I’m never sure when I’m reviewing a piece how much to find out about it in advance. My approach in general is to let the performers have first dibs on telling me the story and to read as little as possible.
So when I set out to see Meremere, I knew only what the blurb on the website said: which was that “Meremere brings to you the incredible journey and story of Rodney Bell (Ngati Maniapoto) from an international career in integrated dance, through years of homelessness in America, to returning home to Te Kuiti Aotearoa”
I’m usually a little leery of superlatives like “incredible”, but this ‘multi-media performance memoir’ was mesmerising.
Staged in Circa One, the audience took their seats in a dry ice haze that evoked both the fog of San Francisco, and the King Country mists of artist Rodney Bell’s hometown (Te Kuiti). The set was designed with white walls and floor in a diamond shape , with a carving (I think a tekoteko) on the floor at its apex. This became the canvas for a stunning play with light, and video, evoking the realities of houses and homelessness, and myriad places, literal and metaphysical.
The evening began with a karakia, mihi whakatau, and waiata, bringing the audience together in the space (we were later referred to by the memoirist as his “whanau for the night”). Sometimes it can feel like mihi in events are run through as a formality, and at such pace that they’re meant to be said for form’s sake rather than understood and communicated. That wasn’t the case here. The speaker’s diction was crisp, and he was speaking to an audience who were listening and who understood. My own reo is limited and I was surprised that I followed so much – due I suspect to a passive increase in understanding coming from the rise of everyday reo around me (in public sector Wellington and in the media).
After a sunny crisp mid-winter’s day, coming off the joy of being a New Zealander in a week of tragedy overseas and hope at home (the PM had her baby girl the previous day) it felt absolutely right that public story-telling and art should begin like this.
Structurally the piece, coming in at around an hour, worked brilliantly. It blended story-telling, soliloquy, music, dance, duet, video, humour, and clever interweaving of video, props and live performance.
The story telling was non-linear, and the more powerful for it, allowing Rodney’s stories and videos of award-winning dance performances to take their place amidst his life at home, and time on the streets of San Francisco. A friend afterwards said each segment left her wanting more.
The staging and extremely clever choreography of music, light, dancer/s chair and props, must have been hugely complex, and endlessly rehearsed, but overall the piece maintained a gentle stripped-back honesty.
Different people will have taken different things from the performance (it was certainly met with universal acclaim from the opening night audience). As a child of the King Country, and having spent time a few months back walking the Mission area in San Francisco with people working with the homeless, it had a very specific resonance for me: I’d seen those streets, and heard stories from the outside, but didn’t truly feel the impact until Rodney shared his own experience, and linked it to Te Ao Māori and his wider artistic life.
Reflecting now, it has brought home to me the value and power of first-person narratives: people telling their own stories, with their contexts, in the way that they choose.
The show includes some deliberately random elements, Rodney threw light-up dice to determine which trick from his busking days he performed (we got lucky and saw an interpretation of the Jackson moonwalk. Very cool).
An audience member was invited to throw the dice, which the story of Rodney (or Dice, his name on the streets) and one of his nights in a homeless shelter, where those lucky enough to get a chair had to sit on it, upright and careful: a taste of Rodney’s wheelchair life. Having heard that story, I remarked to my friend that it felt a bit weird joining the standing ovation at the end, as a “sitting-up straight” ovation felt more true to the work. She had felt the same.
Overall, I found Rodney’s memoir affecting and powerful, gentle and strong, and simultaneously heart-rending and joyous. He and his collaborating artists (dance duet, music, lighting, dramaturgy, matauranga Māori and tikanga) have created a work of rare grace.
You can see it in Wellington for only a few performances, at the end of a North Island Tour. Get a ticket if you can.
Movement of the Human presents Meremere: a multi-media performance memoir by Rodney Bell.
Collaborating Artists include Rowan Pierce (Audio Visual), Tui Matir Ranapiri-Ransfield (Tikanga, Te Reo, Matauranga Maori Dramaturg), Emma Willis (Dramaturgy) John Verryl (Set Design), Ruby Reihana-Wilson (Lighting), Ian Hammond (Graphic Design).
Circa Theatre Wellington until Saturday 30 June (Sundays 4pm, Tues, Wed, Thurs 6.30, Fri, Sat 8pm
Under 25 $25.00
Standbys are available for students and theatre industry on the day.