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Alisha McLennan challenges perceptions of who can dance

11 Nov 2013

This content is tagged as Dance .


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Many of us would like to fly, to spin and flip through the air with grace and agility. Most of us don’t get the chance but for Aucklander Alisha McLennan, it’s what she does for a living.

Alisha McLennan, a dancer in the Auckland-based inclusive contemporary dance company, Touch Compass, specialises in aerial work with bungee and static rope. She recently added trapeze, silks and cocoon to the list.

Alisha’s skills were acknowledged when she was selected as one of three finalists in the Artistic Achievement category of the 2013 Attitude Awards. The recipients of these awards, which celebrate excellence and achievements of New Zealanders living with a disability, will be announced in Auckland on 3 December.

For Alisha, who has cerebral palsy, the Attitude Awards’ recognition was a lovely surprise. “I found out I was a finalist when I was in the UK and it gave me a sense of being on the right track. It’s really nice being recognised for doing something I love.

“I also love challenging people’s perceptions of who can dance.”

Alisha first got involved with Touch Compass and aerial work when she was ten-years-old. She had never danced before. “I did a couple of workshops and really enjoyed it. The second one was an aerial workshop and I was hooked. It’s what got me into both the aerial work and contemporary dance.”

She first performed with Touch Compass at its launch in 1999 at the Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki and then went on to dance in the youth flying performance, My Room.

Alisha has remained a member of the company. “I am one of the dancers and also work as a support teacher. We also get the opportunity to develop our own choreography, something I would like to explore more.”

In a review of the InterACT Festival in October 2013, the reviewer described Alisha’s performance with Touch Compass as “hypnotically watchable” and a “real stand-out”. 

She also tutors the Touch Compass youth class with Rebecca Solomon and Adrian Smith, and says she finds the work both challenging and rewarding.

“But all my experiences in workshops and classes here in New Zealand and internationally have given me so many skills and perspectives to draw on when I’m working with young people and also within the company.”

Alisha has attended workshops in England in aerial work and contemporary dance. An AIMES Award grant in 2011 supported her to travel to England the following year and participate in a four-day workshop with Wired Aerial Dance, an aerial dance company specialising in bungee-assisted dance.

“The bungee was fairly new to me and it was my first experience of the vertical wall, where dancers work in harnesses next to a surface, much like a vertical trampoline,” she explains.
This year, Alisha attended two workshops in England to learn new techniques and skills: a Candoco Summer Lab at Lancaster University and a Paralympics aerial legacy workshop in London.

She was one of only 15 participants selected to attend the Candoco Summer Lab and describes it as life-changing experience. “I spent a week at the Candoco lab learning improvisation techniques. It was great being in a different environment. There were also optional evening classes so it was pretty full on.

“In the Paralympics workshop we worked on the silk, cocoon and trapeze. I was in the afternoon group and there were only four people in that workshop. There were only four teachers and so we got some great one-on-one sessions.”

Asked what she rates as her greatest achievement in dance, Alisha says: “If I was asked that question ten times over the past three years, I think I would have given ten different answers.

“There are so many highlights. Touch Compass’s fifteenth anniversary, three international workshops, watching students make huge progress and perform, an AIMES award and an Attitude Artistic Achievement finalist … and so much more.  I really can’t choose one. It’s been an incredible few years.”

Touch Compass is New Zealand’s only professional inclusive dance company. It receives funding from Creative New Zealand's inverstement programme.