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Pelenakeke Brown: Access all areas the aim for new dance leader

Flagstaff Team

Fostering creators… Pelenakeke Brown is the new artistic director of Touch Compass Dance Company

The new artistic director of Takapuna-based Touch Compass Dance Company is on a mission to ensure artistic expression is open to all.

Pelenakeke Brown is, for now, working remotely for the ground-breaking company which has its office at the Wilson Home. The 31-year-old multi-disciplinary artist and dancer is in lockdown in at a family bach at Waikanae, north of Wellington, looking forward to when she can drive back to her home city to fully embrace her new role. She’s in planning mode until then, and conducting online classes.

Touch Compass is a New Zealand leader in showcasing the skills of dancers of all abilities. Run by a charitable trust, it teaches community classes and also retains a core company of up to a dozen dancers. Close links with Takapuna Grammar School see company members and school dancers sometimes stage shows together.

Brown’s own connection with Touch Compass goes back more than 20 years. As a nine-year-old who had been born with cerebral palsy she was taking dance classes at Unitec when invited to join the company. “I was really really shy, but I loved it,” she recalls.

For several years she danced and toured with the group, before focusing on her schooling, rounded out with a degree at the University of Auckland in Pacific Studies and English literature. After a few years in the workforce, Brown headed to New York for more studies on an arts scholarship.

After six years spent living in apartments, lockdown is something Brown is coping well with. “A lot of disabled people we stay at home a lot – so it’s not so scary.” The experience has got her thinking more about the use of technology, both in how to integrate this in arts performances and also how to make its daily use user-friendly. “In a Covid world if we are all at home, it’s accessible in ways that’s not usually the case.”

During her time in New York, Brown, who walks with a cane, was far from housebound. She used the subway and participated in the cultural life of the city, taking part in performance pieces and dance programmes at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the New York Public Library. Themes of physical movement and the aesthetics of disability were at their Access all areas the aim for new dance leader core. Immigration and indigenous culture were other topics, seen through the lens of her Samoan heritage.

With her growing reputation in the arts community, Brown was called upon by the Touch Compass board in an advisory capacity as it planned a move to a more disabled-led approach in its work. Adopted last year, the strategy ultimately led to her recent appointment for an interim 12-month term. A year ago, returning home was more of a long-time thought as she had a valid US visa until this September.

Brown ended up stuck on holiday in London when New York City went into lockdown. Unable to fly back to the States, returning to family here seemed her best option.

Now comes the welcome challenge of steering Touch Compass to be both for and by disabled people – as a “world-class labspace in Aotearoa”. Acknowledging diversity and drawing on the skills of the wider arts community are part of her plan to provide more opportunities.

“I want [Touch Compass] to be a space that fosters and supports disabled creators,” says the woman who went from being a founding dancer in the company to being its guide to a more inclusive future.

This article originally appeared in the 15 May 2020 edition of the Rangitoto Observer.

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