NEA Arts Magazine

Bodies in Motion

AXIS Dance Company Features Physically Integrated Dance

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Four dancers, one in wheechair with back to the audience, arms outstretched to the left, one kneeling leaning back, two others in standing movements

Sonsherée Giles spins on Rodney Bell's wheels in an award-winning dance piece by Joe Goode. Photo by Brian Rdzak-Martin

Since its founding 22 years ago in Oakland, California, AXIS Dance Company has been committed to creating work that features both disabled and able-bodied dancers. When company member Judith Smith became artistic director in 1997, AXIS changed direction, seeking to expand its outreach programs and repertory. By commissioning work from major choreographers and launching the company's successful community education programs, AXIS has given new meaning to the phrase "accessible dance."

Whenever Smith talks about the company's work, she uses the phrase, "physically integrated dance." "It's been really hard to figure out what to call this form of dance," she said. "We are not a wheelchair dance company. We are not a disabled dance company. We are a contemporary dance company that does physically integrated work, and by that I mean we have dancers with and without physical disabilities."

The dual emphasis on collaborative performance and a commitment to outreach has not only sustained AXIS, but created a demand for its physically inclusive work. On one recent March day, the company divided and conquered California's Bay Area. Two dancers headed south to perform school assemblies, while Smith and another dancer gave a demonstration at a nearby independent living center. Later that evening, the company reconvened in Oakland to rehearse an upcoming work with David Dorfman, one of the nation's leading modern dance choreographers.

"We tend to stay pretty busy," Smith said. "Our education program is unparalleled compared to what other physically integrated dance companies are doing, and there aren't many contemporary companies of our size that do the amount of education work that we do."

AXIS has been receiving NEA support since 1993. During FY 2008, the company received grants for both its artistic and educational programs. Recruiting donors hasn't been easy, but Smith said there was a definite correlation between receiving grants from the NEA and other foundations and the company's increased commitment to artistic excellence. "When we started getting funding on the national level is when we started commissioning work, and that's when people started to take a look at what we were doing," Smith said. "Our artistic product just got so much better so quickly."

Four of AXIS's seven regular dancers rely on wheelchairs to get around in daily life and perform onstage. Another dancer walks gracefully by balancing on two prosthetic feet. Two more dancers are not disabled. The challenge for visiting choreographers who work with AXIS is to find new ways for all these dancers to interact, and to view mobility aids not as obstacles, but as vehicles for an expanded movement vocabulary. For example, in the opening movement of the beauty that was mine, through the middle, without stopping, choreographer Joe Goode has able-bodied dancer Sonsherée Giles tip Rodney Bell's wheelchair to the floor, then crawl to him, seductively. She climbs atop one wheel, and spins, while he rotates the chair in the opposite direction. It's a fascinating sequence of beautiful movement.

Four dancers in black clothing, one in a wheelchair, perform on stage

AXIS Dance Company performs Waypoint by Margaret Jenkins, featuring Margaret Cromwell, Bonnie Lewkowicz, Sonsherée Giles, and Sean McMahon. Photo by Trib LaPrade

The beauty that was mine… was partially funded through an NEA Access to Artistic Excellence grant -- awarded to AXIS in consortium with Joe Goode Performance Group -- to fund a joint performance that also featured Dandelion Dancetheater and Compania Y from Madrid, Spain. A second grant supported the company's education and outreach programs, including Dance Access/KIDS!, a month-long class open to disabled and nondisabled children that, according to the company's Web site, "focuses on positive body awareness, natural creativity, team work, motor coordination, personal expression, discipline, and self control." By all accounts, 2008 was a fantastic year for the company. In November, AXIS marked its 20th anniversary with a concert that Rachel Howard, the San Francisco Chronicle's dance critic, put on her top 10 list for 2008, along with Merce Cunningham Dance Company and the Kirov Ballet. That much lauded anniversary performance included To Color Me Different, an outstanding pas de deux created for Giles and Bell by choreographer Alex Ketley. "This is not a duet about being disabled," Howard wrote. "It's about the perils of attraction and trust."

Forward momentum should continue to propel AXIS through 2009 and beyond. In March, the company won two Isadora Duncan Awards from the Bay Area Dance Coalition. Bell and Giles took home the award for outstanding ensemble performance for To Color Me Different, and Joe Goode received a choreography award for the beauty that was mine… Major 2009 performances on AXIS's calendar include A Perfect Day, a celebration of the choreographer, author, and theater director Remy Charlip. Aided by Joanna Haigood and her aerial company ZACCHO Dance Theatre, AXIS has adapted several of Charlip's Airmail Dances for a physically integrated dance ensemble.

In 2010, AXIS will present a new Dorfman collaboration in Washington, DC, when VSA arts, the service organization for disabled artists, and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts host the 2010 International VSA arts Festival. Smith considers performing in the VSA arts festival an honor; however, she's also gratified anytime AXIS is programmed on a season featuring other contemporary dance companies. "Presenters who book us tend to be really progressive and forward thinking, and looking to reach different communities," Smith said. "There are a lot of presenters who haven't presented us who would really benefit.… We don't want to be ghettoized as a wheelchair dance company."