3 Apr 2024

Rodney Bell: 'Silence for me is a meaningful piece of rejuvenation'

From Afternoons, 2:30 pm on 3 April 2024

Award-winning dancer and choreographer Rodney Bell (Ngāti Maniapoto) chats to Jesse Mulligan about some of his favourite things, including a book about silence, an '80s muscle magazine and a Bryan Adams banger.

New Zealand choreographer and dancer Rodney Bell

New Zealand choreographer and dancer Rodney Bell Photo: New Zealand Dance Company

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Rodney Bell performs in the NZ Dance Company show WHENUA  at Auckland's Q Theatre on 11 & 12 April.

Discovering dance as a paraplegic:

A motorbike accident in 1991 left Bell with "no feeling or control" from his chest down and since then he has used a manual wheelchair for mobility.

Catherine Chappell - now director of the Touch Compass dance company - was the person who first brought creative movement into his life.

"I used to play wheelchair basketball from New Zealand and I noticed the children on the sidelines in the wheelchairs, nothing much was going on for them."

After Bell created a junior wheelchair basketball team, Catherine came in to present dance to the kids and did a demonstration on Bell.

"The next minute she planted the seed of dance in my soul, I'm so honoured."

Rodney Bell rehearses his autobiographical performance work Meremere

Rodney Bell rehearses his autobiographical performance work Meremere Photo: Fiona Goodall / The Guardian


His new show 'Imprint' with The New Zealand Dance Company:

'Imprint 'is co-choreographed with Malia Johnson, whom Bell met in the 1990s and is performed as part of WHENUA.

"Fierce, beautiful and rhythmical" is how he describes the performance.

"Everybody brings their own lived experience to the dance. It's about the imprint and the impact we have on the world or what the world has upon us through relationships, and also just through our everyday lives, especially to our earth, our whenua.

"These dancers are just so pure and they have accessed a different way of finding movement, dancing with me."


Hirini Melbourne's 'Homai O Ringa' - the Māori ​song that "touches his soul" 

"It's been in my life a long time. Every time that I've listened to or played that song in whatever environment I'm in all good things have occurred. So yeah, I carry it close to my heart."


The Bryan Adams hit that takes him back to the spinal unit after his accident:

"I remember learning the footsteps of different people. Everybody has a different way of walking so I could just tell who was coming in the morning so I could pretend to be asleep if it was someone I didn't want to talk to.

"That song would play every morning. And whenever I hear that song, it just takes me straight back to the spinal unit - some not-so-good memories but mostly good memories."


The book about silence that got him through being homeless in the US:

In 2012, when his contract with a Californian dance company expired, Bell ended up homeless on the streets.

"it was a remarkable stage of my life. I learnt a lot about myself. I focused more on the blessings of life… knowing that also eventually going to come home but not knowing it at that time.

Christina Feldman's book Silence: How to Find Inner Peace in a Busy World "found" him at this time.

"That book carried me through a lot of difficult times. when you're sort of on your own, you're on the street, the loudest noise in the silence is from your mind.

"Silence for me, I find quite a meaningful piece of rejuvenation. I made new connections and new relationships with myself in my silence through this book. It was very effective.

"Managing your silence does great wonders for you in life in general. It should be something at school that our children should be taught. You can call it meditation or you know, but I think just managing their silence and having good tools in place to manage their silence.

"Especially with this overload of, of media, you know, lots of different opportunities to plug into media, but it'd be nice to have a bit of chill time and a bit of silence to regenerate and build a different relationship to yourself… and build different degrees of ease. I like to use that saying quite often."


The book of CF Goldie paintings that changed his relationship with his dad:

CF Goldie's 1916 painting 'In Doubt', depicting Arawa Chieftainess Maramena Wiari

CF Goldie's 1916 painting 'In Doubt', depicting Arawa Chieftainess Maramena Wiari Photo: International Art Centre

When someone who'd "borrowed" his father's beloved book of Goldie paintings hadn't returned it over a year later, Rodney's father sent him on a "bounty hunt".

"I was in my wheelchair at the time. And I actually tracked it down to where someone was trying to sell it in a hall in Mangere.

"I just went up and grabbed it and I said 'My father's told me to come and get this book. I'm sorry. I'm going to take it now.' And then I just pushed out of there.

"It created a different relationship with my father. After my accident … it's hard to say this but there might have been just a slight bit of disappointment in his eye at times. Probably through sadness but also 'cause I'm the oldest and being the oldest I'm meant to be carrying my mum around on my back right now. I'm meant to be up fixing that roof, doing things oldest sons do.

"He never got to see me perform, Dad… but I think my father started seeing me eye to eye after [I'd retrieved] that book and sort of accepted the fact that I am in a new vessel now. I call it 'stroll'. I stroll on this earth - it's a step and a roll combined."


Muscle & Fitness - the magazine that first taught him about discipline:

Arnold Schwarzenegger coves the August 1984 edition of Muscle & Fitness magazine

Arnold Schwarzenegger coves the August 1984 edition of Muscle & Fitness magazine Photo: A360media

"When I was a young boy, I wanted to be a truck driver and then then I wanted to be a shearer and that sort of floated by.

"[From milking cows] I brought in a little bit of cash and I would splash quite a lot of it on these magazines. Arnold Schwarzenegger … I followed these guys. What a discipline with the exercise.

"I was a bit materialistic looking towards what a body could be like, but at the same time I was already developing these routines, these disciplines, indirectly as well. Getting up early, watching what I ate, you know, training … and that discipline started moving into other parts of my life. It was just surreal, I just couldn't imagine the human body being able to get that big! But then as I got a bit older I realised… steroids."


The poignant song written for his autobiographical performance piece Meremere:

Eden Mulholland's 'Streets of San Francisco' is part of the score for Meremere.

"[Mulholland and I] met as dancers way back in the 90s returning from the USA ... he is now this amazing musician.

"It just brings back those memories. It's like an ice block to the heart. it's not a stab, but it just chills my heart when I listen to this song."


The Coronation Street theme that takes him back to his Nan's house in the early '80s:

"We had no power, we had a coal range, we had candles. My Nan had a battery TV so [it ran] with a car battery. It was only a little tiny 14-inch TV. I used to have to take that battery down and get it charged for her so Nan could watch her Coronation Street every night.