The music, the movement, especially the duet taking place centre-stage, is yearning, sad. The partnership between the two rehearsing dancers has a deep intensity. She is Catherine Chappell, founder and backbone of the mixed-ability dance company, Touch Compass. He is one of its stars, Jesse Steele, born to perform, with a natural talent, wit and Down's Syndrome.

Together they produce one of those moments of magic where the rest of the world seems to subside, and there is only this moment, this meaning.

Touch Compass' third production, Lighthouse, opens at the Aotea Centre on Saturday. The ASB Theatre is a huge step up from its former venues for the fledgling, project-based company. The season is short, just two weekend performances. Chappell, laptop at hand, has responsibility for more than the choreography of the new show.


"It's go, go, go!" she says, with just a touch of hysteria.

Regular dance initiatives struggle. With a mixed-ability company there are a whole raft of other complexities and expenses to contend with before the regular process even begins: transport and access for wheelchairs, for a start.

Touch Compass has overcome the logistics, so far, and established itself artistically: the reviews have always glowed. But Chappell says she will not be able to sustain this level of production without the support of an appropriate infrastructure. She hopes the Aotea Centre performances might be a shortcut to that support.

"So many people could get involved, be touched by it, if they could see what it is," she says.

If you have not yet seen a Touch Compass performance, you could be excused for pondering the potential of a dance company whose members' varied experiences range from cerebral palsy to spina bifida and one-sided paralysis. But to see the company in full flight - literally, as both able-bodied and disabled dancers take to trapeze-like ropes - is to discover a new and powerful voice in the dance world.

Christian Penny, a former director of Theatre at Large, now head of directing at Toi Whakaari New Zealand Drama School in Wellington, joined Touch Compass for its last production, Lusi's Eden, and is again collaborating with Chappell on Lighthouse.

"I came to realise while we were making Lusi's Eden that nothing else I have ever made in the theatre made me weep every time I saw it," he says. And he quotes Douglas Wright's words that "dance is the most transcendent art form there is - it leaves behind the ordinary to grasp the metaphysical".

"For example, Lusi [Lusi Faiva, who has severe cerebral palsy and is a founder member and star of the company] is so disabled," says Penny, "but when she flies we all feel liberated because she is such a direct communicator of that joy and freedom."

Another part of the magic, says Penny, comes from seeing such physical diversity on stage, but by creating such a cohesive theatrical language you stop thinking about disability. "Then you simply see that everybody is different - and that the connection between such differences is really profound."

Not every able-bodied dancer is able to measure up to the standards set by Touch Compass, says Penny. During the audition process for able-bodied dancers to join the company, many fell short of the requirement to bring their individual personalities to the fore.

"Unless they can do that they are no good in this company," he says. "It is not about technique."

Dancers such as Lusi Faiva and Jesse Steele walk on stage and are instantly revealed, he says. The other dancers all have to come up with something to match that - or the whole thing looks odd.

"The transparency that Jesse shows, that degree of revelation and focus, takes most professionals a long time to achieve."

Touch Compass also fulfils a separate social purpose, presenting a diversity of bodies on stage where their movement can be watched, not in any condescending way, but for what it is.

"It enables the wider community to be with a minority part of our culture in a fantastic way," says Penny. "In society these people live somewhere else. Touch Compass does for the disabled community what plays like Toa Fraser's No 2 do for ethnic minorities: they let you look into a different sort of family and hear their voice."

There is no doubt, either, that the contact with Chappell and her improvisation techniques has brought huge changes to her disabled dancers' lives.

Lighthouse consists of three separate works: a rerun of Lusi's Eden, a flying improvisation using harnesses and ropes, and the central work, entitled Lighthouse.

Lighthouse began with the sharing of personal stories about landmarks in individual lives, turning points and significant personalities. The image of a lighthouse, sitting in isolation with just a small community around it, and the inherent danger of the sorts of places - rocky outcrops - where lighthouses are typically found, had real significance for the company.

Then there is the play on the parts of the word, "light" and "house" giving a sense of hope, direction and positive change. Chappell, when she gets a moment to reflect, is excited about the show.

"It's grunty. It's got balance. And we have got more support this time, it is on a bigger scale, we will reach more people."

She also confesses she has moments when she is overwhelmed at what she has created, at the "power of it". She describes the sense of community within the company, the depth of relationships and the connection as well as the power of connection that creates with an audience.

"When these dancers are working," she says, "everybody is 100 per cent there. There are no egos in the room, there is no competition. Everybody is just trying to be the best they can be, for themselves. And that honesty and truthfulness really transmits."

* Lighthouse, by Touch Compass, at the ASB Theatre, Aotea Centre, September 28, 29.