Critically acclaimed dancer and performer Rodney Bell has choreographed Meremere, which merges spoken word, music, dance and multimedia design, to tell his personal journey. Meremere will have its Gisborne premiere at the inaugural Tairāwhiti Arts Festival in October 2019. Bell tells his story of growing up in Te Kūiti and his journey within the dance world.
Words Rodney Bell
I was born in the middle of an iwi, Ngāti Maniapoto, in a small town, Te Kūiti, in the Te Rohe Potae (King Country). My matua (parents) were amazing, and I had a humble upbringing alongside my beautiful younger sister and amazing two brothers. We grew up around our marae, Te Tokanganui-a-noho. With Te Kūiti being a small town and both Mum and Dad coming from big families, I was related to everyone. I didn’t get a chance to know either of my Koro (Papa’s) but I had a very tight bond with both my Kuia (Nana’s). My dad was a superhuman and I found it unbelievable the strength that dad had. Sadly, at a young age, my dad joined my kuia and koro and they are all now angels who I draw strength from, especially in performance.
I sought a lot of guidance from all of them through my years of schooling in Te Kūiti. At 15, I ventured to Tāmaki Makaurau (Auckland) to pursue a career as a butcher. In 1991, towards the end of my butchery apprenticeship, I acquired my disability as a result of a motorcycle accident. Having no feeling and control from the chest down I spent a long while rehabilitating in the Auckland Spinal Unit. A few years on, and as I was establishing a strong sense of independence, dance found me.
Dance was introduced to me in 1994 by Catherine Chappell (former artistic director of Touch Compass Dance Trust). It didn’t take me long to adapt to the art form of contemporary dance. I remember how I enjoyed the freedom of being able to express myself through movement; drawing from lived experiences and my body telling stories rather than words.
I’ve had an incredible dance career and, all thanks to Catherine, my beginning was as a foundation dancer with Touch Compass Dance Trust in the ’90s. In 2005, I attended a Dance Summer Intensive in Seattle, Turtle Island (also known as the USA) with Axis Dance Company, a renowned mixed ability dance company based in Oakland. The workshop was actually an audition, and Axis Dance Company offered me a position. So, in 2007, just after my dad passed away, I relocated to Turtle Island to join Axis. I also danced with many other amazing dance companies while living on Turtle Island. In 2012, after a contract finished unexpectedly early, I experienced homelessness on the streets of San Francisco for three years. All the while, I kept dancing when I could and finally, in 2015, I returned to Aotearoa.
Being back in Te Kūiti after a long time away, I realised I needed to find new ways to be home again. I received a call from Malia Johnston, the artistic genius at Movement of the Human (MOTH) and also an old dance friend. We spoke about our lives as we hadn’t seen or heard from each other for a long time. We had always talked about creating a dance work together and after hearing my stories, Malia decided that this is what the dance was going to be about: “Your Life”.
I originally thought our work would include other dancers. As we workshopped the piece, I had 50 visitors come in separately and at different times to explore movement, ideas and share their artistic voice. After all this exploration, we decided Meremere would be a solo work but created in collaboration with the multidisciplinary artists of MOTH, Malia Johnston (directive genius), John Verryt-Set (designer), Tūī Ranipiri Ransfield-Mātauranga (Maori kaitiaki), Emma Willis (dramaturg), Ruby Reihana Wilson (lighting designer), Rowan Pierce (AV designer / operator) and Eden Mulholland (musician/composer). Together we developed ‘Meremere’. This felt right for me, as I was ready to share my story.
It’s been an honour to share Meremere with Aotearoa, and especially with communities that may not get much access to the arts. I’m personally excited to be performing at the War Memorial Theatre in Gisborne first and foremost to share Meremere at its best with the local community and, secondly, may the ripples from Meremere offer hope and empowerment where needed in the audience’s lives.
Ehara taku toa, he takitahi, he toa takitini. My success should not be bestowed onto me alone, as it was not individual success but success of a collective.
War Memorial Theatre
12-13 October 2019