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Access Across Oceans - Alter State Embraces Aotearoa Artists

Image of Rodney Bell in Mangaokewa River from 'Te Kuuiti Tanga' by Owen McCarthy. Photo: Supplied.
Rodney Bell performing Meremere. Photo: Nina Gastreich Photography
Rodney Bell performing Meremere at Circa Theater. Photo: Vanessa Rushton Photography
Rodney Bell. Photo: Supplied.
Rodney Bell in Meremere. Photo: Tom Hoyle Photography.
NZ's disabled community is set to feel the love from across the Tasman. The acclaimed Rodney Bell tells us why Alter State's Digital Launch is the deep dive they deserve.

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Rodney Bell has never been one for limitations.

An internationally renowned leading creative light of Aotearoa, he’s always refused to be confined and defined by a wheelchair.

Now even as the country finds itself physically shut off from the rest of the world, Bell’s doing his part to opening new doors for New Zealand artists.

Bell’s unique perspective, intrinsic performing style and experience have given him the opportunity to play a major role in a new Trans-Tasman initiative - an arts and disability festival engaging artists and audiences from Australia and Aotearoa.

Alter State provides a platform for deaf and disabled artists to tell stories informed by their own lived experience of disability,” Bell (Ngāti Maniapoto) tells The Big Idea. “It’s a deeper dive into disability arts and the space to showcase our creative and cultural history. That’s the point of difference, it’s driven from disability leadership right from the get-go.

“It’s just such an open-hearted and open-minded community that is developing with this Alter State festival, I’m really excited about it. It’s such an honour and a privilege to be part of this as a curator and a foundation artist, to also bring my lived experience to the table. It’s a big highlight for me.”

Along with fellow foundation artists, Australians Carly Findlay and Joshua Pether, Bell’s been invited by Arts Centre Melbourne and Arts Access Victoria to bring Aotearoa’s perspective to next year’s Festival - which has its digital launch running this week, 9-13 November featuring kōrero, discussions, workshops and performance experiences.

“Entering the virtual world really exemplifies access for us. We feel the opposite of disability is access - being online opens up access for all our disabled and non-disabled artists to be part of the launch,” Bell explains.

Rodney Bell performing Meremere. Photo: Nina Gastreich Photography.

Alter State is built around some foundation principles that we’ve developed; equity, disability identity and pride, disability consciousness, crip time, aesthetics of access, reduced barriers and accountability. Now it leads out into the collective consciousness space.

“It really informs the process of how we look after each other - not only disabled - in relationship to language, to access. Because when we are talking about our disabled artists and community, that includes physical impairment, cognitive, intellectual impairment, deafness, mental illness, neurodiversity and chronic illness. 

“We don’t speak on behalf of all these different disabilities, we bring our own experience, but the platform is there for those conversations to be had.”

This new initiative opens with Bell playing an important part of the Opening and Welcome to Country with other First Nations artists on 9 November.

“Just to be acknowledged as an artist, as someone who is going to be that point of connection or relationship to Aotearoa - not only as an artist with a disability but me as a Māori, as tangata whenua, is special. 

“I’m not representing them, but I have the opportunity to bring that diverse experience of disability from Aotearoa to Paapaka-a-Maui, over to Australia and what that means to us. 

Rodney Bell in Meremere. Photo: Tom Hoyle Photography.

“We’re already developing relationships with the First Nations people. This is an Australian event, I feel we go there humbly - we’re not going there telling them how it should be. I’m going there to see how we can support the First Nations approach - we are different but what are the similarities, how can we interweave our cultures?”

Bell will debut his own production of Hau Tipua o Aotearoa - Extraordinary Disabled People of Aotearoa on Wednesday 10 November, a digital work created especially for Alter State by Māori performers through a range of genres including waiata, kapa haka and aerial circus.

Anyone who has seen Bell’s vision come to life in productions like Meremere will know how captivating they can be. While the pandemic may be isolating for many - Bell speaks of the gratitude he feels for this opportunity of connection, the collaboration with performers and the likes of Touch Compass.

Hau Tipua o Aotearoa is made up of different solos that people self-filmed. They went to a space that was special to them and accessible at the time, bringing in those experts in a videography space. 

“People are able to watch it and then watch it over again. It does take away from the live aspect - there’s a certain connection that happens when you’re watching something live but also there are some people who can’t get out of their home, can’t afford to travel to different places and it opens up that access space where they can watch it at home. 

“Especially for our disable people who may never be able to get out of their own homes, it opens up that door for them as well.”

Rodney Bell performing Meremere at Circa Theater. Photo: Vanessa Rushton Photography.

This week’s digital launch will surely whet the appetite for many for next year’s full-scale festival in Melbourne, and Bell has a message to the creative community on the eve of the digital launch events.

“Come and celebrate disabled artists of Aotearoa and Australia, get a sense of the collective consciousness that goes on when disabled and non-disabled people come together and everyone’s listening to each other - this is what we can create.”

Written in partnership with Alter State - events are free to attend online, registration is required. For the full programme, click here.

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