Calder At Large
Peter Calder on life in New Zealand

Peter Calder: Dance breaking out of the box and on to film

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Touch Compass Dance Company is made up of disabled and non-disabled dancers who have used life experience for their work.

Choreographer Georgie Goater, left, watches Annalise Cruickshank, Lucy Spiers and Sophie Wills. Photo / Chris Gorman
Choreographer Georgie Goater, left, watches Annalise Cruickshank, Lucy Spiers and Sophie Wills. Photo / Chris Gorman

Anyone who thinks show business is glamorous should have been in the cavernous main auditorium of the Westpoint Performing Arts Centre on Monday morning.

The chairs were piled high along one wall. The floor was spotted with tatty masking-tape marks left by previous users. A dust-clogged broom leaned against a shrouded piano. Glamorous this was not. Yet the anticipation in the air belied the drab surroundings as an unusual group of dancers stood in a circle for a warm-up.

There were the lissom legs in leotards that you might expect at a dance rehearsal, but one young woman was in a wheelchair. Alongside her wasanother whose arms ended just below the elbow. Several were identifiably youngsters with Down syndrome.

These are members of Touch Compass Dance Company, established 17 years ago as what is called an "inclusive dance company", made up of disabled and non-disabled dancers.

This is no occupational therapy, one of the organisers explains, but a professional dance company funded by Creative New Zealand on a three-yearly cycle, just like the Auckland Theatre Company or the New Zealand String Quartet.

Performers' unique physical endowments mean it is a company without understudies: nobody can stand in for you if the dance is you. Artistic director Catherine Chappell almost visibly shudders at the memory of how performances have had to be rejigged because a dancer is indisposed: "We've had some doozies, I tell you," she says.

The middle of the room is dominated by a structure, two metres cubed, of plywood affixed to a metal frame. One side is open; in another is a door; in a third a window; the outline of trapdoors can be seen in the floor and the ceiling.

This box is a stage of sorts, but more than that, it's a whole world in which an event called the DanceBox Challenge will take place between now and August. The business of the day at Westpoint was preparing performances that will take on an online life. Various groups of dancers have developed their version of a "dance in a box" and yesterday they were filmed.

It was an appropriate choice of day. April 29 is International Dance Day, established in 1982 to attract the attention of the wider public to the art of dance. Monday, though, was the hard work of the final run-through.

Under the enthusiastic guidance of filmmaker Alyx Duncan, the groups were put through their paces. "This is going to a dodgy walk-through, beautifully messy" she said, struggling to make herself heard above the nervous babble.

"If you're really organised, you might get two run-throughs."

The dances, two or three minutes long, tell true stories of experiences in dancers' lives which they feel have changed them.

In one, Lucy Spiers' memory of a school concert where Lorde played intersects with Annalise Cruickshank's rap about the shot put competition she won (the story is made more hilarious by virtue of the fact that she calls it wrestling) and Sophie Wills' thunderstruck realisation, when she saw herself on YouTube, that she was a bona fide celebrity.

In another, Alex Hiles-Pervan stands motionless in the middle of the box as a maelstrom of humanity contorts around him - the film version will speed this up, heightening the effect: he tells me he wants it to evoke the sense of being pushed beyond his limits on Outward Bound and the Spirit of New Zealand.

In yet another, 70-year-old Lafitagoa Matua remembers being taken advantage of when she first arrived here from Samoa almost 50 years ago.

The DanceBox Challenge project is an extension of the Touch Compass Dance Company's season last year of short performances on the streets of Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.

I suggest to Chappell that the box makes a neat visual representation of the confinement and limitation that the dancers seek to break free of.

"The original idea was to create an enclosed space to capture the work well on film. So it was a functional decision. But other connotations came out of it."

After similar ventures in Wellington and Christchurch, the filmed sequences will go online in July when viewers can vote for their favourites.

The votes will dictate the selections for a public show at Q Theatre in Auckland in August.

On the web

- NZ Herald

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