The art of reinvention

The fierce, feminine performer pushing boundaries every time she hits the stage.

Joanna Dudley, internationally acclaimed Adelaide singer

As a performer, Joanna Dudley is unlike any other. Yet this internationally acclaimed Adelaide singer, director and performance artist finds it amusing that her work surprises people, particularly other women.

“I will be told how brave I am to do certain things on stage and I think, this isn’t being brave, it’s about showing people everything I’m made of – strength and vulnerability, beauty, ugliness, loud and soft, comedy and seriousness, destruction and love,” Joanna said.

Harnessing her many artistic talents and influences, Joanna has crafted a performance style which makes her truly unique and allows her to create memorable pieces of art on her own or in collaboration with some of the world’s most renowned artists.

Having performed in venues and festivals including Carnegie Hall, Avignon Festival, Holland Festival, The Metropolitan Opera, Brooklyn Academy of Music, Vienna State Opera and Hong Kong Festival, Joanna relishes reinventing herself. “Once I have my team or I’m a collaborator for someone else that I respect, then I want to do something I haven’t done before specifically for the project. Each piece will provide another opportunity to invent myself again.

“As a female performer, vocally and physically I love combining a feminine elegance with comedy and a bit of horror. I think this is a powerful stance. I like to catch people unaware in this way and it’s something only women can do,” she said. 

A kaleidoscope of creative childhood experiences had an influence on the kind of artist Joanna wanted to become. After all, she grew up with creative parents just after Don Dunstan – a strong supporter of the arts and cultural exchanges with Asia – reigned as South Australian Premier.

From her childhood, Joanna fondly remembers Chinese kite flying in Elder Park on the weekends and taking part in the Come Out Children’s Festival (now the DreamBIG Festival), a week long arts extravaganza for kids, which took over the River Torrens’s banks each year.

Joanna’s mum Gai is a visual artist and teacher, and her brother Oliver works as a designer in advertising. Her father Grahame is a composer and University of Adelaide alumnus who taught at the Elder Conservatorium for more than 30 years. Each member of her family has had an immense influence on what she does. “Dad was often creating wonderful music theatre as a composer. He collaborated with Frank Ford [regarded as the father of both the Adelaide Fringe and Adelaide Cabaret Festivals] at the University,” said Joanna.

“They were pushing the boundaries in what was taught and how to bring different departments together so students could collaborate and create new work. I adored watching these performances,” she said. Joanna went on to study early and contemporary music at the Conservatorium. “Oddly enough, the gesture of early music still influences everything I do – it is more about the silences than the loudness, the push of emotion at a very particular point rather than drowning people in over expression,” she said.

Joanna Dudley
 “Oddly enough, the gesture of early music still influences everything I do – it is more about the silences than the loudness, the push of emotion at a very particular point rather than drowning people in over expression.”Joanna Dudley

After completing her undergraduate degree, Joanna knew she would need to leave Australia to pursue her dreams. She spent a year at the Sweelinck Conservatorium in Amsterdam, and on scholarships studied traditional Japanese music in Tokyo and traditional dance and music in Java.

“I never wanted to become a European artist – I knew I wanted to nurture what made me different,” said Joanna.

“My biggest source of inspiration comes from Asian art forms – whether it be a performer’s control and subtlety in Noh Theatre, hand gestures in Beijing Opera, the J-pop culture in Japan or traditional dances of Java,” she said.

Joanna’s big break came when she started working as a guest director and performer at the Schaubühne theatre in Berlin, arguably one of Europe’s most important theatres. It was here she met her husband, set designer Rufus Didwiszus, who has become one of her most significant collaborators and influencers.

A later break was meeting world-renowned South African artist William Kentridge, best known for his prints, drawings and animated films. Joanna and Kentridge have successfully collaborated many times, most recently in an immersive exhibition where Joanna performed The Guided Tour of the Exhibition: for Soprano and Handbag at the Art Gallery of South Australia.

Joanna Dudley

Joanna enjoys pushing boundaries in her art. Creating new identities of femininity is a theme throughout her work. In the performance piece The Head and the Load, a Kentridge collaboration, Joanna played a mad, funny, horrifying and very feminine version of Kaiser Wilhelm – the German emperor who declared war on the world. In her latest piece We Will SlamYou With Our Wings, an operatic video installation, she played a madam dictator encouraging an army chorus of young girls to take autonomy over their own voices – powerful stuff.

As a seasoned performer, Joanna also enjoys sharing her knowledge with others. She has lectured in performance at universities, academies and schools in Switzerland, Berlin, Hong Kong, Singapore, and in Australia at the University of Adelaide.

Since Joanna studied at the University, a Bachelor of Music Theatre has been established to provide intensive training and teach the physical and intellectual skills necessary for a theatre career. “It’s great there is another area of performance taught at the University. I would love to see what the students are up to,” Joanna said in response to this news. Will the new course lead to someone following in her footsteps?

“That’s funny, if that course had been available I may have done it and my journey would have been quite a different one. Who knows?”

Story by Kelly Brown
Photos by Adine Sagalyn

Tagged in lumen, lumen Summer 2019