Interdisciplinary artist, dancer, and trans woman Bhenji Ra was 18 when she received a scholarship to study at the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance in New York in 2009. By her own admission, she was a wide-eyed country girl from New South Wales. “I had no idea,” she laughs.
Following the advice of fellow dancers, Ra headed down to the Christopher Street Pier that still acts as a focal point for the city’s thriving ballroom scene. Dominated by gender-diverse youth and people of colour, the striking dance-and-fashion-led community was first brought to the world at large by Jennie Livingston’s seminal doco Paris is Burning. Adopted by Madonna for her ‘Vogue’ video, the phenomenon was recently revisited in Sara Jordenö’s doco Kiki.
“I had never seen Paris is Burning,” Ra confesses of the latter. “I like barely understood the dance style they were doing in Madonna’s Vogue video, but for me it was a real coming out period.”
Back in Australia, Ra caught up on Paris and, recognising various mothers she had met – the mentors who head up the subculture’s various Houses, or alternative families – and set about fostering connections with similar communities around Australia and in Auckland, where the scene has taken off big time. The Asia-pacific region now has four Houses, Ra’s own group Slé as well as Fafswag, Coven, and Envy.
Ra has travelled back to New York several times subsequently, all of which makes her the perfect person to curate Sissy Ball. Held at Carriageworks as part of the 40th anniversary Mardi Gras festival, it promises an epic culture clash of music, dance, fashion, and fierceness that will see all four houses compete in various categories, including legendary dance battles and proud demonstrations of body positivity.
Reclaiming the word sissy, commonly used by Asia-pacific queer communities in particular, but also queer people of colour globally to mean sisterhood, the idea of coming together is a major theme of Ra’s vision for Sissy Ball.
The event will welcome New York stalwarts like DJ MikeQ, ballroom MC Dashaun, and vogue choreographer Leiomy as a judge. They’ll be joined by the likes of South African DJ Angel-Ho, Australian electronic duo Electric Fields, and leading lights from the New Zealand scene.
“A lot of the people who are inspired by New York ballroom culture in Australia and New Zealand are so isolated from each other because of distance,” Ra says.
“I mean, we are oceans apart, so a lot of the girls have only ever dreamed of meeting someone like Leiomy or Dashaun. They’ve spent so many years just on YouTube watching them and copying them and trying to manifest that, so finally it’s happening and it’s quite unreal for us, actually.”
Ra is adamant that Sissy Ball will not simply implant New York culture into Carriageworks. The event will be fused with Australian and Kiwi identity. “I was really thinking about what it means to bring voguing to Australia and how to make that authentic. We’re looking at it as a special place where we can form a new language around this.”
The support structure the scene offers is invaluable, Ra adds. “One of those things that struck me when I was first in New York was that there was this really sophisticated family structure and ecosystem. There’s a system of survival for these kids, and people had roles and responsibility for younger generations. I had never experienced anything like that in Australia, having not even had gay friends or meeting another trans person, so that was mind-blowing for me.”
The parties are run by strict rules and feed on a competitive energy, Ra says, but one that inspires. “There are all these layers of community and wanting to finally have a space to express your identity and you mix that up with such an incredible sound of the vogue ballroom soundtrack and the costumes and it’s completely magical.”
Ra was recently invited to join New York’s House of Juicy Couture after being spotted on a late-night train to Brooklyn, and these days is a mother herself in the House of Slé. It’s a responsibility she takes seriously, and for that reason she’ll be more of a mentor than competitor during Sissy Ball.
“I mean, I’m sure I will get creative, but I’m trying to leave that stuff to the people in my house. For me it really is about bringing people together.”
That includes welcoming their Kiwi counterparts with a healthy dose of trans-Tasman competitiveness. “We’ve seen each other online, thinking, ‘she’s good, one day I’m gonna come for her,’ and finally we have the space to do that.”
Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras and Red Bull Music's Sissy Ball will be held at Carriageworks on February 24. For more info, click here. Tickets have sold out, but a limited number will be available on the door.