Doing the dance of life

Choreographer Malia Johnston has been in charge of the moves at the whacky-but-sophisticated World of Wearable Art (WOW) show since 2002 and it has absorbed the bulk of her talent and time.

“But you have to do other things as well, and bring them to WOW,” she says. “You have to go out and look for inspiration all the time and you have to be engaged in what you do.”

This year, her big non-WOW project has been Mana Wahine, which she co-choreographed for Okareka Dance Company with its artistic directors Taiaroa Royal and Taane Mete. The all-women show opened in Rotorua last month and is on the road to 11 centres with Wellington performances in mid-August.

Mana Wahine is far from the zany glitz of WOW. It is a serious attempt to distil into dance the essence of women. The catalyst for the production was a story Royal heard from a relative, of a shared ancestor, Te Aokapurangi, a young woman who was captured in battle and taken far from home but who eventually returned to single-handedly save her people from slaughter.

Royal, Johnston says, wanted to make a work exploring female strength and the way women think, not specifically Maori women – “and the work evolved into celebrating those concepts”.

The production, she says, “is like a painting to me. It evolves, a show that keeps on unfolding and leads you to a wonderful conclusion. It’s very physical”.

And Mana Wahine is time out from WOW which has been so all-consuming that it even, years ago, cut short her OE almost before it had begun.

Johnston, 41, who completed a degree in dance at Unitec in Auckland in 1998, first worked for WOW in Nelson in 2001. There was no particular job advertised but she was momentarily at a loose end and sent in a video and a letter, scored an assistant’s role, did her best to help the extravaganza onto the stage in style, then set off on her big OE. She never assumed she might be employed again on WOW.

She was in Ireland, with London, Italy and Brussels on her list of countries to work and dance in over two or three years, “when the call came asking if I could come home and do a second show”.

She came home to be principal choreographer (“I’ll do a delayed OE in my 60s, maybe”) and found her first show in the role “daunting”.

“In Nelson the stage is very long. You’re looking at it overall and micro-sections along the way. I had to approach it differently to any other show I’d done. Once I worked it out it clicked into place.”

She also had to work with models which she had never done before, and with sets – “and a whole lot of stuff you don’t normally have with dance. It was a pretty crazy show. I hadn’t worked so hard in my life.”

Her now husband, choreographer and dancer Guy Ryan, worked with her. “We were stage managers and directors, just so much. We were going home, downloading the video of the rehearsals. There’s much more support since then. It was a really crazy ride and a fantastic community of people and designs.

“I like making it different each year. It is tricky, but it’s exciting.”

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After nearly 14 years of WOW she still makes no assumption about her future there – “given when I first worked for the company it was never a given the relationship would continue. That’s how I feel, but since I became artistic director five years ago I have a commitment to the company. With artistic relationships you have to keep your mind open.”

Dance has preoccupied Johnston since she was a little girl in a small South Island town where her parents were school teachers. She made up her own dances to the record player in the lounge.

When she was 12 she persuaded her parents to let her learn dancing and caught the bus from North Loburn to Ashburton each week for lessons. In the seventh form, at school in Christchurch, she ran her own jazz dance school.

She had almost finished an arts degree at university when, by chance, she saw a brochure for Unitec’s dance course in Auckland. She thought she was too old at 23, applied anyway and got in.

She’s since initiated many of her own projects and been commissioned to create work for tertiary dance schools and for Touch Compass Dance Trust and Footnote Dance. WOW, though, has kept her busy for more than a decade. And she still gets first-night nerves.

“They wrack you. You hope for the best and you’ve done everything you can. There’s a lot at stake and anything can happen. It’s not a relaxing business.”

Mana Wahine, Okareka Dance Company is at Te Whaea Theatre from August 13-16.

– Your Weekend