Loose Canons: Malia Johnston
Loose Canons is a series in which we invite artists we love to share five things that have informed their work. Meet the rest of our Loose Canons here.
Choreographer and performance director Malia Johnston is one of the founders of Movement Of The Human (MOTH). Malia has been working in the performance industry since 2000. She was awarded Director of the Year at the Wellington Theatre Awards 2018 for two works: RUSHES (presented at the NZ Festival in association with Te Papa) and Meremere, a solo autobiographical show featuring Rodney Bell. Both shows were created by the team at MOTH and presented at Circa Theatre.
2018 was a big year for Malia. In addition to the Wellington seasons of RUSHES and Meremere, she presented a new work, Hurihuri, at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games Arts Festival. She created and directed the opening of Te Auaha, the new home of the creative programmes of Weltec and Whitireia on the corner of Dixon Street and Cuba Mall. Malia, Rodney and the MOTH crew toured Meremere across the North Island. Malia also directed the 30th Anniversary World of Wearable Art Awards show and created He Wawa Waraki for the Ministry of Culture and Heritage – a performance presented at Pukeahu National War Memorial Park to commemorate the 1918 armistice that marked the end of World War I.
As part of the Auckland Fringe, Movement Of The Human is taking over the Auckland Town Hall for the self-titled audiovisual performance experience Movement of the Human - a four-night party full of dance, music and light.
Rodney has always inspired me. We first danced together in 1999 when he performed in one of the first works I made after graduating from dance school. Working with Rodney taught me a lot, as I was able to play with and explore bodies that worked very differently from mine. He gave me the space to see how choreography and the art of movement design could work in different ways. Rodney is playful and non-judgmental when work is being developed. He is open to process and sharing his approach to movement, and he always supports the big picture by working with and challenging everyone in the room. I have since worked with Rodney on a range of projects, and in 2016 had the privilege of collaborating with him and the MOTH team to create and present his autobiographical solo piece Meremere. I am in awe of Rodney’s capabilities as a performer and the way in which his life experience informs his work. He draws on everything when he dances. I have watched him dance with many different people and take on all sorts of challenges, and energetically he is a chameleon. He matches whoever he is working with – strength to strength, like a morphing mantis. He challenges people and provides the space for growth.
Dancers and other movement artists are fundamental to my work, and a constant source of inspiration. Large groups of dancers have featured in all MOTH’s recent shows including RUSHES, WOW and He Wawa Waraki, and Movement of the Human, our Auckland Fringe show that opens on February 21. Large groups are great because they bring diversity in age, gender and culture, as well as in skills, disciplines and experience levels. I enjoy working with movers from different backgrounds because no matter what their discipline or training, whether hip hop, integrated dance, contemporary dance, ballet, cultural movement, kapa haka or movement forms beyond the arts, they all use their body as their creative tool. And they each bring their lived experience and their personality into the creative process.
Dancers can be shy, but very expressive and commanding with their bodies. There’s a really interesting contradiction between their personalities in daily life and their performance personas, which are so generous in spirit. This creates community and makes working with large groups of movement artists my favourite thing. Nothing compares to the energy of 40 people in a room all working on something they are invested in. The room becomes buoyant with a sense of play. As different skill sets and ideas mesh, influence and inform each other, everyone is elevated to another level.
Dancers are like a swarm of bees working harmoniously. Each executes thousands of their own individual movements, while coordinating with other dancers and working with the space around them, finding the rhythm of others and making conscious choices to be in time or out of synch in each moment. Dance is such a complex art form that resonates on so many invisible levels through the complexity and fragility of the dancers that perform it.
Design is such a big word covering so much territory. Design is fundamental to what I do and many aspects of it inspire me. I love working with designers from many different disciplines. Whether I am working on large-scale or smaller-scale projects, it is design that holds and defines the space for the performers: it is essential for dance to exist. Design can be the extender, the underscore, the magnifier; it is the light, the shade, the space in which I operate. At WOW, we work with 170 designs entered into a competition that is all about making design for the body. At the other extreme, my early work Miniatures was performed in limited space on tiny pedestals, where design created endless opportunities for movement in really restricted spaces. Design holds and shapes tension, and this is crucial to mining the deeper aspects of a work. Simple shifts in space and light or a projection allow the movement to transcend the dancer’s body and become a bigger world: a universal concept. Design is the conduit providing the balance or the extension of what we are doing with the body. Sound design is crucial for me. I work with composer Eden Mulholland whenever I can. I have known Eden from way back when we were at dance school together. We worked on projects right after we graduated and Eden has designed sound for almost everything I have created since. Music is a massive part of the world in every work, and Eden’s sound design constantly pushes and shapes what we create.
MOTH is a collaborative company. Collaboration is the way I love to work. For me, collaboration is about more than just simply working with other people. It’s about working in an integral and highly interactive way in which all collaborators are constantly feeding into and learning from the creative process, finding it interesting, meaningful and challenging all at the same time. Collaboration is the space where magic happens: when someone has an idea that others add to, to make it evolve, to grow it, to support it. This combination of many brains, skills, backgrounds and perspectives can make the impossible possible.
For me, collaboration works best when individuals who are strongly connected to their own practice hold to this when they come together as a group to work on an idea that resonates with them. I work best with a collaborative group that is ready to work on an idea, ready to explore and contribute. We don’t always have the answers when we start, but we understand the different points along the way where we need to step in and bring our unique skills into the mix. When collaboration works well it is breathtaking. Collaborative work extends well beyond the core design team – it includes all the performers and anyone else that brings value to the work in the form of ideas, advice or inspiration. When you find a good collaborator, you often find a good friend. Not surprisingly, some of my closest collaborators are my best friends.
The children in my life continually inspire me. A son of close friends – soon to be five – is exceptionally good at making me play. He reminds me that being playful is one of the most important and relaxing things to do. He inspires me to live in the moment and to engage in make-believe, things that can be increasingly difficult to do as you get older. I really like hanging out with him. He reminds me of myself at that age, of going to performances, and about how they completely transported me to another world. This reminds me to remember my five-year-old self when I’m making work, to honour that special and precious ability to transport people. How important a job it is to take people into another space beyond today, beyond our reality and into the lives of others, into other realms, other energies, other experiences.
I love working with children. I ran a dance school for children in my late teens. I don’t do that now but my career began by teaching dance to, and creating shows for, children. Now my niece and nephew create shows for me. They include jokes, recorded music and costumes. I am the audience. They entertain me exactly as I used to do with my grandparents. It is a precious thing to be given the audience’s eyes. I love hanging out with children because they ask the best questions. My friends’ five-year-old asked me the other day what I was going to do when I grow up. I thought that was the best question I had been asked for a long time. I thanked him for asking and told him I’m still thinking about it.
Movement of the Human runs from February 21 to 24 at Auckland Town Hall as part of Auckland Fringe Festival's Fringe Town. Tickets available here.