Choreographer Malia Johnston is all about collaboration.
She’s the director of Meremere, a multimedia performance that tells deeply personal stories from the life of dancer Rodney Bell (Ngāti Maniapoto). The show is sometimes seen as a dance performance but there’s much more to it, Malia says “it’s actually theatre, a new way of telling a story, and as such it draws a more diverse crowd than traditional dance”.
Rodney performs in his wheelchair but he isn’t defined by his disability rather, it’s his ability to sustain a career in the performing arts. Malia says there are not many dancers still dancing in their late 40s – he’s had the longest career of any dancer that she has known, “The opportunities for dancers with access needs might be more limited but that doesn’t seem to be the case for Rodney.”
Joining Rodney onstage is a live band (fronted by Eden Mulholland, who wrote the songs) and live projection designed by Rowan Pierce. This is where the collaboration comes in. “It’s like jamming with a band,” Malia says about the way they created this show, “everyone throws in their ideas and we pull out the cool stuff.”
During the creative jams Rodney would tell them stories and Eden would respond intuitively with music. Malia says “Rodney is very funny. And engaging, when he tells stories about his life living on the street (in San Francisco), or his dancing stories, his stories of predicaments he’s come across in his life – which are many – but they’re very funny as well, we have a lot of fun working with him.”
He’s also very generous as a performer, answering questions from the audience after each show. People often ask about being a dancer who is in a wheelchair, which, Malia says, is an extension of his body “An able bodied person probably perceives the problem with it and the emotional relationship to what that means, but from his perspective he sees it as this highly engineered piece of equipment that enables him to do what he wants to do.” As a choreographer Malia describes the chair as a “fantastic manoeuvring device – it’s fantastic for choreography because it glides, it’s got beautiful movement in terms of what’s possible, like skateboarding or rollerblading.”
Each show is slightly different because of the live music and because the projection has to be mapped to each new venue they play in, essentially collaborating with the architecture as well. Years ago it was expensive to hire a projector but it is becoming cheaper and cheaper. The technology is becoming more accessible and Malia encourages young people who are working with technology to collaborate with people in other disciplines.
“If you’re learning to master one discipline it’s really good to play with that skill set in relation to others in many territories… when you’re collaborating with people it teaches you more about what you can do in your own field, it opens up opportunities. We can add value to other people’s environments.”
Meremere will play at the War Memorial Theatre on October 12 and 13. Get your tickets here: https://tetairawhitiartsfestival.nz/events/meremere
Rodney Bell will also be doing a movement workshop at the YMCA on October 13.