Meremere | Rodney Bell Ngāti Maniapoto 

Image by Joseph Mayers

Many people’s only experience with artists is when they view their work as audience members, where much of the in-between of the artist’s life is hidden or unsaid. After his contract ended with a prominent dance company, Rodney Bell Ngāti Maniapoto stepped off the stage into homelessness. Now back home in Aotearoa (New Zealand), he reflects on those contrasting experiences in a mix of dance and storytelling.

In 2007, Bell joined the AXIS Dance Company under which he received the Isadora Duncan Dance Award for his duet performance with Sonsherée Giles To Color Me Different. But after his contract ended with the company, he spent a period of time homeless in San Fransisco. In Meremere, Bell tells a selection of anecdotes about his time in San Fransisco including the wheelchair tricks he would busk with to make money, the people he met while looking for housing, and a story selected by an audience member about the time he escaped a fire in his public housing block. These stories were told by Bell with good humour, held up against other, ostensibly more “prestigious” experiences, as equal in their impact on his life and dance practice. Alongside one such memory of a dangerous malfunction during a dance performance that had Bell hanging metres above the stage, the overarching theme of Bell’s stories was one of resilience and perseverance, a kind of bittersweet glimpse into the psyche and circumstances of an artist.

Created in collaboration with MOVEMENT OF THE HUMAN (MOTH) and directed by founder Malia Johnston, Meremere was structured as a smorgasbord of visual elements and abstract expression that surrounded Bell’s core narrative while articulating an artistic approach to autobiography. The set design by John Verryt reinterpreted the ubiquitous image of the blank white page by using large panels of ripped, crinkled paper as screens along the back of the stage with smaller scraps of paper gathered at the base. The visual effect was of limestone caves or weathered plaster crumbling to the ground upon which a spectacular light display by AV designer Rowan Pierce brought together old and modern as well as digital and physical in the choreography between Bell and the video elements. At times it seemed Bell was directing the light’s movement across the stage while, at others, he engaged in choreography and conversation with shadowed dancers and the voice of his nan. All of these visual elements, integrated with the aural of Bell’s narration and live music by Eden Mulholland created a holistic and immersive storytelling experience that translated not only Bell’s autobiography to stage, but also a particular mode of thinking and interpreting the world through art and performance.

Unsurprisingly, the strongest sections of Meremere were those in which Bell demonstrated his dance skills. Early in the production he performed a duet with an empty wheelchair in a retro recollection of 1920s cabaret chair dancing. This duet foreshadowed a later duet with guest Issy Estrella featuring a sequence from his award-winning performance To Color Me Different. Watching Bell dance alongside another, or an imagined other, was particularly effective for illustrating a reciprocal and mutual relationship between Bell and his partner that mirrored the relationship between the audience and his stories. But the most evocative scenes were Bell’s solo sequences which were often performed in a rough, hip-hop style that balanced sharp, quick movement with pauses and freezes to play with time and pacing. Bell incorporated props like Rākau sticks and a blank notebook that further integrated his dancing into the visual and aural elements of the production design. At one point, Bell used a microphone and his body to create an organic soundscape as though literally externalising his body’s interior through sound and rhythm. The choreography was often inventive and unexpected with a focus on operating as part of a larger production with other visuals and musical elements to collaborate with.

As an autobiographical work, Meremere impressively articulated both Bell’s journey from San Fransisco back to Aotearoa (New Zealand) but also the artistic lens through which he interpreted and translated his life onto the stage as a fully embodied performance piece.

Meremere ran at the Sydney Opera House Studio from August 25th – 27th

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