Meet the Makers: Malia Johnston

5 November 2021

Known for her jaw-dropping work with the World of WearableArt show, Malia Johnston is the Creative Director of BELLE - a performance of air. Ahead of the show's 2022 Festival season, Malia stops by ARTicle to talk redefining the female circus artist and failing at quadruple pirouettes.

Malia Johnston, credit John McDavit | BELLE, credit Andi Crown
For BELLE, you’ve created a new circus apparatus. What came first – the desire for the apparatus, or the design?

All the elements we have designed in this work, including the new apparatus, have had design at the forefront followed closely by the effect it has with the body. The design ideas for the apparatus also came from our interest in the intersection of science, architecture and the human body.

One of the apparatus in the work, ‘the libellule,’ was designed by performance artist Mädir Eugster of Rigolo Tanztheater from Switzerland – Jenny Ritchie our Aerial Designer and collaborator has worked with Mädir over the years and we have incorporated one of his pieces into BELLE, in fact the name BELLE is inspired by the apparatus’s name.

Why did you feel that this piece was best performed by an all-female cast?

The initial artists we selected to collaborate with us happened to be female – we then became drawn to the idea of strength and endurance of the body and wanted to adjust our expectations away from the concept of the circus artist risking one's life through the art of spectacle, away from traditional roles in circus or overt sexualisation of the female circus artist, and move towards the concept of endurance, energy exchange, altered state and a collaboration with aerial choreography and dance. It became an all female work due to the nature of our casting and we endeavour to have the women be responsible for lifting or holding their own weight throughout the work.

Sometimes making a piece of art tells you how it wants to be and this is what happened with BELLE.


The libellule apparatus | credit Andi Crown

Can you tell us a little bit about the experience audiences will have walking through the performance?

We are still developing the work at the moment, but our desire is to have the audience engage with the work like they would a piece of art in a gallery or like they would when they observe a new sculpture that has just been revealed. We want the work to stimulate the audience's sense of adventure with their own creativity…

We are making an environment that presents objects and obstacles that transform with light. Ephemeral walls and floors stimulate concepts of what is beyond the structures in front of us. We are creating a visceral experience for the audience – it’s a subtle shift in our normal audience/performer relationship. The audience do not have seats for the whole show; they will be guided to shift gently through the space, so they get to navigate a viewing position. When the mind rests the world rests.

This show is designed to take us away. After a year like the one that we have had we see that as our role as artists: to travel the viewer somewhere else – in an artistic sense we want the audience to feel like they have been somewhere new.

As a dancer and circus performer, what move are you most proud of pulling off? And is there one that eludes you?

I'm currently a director, but when I was working as a dancer I had the opportunity in one of my contracts to do harness work and I looooved it a lot. I was once harnessed upside down, appearing to walk across the roof of the theatre… that was probably the closest circus-type movement I was ever tasked with.

What eludes me – I tried a lesson on straps and the pole once and literally did not have the upper body strength to maintain the basics.

In terms of a movement that has eluded me it would be a quadruple pirouette… never done one! But in BELLE we have designed a new apparatus that lets us do a whole heap of pirouettes – dancer Alex Leonheartsberger from Auckland has helped us to design it and he made it. He has trained in ballet and contemporary dance so was able to have fun trailing it out along the way for us.

I asked my collaborator Jenny Ritchie (Aerial Choreographer) (who IS a circus artist) the same question and she said the following: “I have always been super attracted to moves that eluded and challenged me, but I also always sought to make them my own created interpretation… so in creating new things perhaps I never mastered any?"

Where is the most unexpected place you’ve ever performed?

Ooh, I have a few.

We did a contemporary dance show in Rakiura and at the Waiouru NZDF base, but in terms of specific spaces I think Rendell’s shop window on K Road in the early 2000’s and North Head tunnels in the 1990’s…

What are you most excited for audiences to see in BELLE?

I can't choose one thing so I am going to say the lighting!, the movement!, the musicians!, the aerial artists!

But I am also most excited for them to see how they can play around with their own perspective in the work. The light portals are designed so you can choose to view above or view below, and I am so excited for the audience to discover something in the work that they connect with – for each person it will be something different. BELLE has many elements of interest and is designed to stimulate the audience's own imagination.

BELLE - a performance of air is coming to the 2022 Aotearoa New Zealand Festival of the Arts from Saturday 26 February - Sunday 6 March. Tickets are on sale now.