MALIA JOHNSTON

MALIA JOHNSTON
Choreographer & Performance Director

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Growing up in the South Island, my parents were ‘country service’ teachers so we moved around a lot.
We lived everywhere, from 
Hinds to Clandeboye and Otira, all of which were a long way from any action. Then we moved to Christchurch when I turned fourteen which is where I went to high school and university. So my early exposure to the arts very much came through my parents.

When I turned twelve, I forced my parents into letting me go to dance lessons. I remember having to leave school early and take a couple of buses to actually get to the place where the classes were being held. It was throughout high school that I became very passionate about dance and formed a group with some friends.

By the time I was eighteen, I decided that I wanted to teach dance. A local venue down the road held after school classes for kids, so I turned up and told them that I wanted to teach a class. They didn’t have any spare slots available, but a couple of months later they rung me up and said they’d like me to come and teach. I went in there with absolutely no idea what I was doing, I just had to make it up along the way. We used to put on shows at the Arts Centre in Christchurch and because I had no money, I’d organise creative working bees and get the parents along to help make the sets, props and costumes for the shows. I ended up running those classes for five years!

There had never been any emphasis on the arts or dance being a viable career in those days, so growing up, I never really thought about it. I went to university and trained in science and it wasn’t until I was jut about to finish my zoology degree that I came across a professional dance course. I was twenty three years old at this stage, so quite late for training, but I auditioned and got in and that is when my professional training began. Before too long I moved to Auckland to continue my training and that is where everything really turned for me. I started meeting people in the dance community, who then helped me realise that it’s possible to make a career out of this.

By the time I finished training, there were no jobs whatsoever. A few of us who trained together then started up The Graduate Dance Company. We had very limited resources so had to be quite creative about where we performed.  This was before OSH (Occupational Safety and Health) existed so we performed everywhere from, St Kevins Arcade,  to on the street and in shop windows. 

 From there, I joined a company called CURVE which was an all female choreography and dance company, before being offered a job at Touch Compass. I was so excited about choreographing, that to go into this organisation who asked me to work with people of all different abilities and conditions that I’d never come across and didn’t understand, completely threw me. It was a big shock because I had to scrap everything that I knew about choreography and really shift my training towards working out the relationship between movement and the individual.

Eventually, it got to a point where I had worked for a lot of different dance companies, however, not doing as much choreography as I had hoped for. A friend of mine suggested that I quit everything and start again, So I did. The thing with quitting something, is that you don’t know what’s next and the reason for my quitting was because I wasn’t entirely doing what I wanted to be doing. I was mainly working on other people’s projects and that was inadvertently making me unhappy, without realising it. So, it was through that confrontation with my friend, that made me realise it’s possible to take that step back. 

It definitely wasn’t easy and I didn’t know what to do with myself or what was going to happen, but the interesting thing about being in that position, is that you become readily available to other opportunities. If you’re not free’d up to do that, then you’re never going to come across that next thing. During that time, I met a woman who told me about WOW (World Of Wearable Arts) and I was immediately interested so wrote to them and said I’d like to work with you. They turned around and gave me the Assistant Choreographer role, so it was through being able to have that space to be able to watch, listen and meet people, that I ended up getting that opportunity,

I was twenty eight years old when I directed the entire WOW show and again, I was thrown in the deep end. It was such a different experience to working on a contemporary dance project, which meant I had to change my entire frame of thinking once again. Suddenly, I was dealing with a space that was about the size of a rugby field, so I had to very quickly learn how to transfer everything I knew to a much larger scale Over time, I became more involved in their creative team and implementing the ideas. Then I took a break and moved overseas, which didn’t last long before WOW called me up offering the role of Artistic Director. I stayed there for another five years before deciding to leave again because I was ready for a new challenge. That was when the concept for Movement Of The Human came into focus for me, which is more of a movement and design company that changes the way you think of dance.

The arts scene has totally evolved since I finished training, in a lot of different ways. I guess the biggest change is that dance is now more accepted. Back then, it was sort of like the poor cousin and nobody really did it. There were a few companies like Touch Compass and Footnote who were operating on small levels, but now we’ve got Okareka, Atamira, NZ Dance Company, and more, it has just exploded. It is still ridiculously hard and a crazy job to do if you’re wanting to make a living, but there’s definitely a lot more opportunities now.

