AXIS Dance Company - photo by Trib LaPrad
Polite people are usually taught from a young age not to stare at strangers who are physically disabled.
AXIS Dance Company has a different attitude. The San Francisco-based company invites its audiences to look as hard, and as long, as possible.
For over two decades AXIS has pioneered physically integrated work, presenting dance performed by dancers who move with the help of manual and power wheelchairs, crutches and prosthetics working as equals alongside dancers who are more traditionally trained and able-bodied. The results have been eye-opening and field-changing: a new dance idiom that challenges conventional ways of moving and collaborating onstage and has broadened the definition of both dance and human potential.
Tonight's program shines a spotlight on the special role AXIS and its director, Judith Smith, have taken in commissioning work from more than a dozen inventive choreographers. Smith, who had a passion for riding horses as a girl and became a champion equestrienne before she was disabled in a car accident at age 17, is a founding member of AXIS. She has been the troupe's artistic director since 1997. Smith was eager to stretch the company's repertoire and over the years has sought out dancemakers who are eager to explore the array of talents AXIS brings to the stage.
Joe Goode relished an opportunity to think differently about the limits of human motion. He was one of the first "outside" choreographers AXIS ever commissioned to create a work, coming up with his dramatically compressed version of Jane Eyre for AXIS' 2000 season. Goode revisited AXIS in 2006. The result is the beauty that was mine, through the middle, without stopping...
"Joe came in with the simple notion of starting with a level playing field for everybody," Smith remembers. "We all warmed up sitting in chairs in a circle. He asked us to identify our shared vocabulary, what we could all do together." Instead of asking for a particular motion, step or shape, he asked the dancers to focus on their internal impulses: what, for example, it would look like when the tip of dancer's head led her around the corner or how both performers in and out of wheelchairs could twist and curve to the right.
the beauty that was mine, through the middle, without stopping... engages with the subtle politics of representation. Prominently, it features a picture frame that "crops" the body – that can hide or focus attention on a person's strengths and deficits. With a keen sense of irony, Goode's work poses serious questions about what can and cannot be seen.
Alex Ketley first worked with AXIS during a residency at the Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography (MANCC) at Florida State University in Tallahassee. He was one of four emerging choreographers chosen to work with the company. Resident choreographer for the San Francisco Conservatory of Dance, the ballet-trained Ketley is artistic director of the dance company The Foundry. MANCC, like the Bates Dance Festival, offers its choreographic residents the very special luxury of working without any requirement that the residency result in a finished work.
"To get paid to go play for 8 hours a day was one of the top experiences of my life," Smith enthuses. Sonsheree Giles, AXIS' associate director, dancer and costume designer, remembers that Ketley "had been diving deeply into idea of language, [asking] how can you communicate and talk while you dance. He spent a lot of time in a wheelchair choreographing, trying to come about things in a different way."
Ketley's duet for Maori dancer, Rodney Bell, and Sonsherée Giles, To Color Me Different is a passionate, perhaps fractured relationship that is less about different degrees of physical ability than about different types of personal power. In 2008, Ketley reworked the duet for a larger, ensemble work, Vessel. Set to a collage of voices whose text was provided by the dancers arranged by poet, Carol Snow, Vessel retains traces of studio improvisation. The dance, and Snow's text, asks how the body conveys information that it may – or may not -- be possible to translate into language.
Light Shelter is David Dorfman's first collaboration with AXIS. Light Shelter plays with ideas of equivalence and competitiveness. Under swinging lamps designed by Heather Basarab – a design that nods to Dorfman's landmark 2004 Light Bulb Theory – and a stage edged with fluorescent tubes, Light Shelter portrays the athleticism of both its disabled and non-disabled performers. One performer swings her arms with as much violence as the most virtuosic jumper. Another somersaults across the floor in response to a wheelchair user's dare that she learned to roll. David Dorfman, Smith says, "is another one of those radical humanists."
Remarkably, even within AXIS' enlarged and reshaped movement vocabulary, each choreographer's distinctive creative voice comes through.
"The thing that's exciting -- I didn't know this would happen –is that working together ends up being mutually beneficial. Choreographers get something out of working with us, a different direction, the ability to explore a different movement vocabulary."
And besides, adds Smith, "we're a pretty cool group of people to work with."
© 2010 Debra Cash