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Wednesday, 20 March 2019 12:56 pm

Performer helps people find their “presence” in capital workshop


BERT van Dijk has explored performing arts around the world and he wants to use his experience to help people transform themselves.

He is holding a performance workshop in Wellington next month for people of all ages who want to enhance their presentation, communication and leadership skills.

Mr van Dijk, 61 is a specialist in “presence” and says he can help people develop it into an operational skill.

“Presence is thought of as an elusive X-factor, either you have it or you don’t but I think its something you can develop,” Mr van Dijk says.

He defines it as the ability to be alive in the moment using all you’re senses, which he says can benefit people from all walks of life.

His perception on the performing arts has been shaped by over 30 years of experience.

Marion Pawson, 59 has trained with Bert van Dijk for the last four years and says he is strong and clear in his approach.

“In my experience people warm to his enthusiasm and passion.

“He has a very well developed perspective on performance,” says Ms Pawson.

Mr van Dijk was born in the Netherlands in 1953 and dreamed of seeing New Zealand from a young age.

“When I was a little kid I was told if you drilled a hole through the earth you would end up in New Zealand.

“I was always fascinated by that so I got a map of New Zealand and put it above my bed and thought one day I will travel to the other side of the world and see what it’s like,” he says.

Mr van Dijk visited NZ for the first time in 1986 and presented a number of workshops including a dance performance at the Fringe Festival in Christchurch.

He was only able to stay for three months but came back two more times before moving permanently in 1992, where he taught, directed and performed at the International Festival in Wellington.

He says he found the bicultural presence very exciting.

“I really connected with the Maori and Pacific Island presence in New Zealand,” he says.

Mr van Dijk initially trained as a social and clinical psychologist, specialising in movement therapy and psychodrama.

Part of his studies was undergoing self-therapy and it was during this that he discovered his true passion.

“I realized that deep down what I really wanted to do was be a performer,” he says.

After working for several years as a dancer, he started working with a voice company in France called the Roy Hart Theatre where he enjoyed their physical approach to voice training.

“Working with them liberated my voice and since then I have always used it along with movement and space as the elements of my performance,” says Mr van Dijk.

In 2011 he gained a PhD in theatre and was offered a job at the National University of Samoa as the dean of the Faculty of Arts.

He accepted the offer but on arrival was dismayed to find that there were no arts in his faculty, only social sciences and languages.

It was the beginning of a difficult six months during which he experienced the devastation of the worst cyclone to hit Samoa in over 20 years.

Mr van Dijk found himself caught up in a lengthy conflict between two factions of the university and says he was used as a pawn in the dispute.

He was also outed in a national newspaper for being homosexual in what he describes as a “nasty article”.

“They used Christianity to say terrible things about homosexuals,” he says.

“The Dean of the Faculty of Arts is infecting the youths of Samoa and is a terrible example for staff,” Mr van Dijk quotes from the article.

Despite the criticism he was able to find solace in the arts and worked with the National Youth Orchestra and the University Choir.

“That’s what kept me sane,” he says.

On reflection he believes he was a role model for many of the junior staff at the university because he raised issues that they were afraid to talk about.

He returned to New Zealand and struggled to find work, so he decided to set up his own business, Toiora Ltd.

He runs the business with his partner Rawiri Hindle and they focus on facilitating personal and social transformation using the arts.

Mr Van Dijk is currently working on a project with the Ngati Wai iwi in Whangarei.

He has been commissioned by the Ngati Wai Trust Board to develop a suicide prevention project which works with troubled youth using the performing arts.

“Many problems are evident in Maori culture, alcohol and drug abuse, family violence and sexual abuse but I think the core of it is a lack of identity.

“They have lost their strong sense of whakapapa,” he says.

Mr van Dijk says schools do not cater for Maori ways of learning and consequently they fall by the wayside.

He believes he can help people reconnect with their identity.

“I think if you want to address issues of identity, confidence and expression then performing arts has a lot to offer,” he says.

Earlier this year Mr van Dijk was the recipient of a Fulbright Scholarship to travel to New York and observe one of the most successful anti-violence projects in the world.

The All Stars project helps more than 80,000 young people every year to grow in confidence and express themselves.

Mr van Dijk says he was amazed by their Cops and Kids program called Operation Conversation.

It is a series of performance based workshops working with police officers and troubled youth using improvisation and theatre games.

He had the chance to witness some of the sessions and says they are amazing.

“You see a sense of mutual trust growing throughout the workshops and they develop understanding and respect for each other,” says Mr van Dijk.

He says the project is a massive inspiration for him and he wants to set up an All Star project in Northland.

“I want to help people develop the confidence and skills to become leaders in their community,” says Mr van Dijk.

“These kinds of projects are important as people are becoming more desperate and the gaps between rich and poor are growing.

“We need to do something about that,” he says.

Mr van Dijk’s Presence Workshop will run on October 4, 10am-4pm, at the Wellington Quaker House in Mount Victoria.

Anyone interested in attending should contact the organiser on 04-385-6321.

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