Jess Holly Bates

For Jess Holly Bates, coffee from Eighthirty and a little joy is all she needs to get out of bed every morning. Born in the far north where the women are ‘hard’ and the tough rhetoric runs through your blood, Jess is an artist, poet, flute teacher and dancer who is lending her creative talents to our partner charity, Nga Rangatahi Toa (NRT) – and did we mention she’s about to get a bona fide eighties perm?

My mother raised me in a house that loved to sing, so from an early age I had a soft spot for music, musicals and performing. When I was 24 I started to perform and generate my own work. I want to write and make work that is necessary – that is, that needs to be made. For me, this has meant taking account of my privilege to live and breathe in a land that was never mine in the first place. I always start from necessity, but don’t necessarily have control of where it will end up. My most recent work is this outrageous feminist sketch show called ‘The Offensive Nipple Show’. It’s about finding ways to be silly and empowered in the female body. I like to remind people that they are allowed to laugh at themselves. This, to me, is a massive pathway for change.

I’m kind of a closet flautist, although Claire Cowan recently outed me by casting me as one in the Blackbird Ensemble, but it still makes me sweat being seen doing it! Although, on that note, I think sweat is one of the biggest gifts that music gives me. Every human has the right to a good shake down! I have recently fallen in love with this amazing dance practice called Open Floor, which (website drop) is about accessing emotional and muscular intelligence through dance. It’s super intergenerational and diverse, and connection is a huge part of it. Another of my favourites is No Lights No Lycra. Like, finally, people get permission to move their bodies. Seriously, people come out changed.

The place I see generosity, listening and empathy most at work is in the arts. In my sector, we have to operate on an economy of kindness and faith – partly because of funding cuts, and partly because trust and hope are fundamental to the creative process. This is the place I learn the most about being a human being. Our current government doesn’t prioritise the arts, but since crowdfunding launched in New Zealand it has made very apparent that the true backbone of the arts is this wellspring of public generosity that keeps our vital works alive.  

One of my struggles is knowing how to be gentle with myself. Like I say, my upbringing is a mixture of the protestant work ethic and the pioneer emotional repression, so it’s always an intense fight whether I am ever doing or being enough. When I found Sarah Longbottom’s mantra, echoing that of my hero Brené Brown, that vulnerability is the wellspring of creativity – it really resonated with me. I hadn’t seen any other organisation connecting wholeheartedness with social change in such a powerful way; it made we want to see what I could give to NRT. 

My main focus at the moment is working as creative director on Manawa Ora, the inter-arts performance platform for rangatahi to showcase their collaborative work. For one incredible week in October, the rangatahi get to perform and we get to illustrate NRT’s values of high-trust, vulnerability and compassionate creative opportunities on the Herald stage. Ultimately, we want to build a work made entirely on their terms, supporting their ideas and stories to be held with grace and gravity. It’s going to be phenomenal!

I think that as adults we sometimes forget what being young was like. For the NRT rangatahi life can be especially gnarly, but they are no strangers to our experiences too: they have the same woes and loves and embarrassments as everyone else. Sure, they are magical humans, but they are also incredibly ordinary. Manawa Ora gives the public the opportunity to see these two qualities held together, and the chance to demonstrate to the rangatahi that they are enough, that they have enormous capacity rattling around inside them. 

Personally, the best part of working with these kids is this gorgeous vacillating uncertainty of what they will make. They demonstrate that you can hold uncertainty, as a person, and keep going, even when things get challenging. Watching their tenacity and their wit in the face of adversity is just phenomenal. They keep me holding hands with what-might-be, and encourage me not to let go. 

Photography by Sacha Stejko. Words by Jd Nodder

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