Alicetown choreographer Malia Johnston is one of the moving forces behind this month’s powerful dance show Mana Wahine by Okareka Dance Company. She tells Larissa Nieuwkoop why, even though she works all over New Zealand, she now calls Lower Hutt home. Photography by Caroline Atkinson

Capital Questions with Malia Johnston

Malia-4 copyThe cho­reo­graph­er for the extraordin­ary World of Wear­ableArt Awards show for the last 14 years, Malia moved to Wel­ling­ton in 2008 to take on the role of artist­ic dir­ect­or, bring­ing the gar­ments to life through move­ment and dance. Malia also teaches at the New Zea­l­and School of Dance in Wel­ling­ton and at Unitec in Auck­land. Malia flew to Wel­ling­ton from rehears­als in Auck­land espe­cially to speak to Fish­Head at the Museum Hotel.

If it’s been a hard day at work and I’m in need of a drink I’ll be… Well, there are lots of places actu­ally, but there’s Rogue and Vag­a­bond, or here at the Museum Hotel — I like their wine!

The next day if I’m in need of a hearty feed and a cup of great cof­fee I’ll be at… Joe’s Gar­age — I’ve had just about everything from Joe’s. It’s just the atmo­sphere, and the cof­fee is great, plus it’s in a nice part of town.

If I’m in need of a slice of cul­ture I can’t go past… Live theatre, but also the New Zea­l­and Film Archive.

My favour­ite Wel­ling­ton land­mark would have to be… East­bourne Hills. That’s where I go for rest and recre­ation, and the views over the har­bour are awesome!

I think Wellington’s best-kept secret is… Lower Hutt (laughs)! The only reas­on I say that is because of all the great walk­ing tracks. I moved to Alicetown just recently and I just didn’t know how many amaz­ing walk­ing tracks they have out there! They are just so beau­ti­ful, and in ten minutes you can go either side, up into the gorges, and find rivers, water­falls, lakes, ponds and swim­ming holes!

Wel­ling­ton has been home to many amaz­ing shows and per­form­ances, but the theatre or ven­ue I most love to view or teach in is… Well, I mean I just have so many memor­ies of put­ting on the World of Wear­ableArt shows at the TSB Arena, but I mean it’s the TSB Arena! So I have to say that, and also I really enjoy see­ing the per­form­ances at Te Whaea that the dance stu­dents and theatre per­formers do in that space, I just love see­ing their work.

One par­tic­u­larly mem­or­able exper­i­ence cho­reo­graph­ing would have to be… There are bil­lions actu­ally, loads, but I think I’ll just men­tion one, which was Helen Clark in 2002 when I cho­reo­graphed her when she was Prime Min­is­ter. She had a cameo role in the World of Wear­ableArt Awards back then wear­ing a gar­ment designed by Susan Holmes. I thought she was very brave, and even though she was used to pub­lic speak­ing and all of that, she was actu­ally quite nervous and she missed her cue!

The high­light of being involved with Mana Wahine has been… work­ing col­lab­or­at­ively with an incred­ibly lively group of artists, includ­ing the AV design­er, dan­cers and oth­er cho­reo­graph­ers, but in par­tic­u­lar work­ing along­side Tui Rana­piri-Rans­field, who is a rel­at­ive of Tai­aroa Roy­al, one of the oth­er cho­reo­graph­ers. She has an incred­ible know­ledge of his­tory, cul­tur­al move­ment, kapa haka, Māori lan­guage and com­pos­i­tion of Māori song and chant. She has basic­ally just opened my eyes to new inform­a­tion and move­ment ori­gins, which has really encour­aged me to play and explore those things really openly.

The mes­sage we wanted to con­vey through Mana Wahine is… that col­lab­or­a­tion is fab­ulous and work­ing to the strengths of the group of people you are work­ing and col­lab­or­at­ing with will not set you wrong… The mes­sage we wanted to con­vey is about strong phys­ic­al­ity in dance; it’s very much a move­ment plat­form that dis­plays the per­son­al­ity of the indi­vidu­al dan­cers along­side their col­lect­ive strength. Mana Wahine presents a dynam­ic range of cho­reo­graph­ic ener­gies and path­ways that were inspired by a true story from Rotorua, where the strength and lat­er­al think­ing of one woman, whose people were about to be slaughtered in a his­tor­ic battle, helped save her tribe. It’s an intu­it­ive work that defies nar­rat­ive but cre­ates an emo­tion­al jour­ney that is ulti­mately an uplift­ing experience.

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