Dancer Rodney Bell spent three years homeless in San Francisco before raising enough money to return home. His solo show Meremere, now touring the country, reflects on his past.

1 Why is a feather the central motif for your new solo show Meremere?

When I was homeless in San Francisco I spent a lot of time at Pier 41 looking out across the Pacific Ocean towards home. It was a place of healing and sanity for me. As Maori we look to deities like Tangaroa for sustenance and empowerment. I befriended a bird with one leg - Moana I named her. I started collecting feathers and sticking them in my shoes. I liked the idea that I might take flight too. I envied the birds because they had the choice to be there. They'd fall down through the fog and appear for the day. It was like they'd come from heaven.

2 How did you come to be homeless in San Francisco?

After five years as a member of AXIS integrated dance company in California, I was released in 2012. I wasn't in a position to buy a flight home. My family would have raised the money if I'd asked but I was proud and I didn't want to lean on anyone. I just felt it was part and parcel of my journey in life.


3 What was your first night on the streets like?

I was up all night, pushing up and down the streets, wanting a place to rest but fearing I'd get mugged. I started out with five bags but quickly found I couldn't carry them all. By morning I had one. I followed a flock of homeless people who slept in the park during the day. I became a night roller for a while because it felt safer being awake at night. I kept to myself. A lot of the homeless there have been that way for a while and are tame to the street, it's a lifestyle for them. A lot were doing drugs and I didn't want to get involved in that scene.

4 Were you able to access any services like night shelters or free food?

I went to the 'free eats' whenever I needed. The night shelters were hard to get into. You'd line up to go in a lottery and then wait to see if your number came up. You weren't allowed to lie on the waiting room floor, it was basically a place to sit and rest. You'd have to be careful how you interacted with people, a lot were tired and aggressive.

5 Were you ever subjected to aggression or attack?

Yeah, quite often but I'd handle myself well. I'd just try to mind my own business and be a nice person. Fortunately I was able to raise enough money through busking to sustain my medical insurance. I developed this act called 'Para-Dice' which usually attracted kids and families. They'd roll a dice and I'd do one of three tricks for them; 'Kiwi Thunder' where I'd drop to the ground and catch myself; 'Taniwha Whips Its Tale' where I'd drop back on one arm and do a bit of a flick; and 'Awa Dive' where I'd dive forward onto two hands.

6 How did you cope with the cold?

You draw on superhuman powers when you're in survival mode. On the coldest nights I'd wrap clothes around my head. I'd be able to sleep through a lot of it because I was super tired. Negotiating the streets is a marathon. You're always moving, trying to find essentials like running water. You can't trust the public fountains in San Francisco because there's a lot of staph infections. I felt pretty lucky because mentally I felt alright. Sure, I was in a dire straights situation but I always had Aotearoa to fall back on.

Meremere by Rodney Bell.
Meremere by Rodney Bell.

7 How did you get home to New Zealand?

I volunteered for an organisation called Project Homeless Connect. They'd run outreach events - a one stop shop where homeless people could go for the day to get things like haircuts, dental and vision checks, free clothing. I helped on the Whirlwind Wheelchairs stand, fixing mobility apparatuses. San Francisco has a bunch of homeless people in wheelchairs, mainly war veterans. I saw a stand called Hand Up. They create a website profile expressing your situation where people can donate knowing the money will go towards a particular goal. I set out to fundraise for a laptop to help me get work and communicate and I got it pretty quickly. Hand Up asked me to appear in a documentary promoting their work and through them I accumulated enough funds to fly back home in May last year. It was good timing because I wasn't well.

8 What went wrong with your health?

I'd had a bladder operation which failed. I'm trying to get reconstruction surgery here but it hasn't happened yet. I have a tube going through my belly button so I have to be careful not to knock it.

9 How long have you been in a wheelchair?

I had a motorbike accident when I was 20. I was intoxicated, lost control and crashed. Luckily no one else was hurt. I'm paralysed from my chest down and also damaged my shoulder and upper arm. My memories from that time are a blur because I had a head injury as well. I regained consciousness in the spinal unit and spent a year there trying to wrap my head around this new vessel that was my body. It took a while. The general emotion was melancholy. I'd made some bad choices and the consequence was my own demise. I tried to put my empathy into others who were feeling sad.

10 Was it hard to work out what career options you had in a wheelchair?

Yeah, I couldn't do butchery any more. I tried a business and computing course but it wasn't for me. Wheelchair basketball really built my strength. I had a stint with the New Zealand team and we flew overseas a few times. Then I met Catherine Chappell who had the idea of setting up a physically integrated dance company. I was a founding member of Touch Compass. In fact an old Touch Compass colleague, Malia Johnston, has choreographed my new show.

11 What's the concept behind Meremere?

It's an autobiographical show. When I got home to Te Kuiti, I began carving a meremere from a piece of black maire, one of the world's hardest woods. During that process memories would storm through my head - it was quite meditative. Malia's helped bring some of my stories to life through dance.

12 What do you think of the homelessness situation in New Zealand?

We need to look at homelessness holistically. Mental health's part of it. It's not one solution fits all. Listening with respect and open mindedness is important. The catalyst for people to end up on the street could've been quite traumatic or catastrophic for them. When you haven't got support systems in place it's a hard place to climb back from. You've got to dig deep and something's got to trigger that energy in you. New Zealand could emulate schemes that are working in other countries. Hand Up is a good one because people can donate knowing what their money's going to be used for.

Meremere is on tour across the country, including the Gisborne premiere as part of Tairawhiti Arts Arts Festival -