“We stopped doing pieces about disability fifteen years ago,” said Judith Smith, founding member and creative director of AXIS Dance Company. This month, the internationally renowned physically integrated dance company celebrates its twenty-fifth anniversary home season at the Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts, its home base near Lake Merritt in Oakland.
AXIS formed as a contemporary dance company in 1996, emerging from its first incarnation as a movement practice for women who used wheelchairs, taught by founding artistic director Thais Mazur. A member of the founding group, Smith, who uses a power wheelchair, felt that the possibilities for physically integrated dance would be vast. She sought to get well-known choreographers interested, and over the past fifteen years AXIS has amassed an enviable list of collaborators: Stephen Petronio, Alex Ketley, Bill T. Jones, Joe Goode, Joanna Haigood, Shinichi Iova-Koga, David Dorfman, Margaret Jenkins, Sonya Delwaide.
The company has won seven Izzies and received nine additional nominations. It has toured the nation and the world, from Lincoln, Nebraska, to Novosibirsk, Russia. AXIS has twice performed on So You Think You Can Dance, arguably the most salient nod of mainstream approval at the moment. And yet, Smith said, in spite of a history of commissioning and performing leading-edge contemporary dance, some people are still perplexed by the company’s combination of dance and disability.
“It’s impossible to separate,” she acknowledged. “It’s made us who we are, and in some ways it’s been an obstacle for people.” For choreographers who don’t see disability as an obstacle to dance, exciting creative vistas open when working with AXIS. Among those are Delwaide and Amy Seiwert, who along with Victoria Marks have created world premiers for the April shows.
“I can safely say I’ve never been more terrified for a rehearsal day (to start) in my life,” Seiwert said. “Just having so many variables that I haven’t trained for, that I don’t know.” Like Seiwert, nearly every choreographer who works with AXIS goes through a flummoxed early stage when it dawns on them that the potential angles, momentum, speed and partnering are endless.
The next stage is realizing that before they start choreography, they’ll have to whittle infinity into a cohesive vocabulary. Seiwert plumbed the possibilities during class with the five company dancers: Joel Brown, Emily Eifler, Sonsherée Giles, Sebastian Grubb and Juliana Monin. “I did a phrase, and it was interpreted by each dancer to suit their body and their physicality, and what they could do with it. [For example], what does a pirouette mean to Joel?”
To create The Reflective Surface on Brown, Eifler, Giles and Grubb, Seiwert coached the dancers on her inventive ballet-based style. She also gained insight into her own creative methods as she developed partnering that incorporated Brown’s manual wheelchair and Eifler’s crutches. The process entailed extensive contact improv, experimentation, trial, error and at least one bloody nose.
“At one point I was like, ‘Just move.’ I taped them doing three minutes of improv and just stared at it for the longest time,” she said, marveling at the dancers’ bloodied-but-unbowed willingness to do everything she asked and more. “This is the toughest company I’ve ever worked with. These guys are hard core.”
Delwaide agrees. “They’ll never say no,” she said. She has created eight works on the company, including its first-ever commission, in 1998, and this season’s duet, Dix minutes plus tard (Ten Minutes Later). “I’ll say, ‘Can you do this?’ And they’ll look at me like, ‘OK, I’ll try.’ They’re so open to try different things and to look at what the choreographer has to offer and see how they can adapt it for their body.”
Kinesthetic awareness is at a premium when partnering entails widely varying centers of gravity, balance and momentum. So is trust. “If Sonsherée’s gonna run and dive on Joel’s chair, you’re going to see her do this little check to see that the casters of the chair are in line. How they interact with each other is just so nuanced,” Seiwert says.
According to Giles, “You find out where the point of balance is. I can just look and I know, and I can feel when [Joel’s] gonna pitch, when it’s got just a little bit too much torque on it. I relate it a lot to contact improv; it has the same principles, but it’s on wheels.” For Brown’s part, “I’m incredibly strong from the chest up, but I don’t have abs. So when I’m partnering, I have to think about where am I going to hold my balance, and where I am going to be strong enough to hold their balance as well.”
