Dancing in air with Rodney Bell
Suspended high above the ground, Rodney Bell is dancing in air.
The sky and ocean have converged into a spectacular backdrop of blue as Bell performs with New Zealand aerialist Brydie Colquohoun at the launch of Festival 2018.
It’s a mesmerising dance, not just because of the gravity-defying manoeuvres the artists are performing, but because of the way their bodies and Bell’s instrument - his wheelchair - move in harmony.
The scene couldn’t be more fitting for Bell, an award-winning dancer whose work is inspired by the intertwining relationships of people, places, cultures, art forms and his wheelchair.
He will be one of 1,400 artists performing at Festival 2018.
“I’m always in a duet, it’s not just about me,” Bell tells GC2018.com.
“I have this vessel under me that I’m negotiating with all the time.
“There’s places I want to go but the chair can’t, then there’s places the chair can get to, then we’ve got society that offers all these limitations too.
“It’s give and give.”
Bell had to adjust to life with a wheelchair after being injured in a motorcycle accident in 1991.
What could easily be seen as an ending signalled the beginning of an artistic endeavour that would take him around the world.
“I had to find new ways of moving and just navigating myself with a chair,” Bell says.
“The first collision was like a brick wall. We had to find new ways of being and stuff like that. Then as time went on, it got better.
I found sports and then through sports I found dance. Or dance found me, I should say.”
Three years after the accident, Bell was dancing professionally. He moved to the United States in 2007, performing in a range of ensembles and appearing on America’s So You Think You Can Dance.
Bell was struck by more adversity when his contract ended in 2012 and he suddenly became homeless in San Francisco.
The world that once revolved around dance and creativity was now about survival.
But despite being thousands of kilometres away from home, Bell’s connection to New Zealand was a guiding light throughout three hard years of living on the streets.
“At the end of the day I knew I was going to go home,” he says.
“Growing up around strong families, ties and bonds, I always know that I’m from Te Kuiti and I had a beautiful place to return to.
“[At the time] I was in survival mode. I had to think in the moment. It’s all about food and shelter, where I’m going to eat, where I’m going to sleep.
“I sort of looked at it like a 24-hour job and sometimes I had to sleep in some awkward situations so you never really sleep, you’re just sort of resting.
“Then you have the elements to deal with, then you’ve got other people. It’s like this ongoing relationship with everything.”
When Bell returned to New Zealand in 2015, he collaborated with acclaimed director and choreographer Malia Johnson on a solo performance, Meremere, based on his experiences overseas.
Johnson founded New Zealand multidisciplinary company, Movement of the Human and at Festival 2018 she will direct integrated performance Hurihuri, starring Bell.
The Maori word for ‘spin’, Hurihuri will feature skateboarders, kapa haka and poi dancers, live music and traditional Maori instruments.
“With the work that we do it’s about pushing the boundaries of perceptions and really focusing on creativity and strengths of individuals,” Johnson says.
“It’s always about not being stuck in this box of what dance is or is or what live music is or the aerial performance, it’s totally about exploring your territory with the body.
“Movement of the Human is looking at movement as design and as a way to express rather than just dance.
“And in terms of integration, we’re just interested in the disability to be made aware of but to sort of not be the focus.
It’s not a limit, it becomes a creative potential.”
Bell has been dancing for more than 24 years and despite the obstacles he’s faced, he’s more in love with it than ever.
The way he describes his art is instilled with a sincere sense of gratitude.
“It’s ongoing, my love [with dance],” he says.
“I think dance comes with strong foundations, you know you’ve got collaborations.
“Also physically, mentally it takes strong focus.
“I love dance because it gives me a different perspective about how people move and especially myself. Instead of being stuck in this narrow little thing of running, walking, sitting down and standing up I have all these other possibilities going on too.
“It’s made the relationship between me and my wheelchair even stronger.”
Hurihuri will debut at Festival 2018 on the Roundabout Stage in Broadbeach and performances will run from Thursday 12 to Sunday 14 April. It is a free event.
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