(Image: Ralph Brown/additional design: Tina Tiller)
(Image: Ralph Brown/additional design: Tina Tiller)

PartnersAugust 10, 2023

Rodney Bell puts his energy in the right places

(Image: Ralph Brown/additional design: Tina Tiller)
(Image: Ralph Brown/additional design: Tina Tiller)

For the latest instalment of our Art Work series, dancer Rodney Bell talks about all the work that goes on behind the scenes of his art. 

Rodney Bell (Ngāti Maniapoto) is an internationally renowned dancer who has been working professionally since 1994. He is a founding member of Touch Compass, where he currently sits on the artistic director board. He has been a principal dancer for AXIS Dance Company, has won an Isadora Duncan Dance Award, and has taught dance across the world. His work Meremere, created with Movement of the Human, has toured consistently for almost a decade and will tour across the United Kingdom this year.

(Photography: Ralph Brown)

An average work week

First and foremost for me is the maintenance of my physicality. I sit in a routine of managing my disability and I have all of these priorities in place that no matter what I do throughout the week, these things have to be set in stone. My disability is one of my passions and that has all of these priorities that I need in place. That’s my main objective for the week – to plan around this vessel of mine, this body of mine, and that planning can be spontaneous week to week. 

On top of that, there’s all this cloaking for me to be able to pursue my passion. Cloaking for me is when people bestow good things around you. It’s meaningful in a way that’s going to impact your creative journey with all good things. 

Part of this cloaking is what I call “crip time”. Crip time is working in collaboration with people who are deep listeners and understand what crip time means for an artist with a disability. I might take a bit longer. I might simultaneously have other associated illnesses going on that can pop up spontaneously, and all these other associated injuries or associated energies that I need to pay respect to first and foremost. 

It’s all about managing what this body can do, keeping limber. I’ve been in a wheelchair now for 32 years just this month and without dance I don’t know where I would be. It’s kept me limber, it’s kept me dancing, I’m moving, I’m pushing my physicality.

Balancing it all

As an artist, I’m in many pockets of the creative world. 

In relation to arts, I’m on the artistic direction panel with Touch Compass and that’s ongoing day to day – it involves emails, collaboration, communication and also deep listening as well! I’m an independent artist who works with different companies, I’m working with Chloe Loftus and Movement of the Human with Malia (Johnston). With Meremere, we’ve created this beautiful wairua that’s got its own momentum. I tour UK next month with The Year Between Us, Wales, London, Hull and Spain, which is very exciting and will be new for me.

(Photography: Ralph Brown)

I also sit on a leadership group with Enabling Good Lives, which is a new leadership group moving through Aotearoa working around how disabled people are distributed funds and how disabled people can manage their funds for them to live a good life. The government has honoured that now so what it’s going to do is set an equitable, linear, more respectful relationship to people with a disability who are on ACC, but also disabled people who are born with a disability.

“Acquired” means someone who has an injury through their life like myself, and “congenital” means people who are born like that and at this moment in time there’s no equity between how the two are supported. Disabled people [with a congenital disability] on WINZ have to go into a kind of lottery, whereas I can go to ACC and say “hey, I need a stick to pick my nose, can you make me a stick?” That’s shifting now, the government will be able to go “Here, disabled whānau! Here’s a bunch of money, you do what you need to do with it to live a good life, hire whoever you want to look after you and we have someone you can lean on to help you manage that.” That’s really exciting for me.

The surprises of creativity

I never thought I would be touring the UK this year! During your week you’re plodding along and wondering why you’re doing this. In the back of your mind you’re thinking “Where am I going?” and then bam! The surprises, the oomphs that pop up. 

They’ve always come that way too, someone familiar will ring up and go “Guess what? You’re touring New Zealand,” and I go “Are you kidding me?” Then Chloe rings me up and goes “Guess what? We’re touring the UK.” That’s just another oomph to be alive. 

But also another oomph, because I’m in a little town of Te Kuiti, another highlight for me at home is my mum. I live behind my mum so every little surprise I give her. When I tell her “I’m going to the UK,” she jumps straight to the negatives: “When you going there?” But you give it a week and she comes back and nods her head and says, “That’s actually quite a good thing.” 

(Photography: Ralph Brown)

Why I do what I do

Creating makes me happy. Moving. Reacting and supporting. They’re the highlights of my week because I used to do this for me, selfishly. I went into the creative dance world wanting to be pushed and lent differently into the wind. Once I gained my balance in that wind I realised a lot of other people want to experience this. I feel like the brilliance of being in this creative space is that I am able to draw on my ancestors and bring them present in whatever I do. 

Part of why I do what I do is the sacrifice my ancestors went through for me to share the air with you right now in this creative space. That’s huge and it gets forgotten in this creative space because we get put off by a car cutting us off, the weather, there’s always something we want to dampen our blessings with but I always draw upon that. During the week I have the opportunity to draw upon that, which is a blessing. 

With dance as a creative, your mind and body have to be in tune to be present. It’s made me present, introduced me to cultures around the world. The best way to meet a community is through the arts – it’s political which is very important to me as a disabled person – to be able to have that voice without words where people are able to witness a disabled Māori man pursue something that’s very important not only within our culture, but within my life.

I feel very lucky and very blessed.

The hardest parts 

There’s two things that are hard for me. 

One is digging deep to look after my body. Sometimes it gets tiring because I get spasms at night. When my body is going against me and not with me, I understand that we’re just not in tune: something’s wrong. Maybe it’s my diet, maybe I’m getting sleepy, that’s one thing that’s like “Oh, here we go.”

(Photography: Ralph Brown)

The other thing is waiting for someone to get it. Waiting patiently for those people or organisations to get us has been an ongoing thing for me, and what that has taught me is patience. Patience and perseverance and what can you say without the words. Keep moving forward, keep dancing and then maybe what you pursue in that space, your silence might influence their silence when they go home and they might see things a bit differently. 

What would make it easier to be an artist

I’m in a small town! My family don’t really acknowledge my art very much, only if I say something, because it’s an agricultural town. Beef works, sheep works, gangs. There’s a loneliness there so I feel if I was based in Tāmaki it would be easier, but then I would be torn from the family. 

The other thing obviously is funding. I feel like I’m supported and acknowledged and respected but funding would always make it easier to access spaces.

Where do you want to put your energy, though? I could easily find a job that sits in an office, and in the long run sure, that might pay and buy you material things but it will never feed my soul in the way that creativity does. 

(Photography: Ralph Brown)

The moments that make it worth it

The first moment was Meremere – my life story. Malia (Johnston) believing in me and creating this life story that I feel part of now, but it’s mine, and the world acknowledging it and being able to shift something bigger than myself and my mouth and my presence can do.

The other moment was when I was in the USA and I was dancing for Axis Dance Company. We toured 32 states and we used to go to universities to teach mixed ability classes that used to come from the communities with the dance students there. There was this moment that this disabled dance student came in and he looked at me and we were moving around and dancing and he said to me: “I wanna be like you.” 

He was this intelligent young man, and he said, “I wanna be like you. I want to have culture and I want to be able to dance and I want to tour the world.”

I realised that I gotta never ever doubt the blessings that we have being from Aotearoa. There might be many conversations that people are having in the disabled community that will never have the opportunity to be on these stages. But for them to dream and have someone they can dream about, to have that… that’s why I do what I do.

(Photography: Ralph Brown)

– As told to Sam Brooks

Keep going!