Delwaide has returned to the company so many times in part because of the physical and emotional depth the performers bring. “I think part of it is because my work is so based on human relationships,” she said. “I observe people and how we function as humans. So it’s still about humans, and how is it for this human to be on this wheelchair.” The results have been intriguing, thrilling and entertaining for choreographers, dancers, audiences and critics alike.
It wasn’t always that way; in the early days it was a challenge simply to get critics in the house, and wholly another to get serious, rather than sympathetic, reviews. AXIS’ artistic intent is no longer a question, but challenges still exist. Finding experienced disabled dancers is one of the biggest. “You still can’t get training the way any other dancer would, and there are no advanced degree programs,” Smith says.
Even when a new dancer is a superb fit in terms of skills, Smith explained, when dancers join AXIS “we have to learn how to not only partner with each other’s bodies, but we have to learn about each other’s equipment. You have to develop a whole new kind of kinesthetic knowledge of each other, and a whole new rapport with each other.” So, unlike most companies, when AXIS loses a dancer, it potentially loses all of the rep that they helped create as well. That’s why the twenty-fifth anniversary season features world premieres rather than restagings. “A lot of companies are able to do a retrospective. That’s pretty much impossible for us,” Smith said.
Funding has been especially hard to come by in the recent economy, but prudent budgeting has allowed Smith to maintain excellent compensation for the dancers, who get fifty-two weeks of salary, four weeks’ paid vacation, health benefits, a professional development stipend, use of the studio and more.
And then there are the logistics that few other companies ever have to consider. When touring, “most people don’t have to worry that their legs are going to get broken when they get off the plane. We don’t know if our wheelchairs are going to come back to us in one piece or not. And then you’re out on the road and there’s no wheelchair repair, and your type of chair doesn’t even exist.” In spite of promoters’ assurances, venues don’t always have accessible bathrooms, or even an accessible stage, and wheelchair seating is often insufficient to meet audience demand. And although viewer response is overwhelmingly enthusiastic, “We once had someone who left because it was too hard for them to watch disabled people onstage.”
Lesser hearts would have broken long ago. “It’s been a huge job,” Smith said. “It’s been way bigger than I thought it would be.” Indeed, Seiwert’s description of this group as “hard core” applies to far more than the dancing.
Twenty-five years later, Smith is still motivated by the same clear mission she started with: “I just really want to make a lasting impression on dance, to keep doing good work that people want to see and want to present.”
To that end, education is at the top of the AXIS agenda for the future. This October the company will be in residence at Mills College, and AXIS has been working with Eric Kupers to develop an associate’s or certificate program in physically integrated dance at CSU East Bay. AXIS will continue its extensive outreach in schools—each year, the company reaches 15,000 students nationwide—plus preprofessional summer intensives and master classes. AXIS engages the community through disability awareness days and corporate and special events; a recent highlight was a performance for NASA astronauts. “People get to stare at us for ninety minutes, and they stop seeing just the disability,” she says. “Not that it’s not there, but they stop seeing that as the main identifier, the main way they would describe us or define us.”
Along with more world premieres, the AXIS bucket list also includes a restaging of iconic modern works, making a Dance on Camera piece with Alex Ketley, a proposed tour of Australia in 2014, and hopefully someday an American Dance Festival appearance and a New York season. And, according to Smith, “We still have a lot of work to make AXIS the best place to work that it can be.”
Nonetheless, AXIS is in a good place. It has a well-defined point of view, talented and dedicated dancers, a sense of humor and heaps of moxie. “AXIS is a dance company that goes where no other dance companies go,” says Smith. “We do work that changes people minds, and sometimes changes people’s lives. And I don’t think very many people get to say that.”
AXIS Dance Company’s 25th-anniversary home season takes place Friday–Sunday, April 12–14, at Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts, 1428 Alice Street, Oakland. Fri.–Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 2 p.m. Tickets $10–25. 1-800-838-3006 or BrownPaperTickets.com