Rodney Bell: dancing his memories
19 September 2016
By Daniela Pavez
This story is about dreams and a long journey of self-discovery. It’s the story of a wheelchair user dancing memories from his life while challenging both his own body and his audience’s perceptions.
He is also a finalist in the Artistic Achievement category of the Attitude Awards 2016, to be announced on 29 November.
Aged 45, Rodney is paralysed from his chest down as a result of a motorcycle accident in 1991. He knows he hurt not only himself but also his family and friends. That’s a wound that remains with him.
But Rodney also believes the accident brought about changes that led him to his destiny as a dancer.
After rehabilitation, he joined the New Zealand wheelchair basketball team. Always a physically active man, Rodney says he was curious to redefine movement in his life.
Before the accident, he performed kapa haka. But it wasn’t until 1995, when he joined Touch Compass, New Zealand’s first mixed-ability dance company led by Catherine Chappell, when dance came back to his life.
After his father passed away in 2004, Rodney’s grief grew strong. He says his spirit was uneasy and confused, and he decided to move overseas.
“I needed a change in my life to keep me in tune. And I knew I could dance, so I went to the United States because I had already had a good offer,” he says.
In 2007, he moved to California and joined AXIS Dance Company where he remained principal dancer for more than five years.
He was nominated for numerous awards and won an Isadora Duncan Dance Award in 2008 for an ensemble performance with Sonsherée Giles titled To Color Me Different, choreographed by Alex Ketley.
Ambassador of Māori culture
“I got a lot of recognition over there,” he says. “I always felt I was building a bridge. From a cultural perspective, it was great for people to experience my culture. I kind of felt like an ambassador of Māori culture.”
Following his dreams wasn’t always easy. “It was hard to be far away from home, from my family, my friends and Aotearoa. My performances reflected that nostalgia while I was there.”
He was also homeless in San Francisco for three years after losing his job.
Now back in New Zealand, Rodney’s journey has become the subject of Meremere, an hour-long autobiographical performance premiering at the Tempo Dance Festival in Auckland from 14 to 16 October.
Rodney thinks he is a good storyteller and through a continuous exploration of movement, he has developed a unique performing style.
“Speaking professionally, I think I can bring more awareness of inclusion and integration to the arts and dance because I have a disability,” he explains.
"At peace with the elements"
Māori cultural elements come naturally into Rodney’s performance and he says its values are integral to his work. “I like to bring my Māori culture to movement because from a Māori perspective, we see the things around us rather than in us. So I’m always paying my respects to the place and to other people, and being at peace with the elements.”
Rodney expects Meremere will remove the clouds of homelessness and disabilities that hang over Māori culture.
“I hope to be someone who helps to push these clouds aside because I feel that moving into the future is about whaka kotahitanga – one voice. For all of us to have one voice we need to be able to connect with each other and see those things we don’t always want to see.”
He thinks the audience will enjoy the performance. “It’s a good work. There is a strong and diverse team of artists and designers behind it. We worked together to create this piece, blending movement, music, theatre and design.”
All performances of Meremere are accessible, with sign language interpretation on both nights and a touch tour and audio description on 16 October.
Rodney is planning a national tour next year, along with some overseas presentations.
He thinks there is a strong dance scene in New Zealand and wants to make the most of his experience to support and encourage others. “After being away for such a long time, I feel I owe a debt to New Zealand. I want to use my knowledge with our local disabled community, and support people to feel empowered. But I also want to learn from other people’s experiences.”
Meremere is on in Q Theatre at 6.30pm 14 and 16 October. Tickets are $18 to $28 and you can book at Q Loft theatre. For audio described bookings, email Nicola Owen no later than 7 October to reserve a place. Audio described bookings include a talk and touch tour with performer Rodney Bell, beginning at 5:40pm at Q theatre.
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