Meremere - Rodney Bell & Movement of the Human
14 October 2016, Q Theatre, Auckland
TEMPO Dance Festival
Reviewed by Jenny Stevenson
Central to the multi-disciplinary work Meremere is the voice of dancer Rodney Bell – manifested both in a literal and figurative sense. Throughout the work Bell relates his personal stories through dance and the spoken word, with the dance segments being supplementary to the dialogue, or acting as an exposition of Bell’s awakened sense of self. As a wheelchair dancer, Bell uses his expressive upper body with particular emphasis on the arms and hands when creating the movement which is underscored through the freewheeling momentum and spatial patterning of the chair being manipulated in differing directions.
The work marks Bell’s return to Aotearoa after many years spent performing and living in San Francisco and focuses on the survival mode he employed during time spent as a homeless person on the streets. He uses the imagery of bird feathers to express his yearning for freedom and his desire to return to his homeland. The carving of a meremere when he finally made it back home became a conduit for the memories to resurface.
Bell’s performance is moving, honest and disingenuous. He is a genuine kiwi raconteur using self-deprecating humour to smooth out the edges of what is in fact a quite harrowing story. His ability to accept the deal that life has dealt him without rancour is obviously his greatest strength. He likens his own sense of loss to the wood shavings that were shed as he began carving the meremere, so that it became his mission to gather them up and return them to their natural surroundings. At the conclusion of the work he throws a handful of shavings onto the floor in a gesture that resonates far beyond the spoken word. His use of props throughout the work vests the objects with symbolism as the audience becomes privy to their inherent meaning to Bell.
A team of artists convened by Director/Producer Malia Johnston under the aegis of MOTH (Movement of the Human), has worked with Bell to realise his vision in an innovative manner. John Verryt has created a blank canvas in his triangulated white set which appears to be modelled on the shape of te wharenui with the tekoteko at the apex of the triangle. It enables both projections and shadow theatre to come into play. Rowan Pierce has conjured up evocative images in his AV design that set the scene for each short vignette – providing additional potent commentary such as the supine Statue of Liberty - rather than mere illustration. Ruby Reihana-Wilson’s highly innovative lighting design sees the light literally travel around the set - mirroring the trajectory of the wheelchair.
Musician Eden Mulholland is an outstanding onstage presence throughout, working with a close connection to Bell that enables an effective exchange of energy between the two. The music reverberates to fill the small space of Loft Theatre so that the audience is immersed in the sound. A strong graphic design of the programme by Ian Hammond underscores the focus on self and also of collaboration in the work, by inverting the “me” of “meremere” to become “we”. Dancer Sean MacDonald steps out of the audience to dance a short but powerful duet with Bell that magnifies Bell’s ability to interact with others to create moments of great beauty.
It is to be hoped that Bell is able to realise his ambition to tour Meremere next year as it is an intrinsically New Zealand story of great courage and achievement that deserves a wider viewing than is possible under the umbrella of Tempo Dance Festival.