As an artist, you always think, ‘you know.’ For me, I’ve been thrown into so many situations where I’ve gone in with one perception or perceived idea, to then realise that it’s not just that one thing at all. Choreography is something that can be applied to anything. It’s moving, it’s working with bodies, so that’s working with anybody, not just dancers. In fact, my interest is about how all people can move and how they can find enjoyment out of dancing, in whatever way they may think that is. I recently worked with skateboarders and a roller derby team and many of them told me that they couldn’t dance, but both of those skills include movements which instantly become a beautiful form of dance. I had to explain to them that I didn’t want to turn them into contemporary dancers over night becuase I want them to be inside a work exactly as they are. It’s all about framing and being able to see how to incorporate movement into the frame that you have.

During my fourteen years of working at WOW, I was choreographing people that were not trained and some of those people ended up being the funniest performers I have ever worked with. They used to think they were just having a laugh or doing it for fun and that’s actually the whole point. It’s about the investment that people give to whatever project they’re doing and if they’re fully invested, then it will be successful in my experience. Of course it is still amazing to work with fully trained dancers. Walking into a ballet company would be fantastic, because that high level of ability is there and you’ve already got so much at your fingertips that you can work with in a different way, but it’s not the only way.

Success mostly starts inside a piece. It starts with everybody being interested and committed with a project, otherwise there’s no point. Because I don’t have a company where I employ people and give them a job, I have the ideas and people come to those ideas or they don’t, so success for me is that everyone in the group is fully committed to making something. 

Looking back at some of the process we took makes me really excited and proud. I did a pieced called Dark Tourist years ago and that was an interesting one because it got absolutely slammed by reviewers. We honestly received the worst feedback that you could possibly ever imagine. They referred to it as “the most boring show in the universe,” not just New Zealand, but the whole universe. We dwelled on it for a long time, it was devastating! We had gone through such an intense process and spent all of this time, effort and resources on making this work that we really cared about, but where had it gone wrong?

The process of being critical of your own work is really interesting. We decided to take some space from that show and come back to it a year later. It was actually a great piece, it had just been pushed too far too fast and was a bit undercooked, but we still really believed in it.  Having a room full of people that I trusted and were all on the same page, really allowed me to be able to go through that process of re-visiting and re-working the show. Then we entered it into the Fringe Festival where it won ‘Best Show,’ so it was a complete turnaround. Now when shit hits the fan, I’m like, “Well.. I’ve already had the worst show in the universe, so it can’t get worse than that! 

One time when I was having issues with a person in an organisation, I was told to let them in, rather than block them out. I think when you’re faced with issues and frustrations it’s so easy to put a wall up, but do the opposite. Let them in and let them really understand what you’re trying to do, especially if you’re interested in collaboration and working others. Collaboration isn’t just about working with somebody else’s skill set, it’s how you build those trusting relationships with people and really allow them into your life.

Another big thing, is learning to say ‘no’ in a way that’s not negative. You can fill up your life and be really busy by taking on every project that somebody asks you to do, but the more you do, the less you focus on the things that you really want. So sometimes, saying ‘no,’ which I often find really hard, is a good thing, because it allows you to focus more on what really matters to you.

A career in the arts is tricky to navigate. You’re putting yourself into an environment that’s asking you to conform to certain processes. I always say that you’ve got to follow your gut about what you want to do, because if you follow someone else’s instinct, then you’re not really going to be making the work you want to be. Young people often come through talking about grants and I can’t stress enough that you shouldn’t worry about that, you just have to figure out how you’re going to make the work. The grant will come through or not, that’s a fact, but that’s not a determination of whether your work is good or not. Those systems are there as a resource, not to judge your work, so you’ve got to have the drive and interest to keep pushing, because it can be really challenging, but there’s a number of ways to express your work and make it come to life, just be creative. Essentially, my entire background is made up of experiences where I was completely thrown in the deep end!

The New Zealand Dance Company tours Lumina around NZ in May, which includes Malia’s contribution Brouhaha. Malia Johnston also directs Meremere, telling the autobiographical story of dancer Rodney Bell, touring through the North Island in June.


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