Dancer Rodney Bell steps into the Canvas Confession Box
You became a dancer after you were paralysed in a motorcycle accident. Were you ever angry about the accident?
I got over that pretty quickly. I feel we create our own environment. I was brought up around a marae and I think I had a different outlook to a lot of people. I have climbed great heights with this disability and I just think I do things differently. I dance to express myself and through that expression I feel it enhances other people's lives, especially those with disabilities. But it also brings awareness to disabled communities that it's not about the disability, it's about the person. I have never really been sad that I have a disability. What I feel sad about is what goes on for other disabled people and the limited opportunities they have because of the different economic systems - like if you are born with a disability, it is much harder to access funding than if you have an accident. With ACC it's hard but the funding pours a bit better. You are able to obtain the latest technology when it comes to mobility devices.
You danced professionally, to great acclaim, in California.
I relocated to San Francisco to dance for Axis Dance Company in 2007. I went there for a summer intensive [course] but little did I know it was an audition. I just went there with a mate to see what it was all about and there were 50 dancers from all over the world. I was asked to come back. My father died and I came home and then went back there. I had great pride representing myself and Aotearoa, as a Māori and as a disabled artist. I felt that I was carrying great responsibility but I felt proud about that.
You were homeless in San Francisco for three years. How did that impact your self-esteem?
I was home-full, I call it home-full. Home is where your heart is. On the street I saw the greed around me, what people do to sustain their lifestyles. San Francisco is a place of such extremes. If you've got a lot of money, you have more power and you make choices and have control over what happens around you. I met a lot of people on the street who were mentally ill and veterans from the Vietnam War. It's shocking, it's masked. Sure there were times of struggle but I felt proud of being from Aotearoa, a different culture, because I feel we look past the cover of the book, to the person. I did a lot of advocating for homeless organisations over there, and I was part of a documentary, which is how I was able to come home.
How did you manage to keep dancing professionally while homeless?
I just kept in touch with my networks. I sort of masked the fact that I was on the street. I wanted to do it on my own. I didn't want to have those difficult conversations with people who were ignorant, who thought everyone on the street was sick or addicted to drugs.
Did you feel particularly vulnerable being in a wheelchair on the street?
Oh yeah, I had guns pointed at my head. I had a few run-ins with people when I had to look after myself.
What was it like to be home again?
Relief. The colours changed for me. Once I was back in my tūrangawaewae I thought, we live in a place of privilege here culturally. I felt honoured to be welcomed back to my marae by my people, the people I belong with.
When has greed led you astray?
When I lived in California I did a workshop and met a lady called Pamela Markham, in her 80s. She was a member of the acting guild. I started doing gardening for her and making money on the side. She introduced me to her agent, who asked me to do some modelling work. I was selected to model for a mining company, in an old basketball gym. I thought that sounded like a great opportunity and I was a little bit ignorant about the process. They were justifying the benefits of mining metal from the earth - they photographed a surgeon with his metal surgical tools and me with my metal wheelchair. I was supporting a company that was basically destroying the Earth. It brought awareness to me with my disability and my carbon footprint. I have been through so many wheelchairs in my lifetime. They are not made to last. - Eleanor Black
Rodney Bell performs his autobiographical dance Meremere at Te Tairāwhiti Arts Festival today and tomorrow (tetairawhitiartsfestival.nz) and at the Hawke's Bay Arts Festival on Wednesday, October 16 (hbaf.co.nz)