May 12, 2021

Maori News & Indigenous Views

Ngati Maniapoto Dancer hits the New York Times

4 min read

Ngati Maniapoto is making a big impact on the dance scene on the West Coast of the US. What is even more inspiring is that this troupe’s elegance and grace shake notions of movement to their foundation.

Kia ora to the New York Times for the following: Axis Dance Company, founded in 1987, currently has seven dancers, four of whom are physically disabled and perform in wheelchairs. The initial impact of this on an audience is vexing. Its a visual mixed metaphor, and you cant help feeling, well, sympathy for dancers without legs. Like much that is surprising in art, however, Axiss work instructs the viewer in how to appreciate it, and the lesson is delivered with cogent force: Sympathy is irrelevant. Forget what isnt here, and pay attention to what is. Recognize the chairs for what they are and not as substitutes for what they are not.

AxisC2See that? The lap of a seated dancer is a body part, as exploitable as a shoulder. Or that? A chair on its side, a wheel spinning in the air with a dancer lying across it, rotating slowly and elegantly, a lovely movement impossible without the chair. Or that? As dancers pair off, the partners arent simply men or women. Two chaired dancers in a pas de deux, or one in a chair and one on her feet: as if a whole new gender had emerged, these are unfamiliar kinds of flirtation but flirtation absolutely.

We dont look at being disabled as an obstacle or a limitation, said Judith Smith, 49, a company founder who dances in a motorized chair. We look at the possibilities. There is a potential for movement that is radically expanded from what another dance company would have.

AxisC1Next weekend the company, which travels frequently, is presenting its home season at the Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts in Oakland, in a program that includes a new work by the choreographer David Dorfman. One recent afternoon in a studio upstairs from the theater, Mr. Dorfman was putting five company members, two in chairs, through a rigorous rehearsal of the new work, an extended riff on the theme of protection tentatively titled A Light Shelter for a Storm. As the choreography unfolded, even in a run-through, the different physical capabilities of the dancers unified into the collaborative message of bodies in motion. The wheelchairs, it was readily clear, are part and parcel of the dancers moving bodies, integral as limbs.

This was most evident in the pyrotechnics of Rodney Bell, 39, who, paralyzed from the chest down in a motorcycle accident when he was 19, became a dancer after several years of playing wheelchair basketball. His use of the chair makes that athleticism clear. In any given sequence he may rise up on his back wheels, rearing like a bronco and spinning in a tight, furious circle, a wheelchair pirouette; or tilt forward to balance on the tiny front wheels as if en pointe; or spill the chair sideways and overboard, balancing on one rim with a hand on the floor. Hell even pull the chair over on top of him and climb back into it.

Mr. Bell, who is Maori from New Zealand, said he began developing his chair acrobatics in the hospital shortly after he was injured, when a nurse punished him for being difficult by putting me in the hallway upside down.

If the other chair dancers are not as virtuosic, they are musical and fluid, moving on wheels in syncopated or even hip-hop rhythms and performing waist-up choreography within their chairs, appearing as bodies fully in motion.

Performances run from Friday through Nov. 8 at Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts, 1428 Alice Street, Oakland, Calif; (510) 625-0110,


AXIS Dance Company has been nominated for two Isadora Duncan Dance Awards for their performances in the 2007/2008 season – Ensemble Performance, Rodney Bell and Sonsheree Giles, Too Color Me Different by Alex Ketley. In this video – AXIS Dance Company’s dancers Sonsheree Giles and Rodney Bell perform in “To Color Me Different” choreographed by Alex Ketley. Music by Tim Hecker & Fink


Rodney Bell is Ngati Maniapoto. Rodney began dancing 13 years ago with Touch Compass Dance Company, New Zealands first mixed ability dance company. He also choreographed dance works for Touch Compass. In July 2007, Rodney joined AXIS. Soon after he attended the MANCC choreography process in Florida with the company. Rodney also teaches mixed ability dance to those with and without disabilities and is constantly sharing his technique and knowledge through various workshops and dance intensives. His other pursuits include: representing New Zealand from 1996 to 2006 playing wheelchair basketball; working as an occupational therapy assistant; featuring in programs such as 60 Minutes, Good Morning Show, and Maori Television; acting in various plays; and performing with Poutokomanawa (Kapa haka). He shows great passion towards the performing arts, Maori culture and disability culture and in his own words It fulfills my soul.

1 thought on “Ngati Maniapoto Dancer hits the New York Times

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.