As the spectacular 33rd World of Wearable Art event edges closer, WOW Show Director Malia Johnston tells Sharon Stephenson about staging one of Aotearoa’s largest theatrical events.
Visiting the Wellington offices of WOW (World of Wearable Art) is a little like falling down a rabbit hole.
At the bottom, you emerge in a world of silk organza and imagination, of outrageously OTT garments and headpieces that make Lady Gaga look as though she shops at The Warehouse.
This is where you need to go to find Malia Johnston, WOW Show Director. Specifically, the upper reaches of the TSB Arena where, under harsh florescent lights, Malia is the ringmaster of this extraordinary circus.
We speak on a Friday in August, about six weeks before WOW’s 33rd event kicks off.
Downstairs, an army of staff is unpacking 121 entries from 22 counties in preparation for the models who’ll have their first fitting in a few hours. Next to them, riggers build an enormous stage and sewing machines whir as metres of fabric morph into costumers for the dancers, aerial artists and singers who make up what is now arguably the biggest single theatrical event of its kind in Aotearoa.
To anyone else it looks like organised chaos but Malia, who started with WOW in 2001, files it under ‘calm before the storm’.
“This is just the beginning,” admits the 50-year-old. “We’ll be working from around 10.00am till 11.00pm most days from now until the end of the show.”
That includes the 300 or so backstage crew who fulfill the “performative landscape” of Malia’s vision.
“This year our theme is ‘Beyond’ so my role is to deliver that theme by working with the various sections from music composition and production design to performance and choreography.”
A quick history lesson: WOW was born in 1987 when sculptor Suzie Moncrieff challenged designers to take art off the wall and onto the body. The first show was staged in Nelson under a rain-lashed tarp in front of an audience of 200.
But the concept of using items such as feathers, spandex, papier-mache, shells and ping-pong balls in costumes that range from the beautiful to the bizarre – here a fried ‘egg’ bra, there a headpiece of rabbit skeletons – eventually fired the world’s imagination.
In 2005, the event decamped to Wellington and these days the two-hour extravaganza showcases creative brilliance to an audience of around 64,000.
Malia, who first entered the WOW universe as an assistant choreographer, says it’s that creativity which keeps her coming back every year.
“The ability to surprise me is why I’ve been here so long. Every night I hear the 3,500-strong audience collectively gasp and I know that they’re as surprised and in awe of the unexpected, of things they’ve never seen before, as I am when we unpack each year’s entries. And then there are the costumes that you form an emotional attachment to or the quirky ones that make you laugh.”
If you’ve been lucky enough to attend WOW, visited the now-closed museum in Nelson or caught a touring exhibition, you’ll know what Malia is talking about. But ask her about her favourite entries and she pauses.
“There have been so many brilliant and clever pieces over the years, it’s hard to narrow them down. Some of the most unusual were the year we had a section of garments that made noise so we decided to curate an aural jigsaw of all the sounds. One costume was made of 3,000 miniature bells, another had horns and one rustled. It was a bit like musical Tetris trying to combine them. We brought in composer Gareth Farr who did an amazing job.”
While visually stunning, the unique nature of some entries can cause headaches for Malia and her crew.
“One year there was a cape made of metal saws which looked spectacular but the model had to be very careful about where she put her hands. Another entry made from latex took five technicians half an hour to squeeze the model into. That’s an issue when it comes to choreographing the models who each wear around three to six pieces.”
The real joy of WOW, admits Malia, is its inclusivity and accessibility – anyone with a needle and thread can enter – which gives the middle finger to the often elitist world of fashion.
“If you’ve gone to Central St Martin’s fashion school in London then great, please enter. On the other hand, if you have zero fashion experience but a great idea and can figure out how to make it happen, then WOW is for you.”
Malia, who once paid the rent with modern dance, says having a diverse performance landscape is also what makes her role so challenging.
“Over the years I’ve brought in dancers, aerial performers, drag performance, comedians, kapa haka groups and opera singers. Once there was even a flame-eating circus artist. It’s about creating a fantastic sensory experience.”
Malia’s world view has always been shaped by the arts. She was born in Christchurch, the oldest of an eventual three children, but spent her childhood in various small South Island towns thanks to her parents’ teaching jobs.
“My mother was also a pianist and double bass player so we were all forced to learn the piano,” says Malia of the three Johnston siblings.
It turned out to be a gateway for the plays and dances she’d concoct for her friends.
“I had a dressing up box and was always staging performances, including for school assemblies.”
That segued into more formal jazz dance classes and eventually a part-time job teaching dance. When Malia was 18, around the same time she enrolled for zoology and environmental science degrees at Canterbury University, she started her eponymous dance company.
“I ran a dance school for kids, making shows and putting them through exams. Even though I loved it I still saw it as a hobby and thought science was where my real career lay.”
A chance visit to the university careers office changed all that.
“I’d gone there to support a friend who was pursuing a career in photography. But a book literally fell open on a dance course in Auckland! As soon as I saw it I knew I could train full time in choreography and screen arts. Until then, the concept of dance as a career hadn’t occurred to me because I was 23, so too old for ballet, but this whole world of becoming a choreographer opened up to me.”
Malia moved to Auckland for the three year Unitec course where her teachers included Kiwi dance heavyweights Michael Parmenter and Douglas Wright. After graduating she was snapped up for choreographic gigs with Footnote New Zealand Dance and Touch Compass, ironically the same arts organisation her husband Guy Ryan is now the Chair of. The former dancers met when both worked for the same company.
Malia admits she’d never heard of WOW until someone mentioned the organisation was looking for an assistant choreographer. She got the gig, was invited back the next year as the chief choreographer and, apart from a year in Australia and one in Europe, has been here ever since, eventually as Artistic Director and, since 2018, as Show Director.
Because being idle isn’t in Malia’s playbook, eight years ago she started her own company, Movement of the Human.
“It’s a project-based, collaborative movement and performance design company that uses composition, design, choreography, performance architecture and sound for civic events, festivals and site-specific work.”
Gigs include Meremere, a work with Ngāti Maniapoto artist Rodney Bell about his time living rough on the streets of San Francisco, and directing the opening event of the FIFA Women’s Word Cup in Auckland.
Understandably, there isn’t much free time but what there is Malia spends at the Wellington home she and Guy bought a few years ago.
“I love cooking and even though I’m more of a savoury cook, I recently made all the desserts for my sister’s wedding. I’d love to get a dog too but I’m never home enough.”
Our time is up but before Malia goes, I ask her how long she plans to be part of the WOW whānau.
“My vision is to keep growing Suzie’s vision of pushing the boundaries of werable art design and increasing the diversity of the performance landscape every year. My role is like being a guardian and I’ll know when it’s time to hand the baton over. WOW isn’t tied to people but continues to evolve as a platform that surprises and delights the audience with hugely creative ideas they’ve never seen before. That’s where the magic is.”
WOW returns to Wellington’s TSB Arena from 20 September to 8 October
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