Three years ago I had the opportunity to dance with AXIS as a community dancer in David Dorfman’s Light Shelter. The experience was pivotal. Coming from a dance background steeped in ballet with its emphasis on youth and ability, AXIS taught me that I needn’t be so precious about my body. I learned that rigorous dance can exist in any body, whether that body be confined to a wheelchair or otherwise restricted in what it can do.
Over the past three years of watching AXIS perform around the community, I’ve grown to consider AXIS’ dancers and staff some of my personal heroes for their commitment to making dance that is in league with other companies in artistic rigor but that also brings dance to a segment of the population which would otherwise not be exposed to it: the disabled community.
However, AXIS is currently in transition; two disabled mainstays of the company, Alice Sheppard and Rodney Bell, are leaving the company for new horizons. And while I will surely miss their presence in Bay Area dance, I am also excited to see what the future holds for AXIS.
Joel Brown is the newest addition to the AXIS family. Artistic director Judith Smith filled me in on Brown’s background: “Joel Brown is one of our new dancers and he is relocated from Utah. His brother and mother are dancers, and his father is a gymnast. He was injured in a car accident when he was about nine. He’s danced some with his brother but he’s also a singer/songwriter so we’re excited to have someone in the company with singing and musical talents.
“Most of our disabled dancers that come to us have very little dance training and are new to dance. We have been very fortunate to find people who don’t have a lot of experience but who have potential and pick things up really fast. Joel has in fact performed before and done quite a bit of dance with his brother. I’m absolutely confident in his abilities. He’s already learned two or three repertoire pieces and most of our assembly program.”
The other newest AXIS dancer, who has yet to arrive, is a young woman from Austria who is an amputee. “I’m really looking forward to having a little more physical diversity in the company. Having an amputee dancer will add a whole new dimension and bring something back to our movement vocabulary that I’ve been missing,” said Smith.
Choreographically, AXIS has one of the most forward-thinking commissioning programs in the Bay Area. Every year AXIS commissions different choreographers to create new work on the company. Last year Europe-based Marc Brew created Full of Words, a piece that evoked different movement dialogues in different environments (a living room, a table and chairs, and a bathroom). The resulting piece was electric in its use of space, interactions, and differently-abled bodies.
This year audiences can expect more great work from AXIS. “We’re going to be working with Victoria Marks on a new piece in collaboration with Beth Custer (she’s from San Francisco and she’s done a lot of music for different dancers and choreographers, including Joe Goode). We’re also going to be doing a piece with Amy Seiwert,” Smith said. Victoria Marks is a professor of choreography in the Department of World Arts and Cultures at UCLA. Amy Seiwert is a locally based choreographer and is the artistic director of Imagery.
In addition, Alex Ketley (artistic director of The Foundry) will be creating a new duet for AXIS. Ketley has previously been commissioned by AXIS; his duet To Color Me Different (2008) on dancers Sonsheree Giles and Rodney Bell won a 2009 Isadora Duncan Award for Ensemble Performance as well as brought AXIS televised acclaim when it was performed on So You Think You Can Dance in 2011.
While these new dancers and upcoming choreographic projects bode an exciting future year for AXIS, in the meantime audiences can experience AXIS in all its distinctiveness this August 3 as part of the Rotunda Dance Series. The Rotunda Dance Series, presented by Dancers’ Group and World Arts West, is a series of free lunchtime performances performed at the San Francisco City Hall. AXIS will be performing Terre Brune, choreographed by Sonya Delwaide, The Narrowing, choreographed by Sebastian Grubb, Point to Something, choreographed by Sonsheree Giles, and a structured improvisation. Improvisation is one of the key practices of the company; with so many different bodies and ability levels to contend with, AXIS uses improvisation as an important tool for negotiating different approaches to movement.
Associate Director and dancer Sonsheree Giles related to me how AXIS hones improvisation as an indelible practice of the company. “Improvisation is often used as a group warm-up. It is also often the basis of generating movement for choreographers as well as movement invention. It is how the company works as an ensemble to build trust as well as to listen and develop a common language. We usually use a structured score with pre-determined rules; we take turns leading, directing, and developing new scores. We explore by playing and finding things that are challenging, fun and/or satisfying. We practice improvising all the time. Even traditional dance classes for us still have a heavy component of improvisation because everyone is in a unique body. We have to make choreography work for each unique person. Therefore improvising is a skill we practice, develop and craft in order to best communicate, listen and dance.” Watching how different bodies cope with different choreographic tasks is one of the most interesting and inspiring aspects of AXIS’ movement practice and repertoire.
In addition to attending the Rotunda Series, anyone interested in getting involved with AXIS can partake in AXIS’ education and outreach programs. AXIS hosts an annual summer intensive program, as well as ongoing creative dance classes for kids, teens, and adults. Outreach is an important component of AXIS’ mission, and classes are geared toward contact improvisation, creative dance technique, choreography, and performance skills.
Between improvising and practicing repertoire, reaching out and educating adults and children in the Bay Area community, performing at events like the Rotunda Series, and commissioning and creating new works, AXIS has its hands full. Few companies and institutions in the Bay Area have the same breadth of reach and distinctiveness of mission as AXIS, and I am excited to watch the company grow and flourish in the years ahead.
And while I will miss Bell and Sheppard’s spellbinding presence, their exit in no way signals a dip in AXIS’ vitality. “It’s always a mixed thing when dancers come and go with this company because we do have to put repertoire away for a while. Our repertoire is really very much built on the people who are there making the piece. Sometimes we’re able to keep repertoire pieces going and sometimes we’re not and there’s a few that we’re putting away. It’s always sad when people come and go but there are also new opportunities that open up,” commented Smith.
AXIS’ slogan “Prepare to leave all your preconceptions at the door…” has proven so true. Thanks to AXIS, my preconceptions about who can dance and what dance is have dramatically changed. I know now that dance is limitless in what it can do.
Emmaly Wiederholt moved to the Bay Area in 2008 to study under Summer Lee Rhatigan at the San Francisco Conservatory of Dance. She currently dances with Malinda LaVelle’s Project Thrust and writes about dance for the San Francisco Examiner and for stanceondance.com.