coming back in the only thing I could do was talking on the microphone.”
That meant taking on the MC gig, which pleased his mother no end, not that she was up for taking any of his backchat. “I said to her, ‘that smart arse little attitude I had as a teenager that you tried to get me to stop, I’m getting paid for it now,’ and she just told me to shut up and hung up the phone.”
While picking up some Portuguese lingo for the Brazilian show was difficult, with Woodbridge-Brown saying he struggles with learning other languages, they managed to pull it off with a paired-back script. Half the battle of being a successful MC is encouraging audiences to behave a good deal rowdier than they would at the cinema or theatre. “Aussies audience tend to sit back and just watch, it’s like pulling teeth sometimes, but by the end you can tell they’ve all had a blast,” he says. “This is a circus, not a library, we want you to make as much noise as you can, without being a wanker.”
“Aussies audience tend to sit back and just watch, it’s like pulling teeth sometimes, but by the end you can tell they’ve all had a blast."
Speaking of which, as a light-skinned black man, Woodbridge-Brown often finds himself having to explain his heritage. “One of the questions I get a lot, when I say I’m Indigenous, is they ask, ‘well, what percentage are you?’ That just boils my blood. I wasn’t made on MasterChef; you can’t just add a little bit of this and a dash of that. What about the measurement of me being queer or how adopted I am? I’m just what I am and it’s not for questioning, it’s for you to appreciate.”
It’s clear he takes no bullshit, rightfully so, and has back-up in a loving extended family who were far from surprised when, as a 19-year-old, he told them the lad from the next town over who kept hanging out was actually his boyfriend. “Idiot that I was, I should have realised that they already knew. They just said, ‘We were at the party, we were just waiting for you to get in.’”
Though he says he doesn’t get back often enough, Woodbridge-Brown describes himself as a total mummy and daddy’s boy. His dad even took a couple of days off work so they could hang out after his coming out, to make sure his son knew he was really ok with it. His squadron of footy playing sisters made sure he got no hassle. “My family are quite protective. I know I’m the golden child and I play on it. If I get any kind of flack for being a homo, a hummus, they’re quicker to jump to my defence than I am. It’s actually a little bit scary sometimes. I wouldn’t mess with my sisters.”
With an incredible support network behind him, Woodbridge-Brown hopes he can pay a little back from the centre of Circus Oz big top. “I’m not there to dim myself down so everyone else is comfortable. I want to be as outstanding as I can so that that one weird kid in the audience, who thinks they’re doing something wrong, can think, ‘Oh, I’m not. Everything does get better for me.’
“It sounds quite biased or selfish, but when I perform on stage, I perform for the queer coloured person. There may be one, there might be none, I don’t know, but I have to make sure I go out there, strut my shit, do all my tricks shit hot and just hope that that person goes, ‘I can do that, I can be that proud.’”'
First Contact (season 2) airs on 29 November, 30 November and 1 December 2016 at 8:30pm on SBS. Across 28 Days, six well-known Aussies take an epic journey into Aboriginal Australia. Watch the trailer here, and catch-up on episodes after the program airs via SBS On Demand here.