Integrated dance company Touch Compass is celebrating its 15-year milestone with an exciting new repertoire, reports Raewyn Whyte

Fifteen years ago, when Touch Compass Dance Company debuted at the Maidment Theatre, the performers seized the imagination of their audience and inspired all who watched to rethink their ideas about who could be a dancer, and what dance could be. On stage were seven performers, two in wheelchairs and one with Down syndrome, and four others without a disability.

The liberatingly spectacular finale was their own invention, a style of dance which rapidly became their trademark.

Dancers in wheelchairs flew through the air on ropes while others skimmed across the stage on rollerblades. Dancers in harnesses, twined and spiralled among the ropes, or carried others with them as they flew, while on the stage wheelchairs spun and danced, and bodies leaped and rolled and provided support to one another's exhilarating improvised moves.


The joy on the dancers' faces shared their delight in being free from gravity, and the astonishing scenes triggered heartfelt applause.

That first performance demonstrated two principles that stand behind the company's success - no matter what limitations an individual may have, each one of us has a unique ability to dance, and working together makes it possible to share experiences otherwise impossible to create.

This coming week, Touch Compass will mark its 15th anniversary as New Zealand's leading integrated dance company. A triple bill of recently created dance works - Run, Slip and Spring - present the range of the company's extraordinary abilities, and celebrate each dancer's contributions.

The company's spectacular aerial dancing will be a feature of the show in Spring, named for the fascinating, playful, bouncy dynamic of the aerial bungee which Touch Compass now uses in place of rope and harness rigging.

Touch Compass artistic director Catherine Chappell explains, "Over the years, we have created our flying magic working with conventional rope and harness rigging, but that system has limitations which we really want to bypass.

Fortunately, aerial bungee equipment and expertise is now available here, and we have the chance to find out just what can be done with it.

"There's not many performance companies around the world," she says, "using aerial bungee in the theatre. The two best known are Wired Aerial in the UK, and I'll be working with them later this year in an intensive training course; and Strings Attached, an aerial dance and physical theatre company in Sydney."

"Thanks to Creative NZ funding, Strings Attached spent two weeks with us here during March, helping to get the best set-up for our new aerial bungee rigging. That was fabulous, and we hope to collaborate with them on a project before too long."


The four dancers in Spring are enjoying creating the new work on the bungees, learning how to rethink spatial awareness and ways of moving, as the bounce of the bungee is different from the pull and swing of the static ropes. Matt Gibbons says it's a bit like astronaut training.

"It's like dream movement, you can do almost anything, jump really high with very little effort, bounce back to another position, land on an elbow if you want to.

"But it's also counter-intuitive because the bungee requires you to work away from your centre of gravity instead of with it, and because you are constantly working your pelvis it is tough on the body, so you have work in concentrated bursts."

Adrian Smith finds it exhilarating. "Suddenly you can go from almost lying on the floor to being high above it, or slowly descend at a gravity-defying pace. I'm constantly amazed at what we find ourselves doing."

Alisha McLennan loves being able to jump, climb and fall with freedom, things which are seldom possible in a wheelchair.

"Especially to jump! The bungee helps me to get height in a jump, and allows me to land safely, things I haven't been able to do before. But you have to keep constantly working against the bungee in order to keep your grounding, and in partner work you need to keep aware of the way you are both using energy to make sure neither of you suddenly becomes exhausted."

The fourth member of the quartet, Sarah Houbolt, is new to Touch Compass. She has a circus background and lots of aerial experience. "I'm used to doing tricks 10 metres up in the air, large scale movement," she says, "so I'm enjoying the challenge of working in a more subtle range of expression much closer to the ground. I'm having fun collaborating on bungee duets, too."

Horizontal bungee features in Run, created by Australian wheelchair-based choreographer Marc Brew, drawing on the life experiences of the dancers - Suzanne Cowan, Daniel King, Emilio Rubio and Adrian Smith. It's a demandingly physical dance full of tension, centred on moments in which you want to run away and leave everything behind, but instead have to confront things head on. Set to evocatively moody music by Drew McMillan, Run nevertheless holds tranquil, reflective moments of great beauty.

Completing the triple bill is Slip I'm not falling I'm just hanging on as long as you hold me, a work celebrating each dancer's individuality, choreographed by Carol Brown in 2010 to music created by Russell Scoones. There's a song for each dancer about life-changing
moments, explored in the dancing. New company members Melanie Turner and Georgie Goater join Alisha McLennan, Emilia Rubio, Daniel King and Jesse Johnstone-Steele in this work.

Over 15 years, Touch Compass has developed into a professional integrated dance company with a well-deserved international reputation for ground-breaking work of the highest quality. Commissions from internationally recognised choreographers have been a significant factor in developing the dancers while equipping the company with an exciting repertoire, and international opportunities are opening up beyond Australia where they have already performed three seasons.

The company offers community classes at venues in Auckland and Wellington, and a training programme for teachers of integrated dance.

The company's fully accessible dance studio, with a sprung floor big enough to teach 30 dancers in wheelchairs, and facilities for aerial bungee workshops, is being used constantly, with community classes following after company rehearsals end.

Touch Compass artistic director Catherine Chappell and general manager Karen Fraser-Payne look forward to further consolidation and expansion of the artistic and community aspects of the company's work.

Run, Slip, Spring
Where and when: Q Theatre, 305 Queen St from June 27-30 at 7.30pm plus matinees at 1pm on June 28 and 29

- TimeOut