AXIS Dance Company challenges what it means to be a dancer
AXIS Dance Company is testament to the old adage “you have to see it to believe it.” The Oakland-based organization has earned praise worldwide for its physically integrated dance—a contemporary form that incorporates dancers with and without disabilities.
“There is a huge amount of skill and generosity that goes into a physically integrated performance that gets lost in words,” explains Sonsheree Giles, associate director of AXIS. “You have to see it, because it’s hard for most people to understand what it might mean for someone with a wheelchair to dance.”
Since its inception in 1987, AXIS has performed more than 60 repertory works, three of which—“The Reflective Surface,” “The Narrowing” and “what if would you”—will unfold at Motion Pacific on Oct. 12 and 13.
AXIS is known for its impressive lifts, physical contact and counterbalances between dancers. And in Motion Pacific’s intimate studio, Santa Cruz audiences will have the opportunity to view the meticulous and expressive movements executed by the company up-close, as well as engage with the performers in pieces like Victoria Marks’ “what if would you.”
Marks and Amy Seiwert (creator of “The Reflective Surface”) were both hired by AXIS to choreograph pieces specifically for the company’s dancers. Since taking over the artistic director position in 2001, Judith Smith has regularly brought in outside choreographers to diversify AXIS’ body of work, which also features internally generated pieces, like AXIS dancer Sebastian Grubb’s “The Narrowing.”
“When the company changed leadership, my goal was to convince critics that we were doing a viable art form, and not therapy,” explains Smith. “We started commissioning well-known choreographers and our work changed radically from being pieces that were often directly about disability, to not doing pieces about disability at all.”
As a founding member, Smith recalls the early days of the company, when AXIS dancers created all of their own work and did not receive the acclaim that the physically integrated group does now. She notes that the inclusion of outside choreography and removal of pieces that centered on disability allowed for more serious critique. That, and the expectation-shattering work the company produced, convinced funders and audiences that AXIS’ productions could never be considered anything but dance.
“We started out interested in dance and while we realize that there is a social and political implication to what we do, that’s not why we started AXIS,” Smith says. “We’re not a wheelchair dance company and we’re not a disabled dance company. We’re a contemporary dance company that does physically integrated work.”
As AXIS dancers themselves, Giles and Smith agree that physically integrated dance allows them to do things that more traditional dance companies cannot. Non-disabled dancers naturally come from similar training backgrounds, body shapes, and body movements—a uniformity that AXIS casts off with pleasure.
“I can do lifts with any dancer, but doing a lift with Joel [Brown] who is on his wheels gliding through space, is obviously going to be a different experience than being lifted by someone who is standing on their two feet,” says Giles. “There are different physics involved, but it’s still physics.”
For Smith, who was disabled by a car accident at the age of 17, the joy of AXIS comes from dancing with bodies that move differently from her own.
“When you start including how wheelchairs move and how crutches work and how dancers move with and without a prosthetic, it just radically expands the possibilities,” explains Smith. “Instead of being a limitation, we can do things that a company of dancers on all feet can’t do.”
Prior to its show on Oct.13, AXIS will hold a community-based workshop, open to anyone with an interest in creative movement, regardless of ability or dance skill level, at Motion Pacific. Giles notes that in both the performances and the workshop, the goal is to teach people that dance should be inclusive.
“We redefine dance by breaking a mold and presenting the important questions that come with that,” says Giles. “Afterward I always feel like people go away having dialogues about what they saw and the social layer under beautiful bodies doing beautiful things.”
AXIS performs at 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 12 and 3 p.m. Sunday, Oct.13 at Motion Pacific, 131 Front St., Ste. E, Santa Cruz. Tickets are $17/adv, $19/door. Student and senior discount available. The workshop will be held from 12:30-2:30 p.m. on Sunday, Oct.13 at Motion Pacific. $20. For tickets, details and to register for the workshop, visit motionpacific.com, or call 457-1616.
Photos: #1 Matt Haber #2 David DeSilva