AXIS: Celebrating the Diversity of Movement

Axis Dance Company
From The Narrowing. | Photo: Michele Kumi Baer.

Tutus be damned. Over the past couple of months, The Music Center has hurled a wrench into our collective notion of dance. And speaking as a diehard Balanchine-loving balletomane, I have to admit it's been pretty great.

We've just come off of the much-ballyhooed LA Dance Project launch. Choreographer Benjamin Millepied offered a trio of pieces--as audacious as they were diverse--including a revival of Merce Cunningham's, Winterbranch, which had some audience members fleeing to the lobby and left my daughter covering her ears in agony when the piece's unrelenting purgative score shattered the silence that embodied the first half of the dance.

This past weekend, the Music Center treated audiences to a refreshing adaption of Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon and performed by The National Ballet of Canada which ingeniously integrated a dizzying array of multi-media and an interesting movement vocabulary with traditional storytelling as seamlessly as the satin on Alice's pointe shoe ribbons.

Now, this weekend the Music Center continues to keep us on our toes with the introduction of a very different kind of contemporary repertory dance company called AXIS Dance Company. Based in Oakland, Calif., AXIS is a so-called physically integrated dance company, which features dancers with disabilities and non-disabled dancers.

AXIS will have two consecutive days of free performances - starting on October 26 on The Music Center Plaza to conclude the Very Special Arts Festival (9:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.), which celebrates the artistic achievements of students with disabilities along with their mainstream peers. On the next day, Saturday, October 27, at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m., AXIS performs again as part of Glorya Kaufman presents Dance at The Music Center, in conjunction with Grand Park.

Friday's performance will present two pieces by company dancer and choreographer Sebastian Grubb. One piece titled, Narrowing (as seen recently on So You Think You Can Dance) is "a duet trying to ask these meta questions about what are we doing on stage as an integrated dance company, and also what does the audience expect and what can we give them, and also what's the expectations," Grubb said.

The second piece, Ricochet is "a trio that beings with the thematic starting point of how humans relate to each other with physical closeness or distance." According to Grubb, he dug heavily into the movements of the disabled dancer Joel Brown, "looking at his unique movement vocabulary and how the other dancers we able to join that movement too."

On Saturday, in addition to Narrowing and Ricochet, the company will perform Terre Brune choreographed by French-Canadian Sonya Delwaid, and falling up, originally a site-specific piece commissioned by the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival in San Francisco and choreographed by Associate Director Sonsherée Giles.

Terre Brune.
Terre Brune

The company offers an innovative pallet of movement, as one can imagine when a dynamic is introduced that explores how dancers in wheelchairs interact with both the physicality and motion of their chair and the athleticism of an able-bodied contemporary dance partner.

"We're not a wheel chair dance company, we're not a disabled dance company, we're a contemporary dance company," said AXIS's artistic director Judith Smith. "We need to have equal representation on both sides of our coin. We find a way to communicate kinesthetically with each other and learn a lot about the mechanics of bodies and equipment."

And as Grubb points out, the disabled dancers bring varied and distinctive styles to the experience, depending on their history and how they came upon their disability. "Someone could need a wheel chair for a whole host of reasons; injury and disabilities are very unique (to the dancer) and produce unique physical abilities within each dancer so there is a huge diversity in their movement," Grubb says.

You need only ask Smith, who suffered severe physical trauma following a car accident at 17 leaving her in a wheelchair paralyzed from the chest down. "It was devastating, frankly, to go through something like that. And it's different for everybody; for those who acquire a disability from those who are born with a disability or have it from a very young age."

As a former equestrian, Smith said she was searching for ways to continue to be physical after her accident and began taking martial arts. There she met AXIS Dance Company founder Thais Mazur who asked Smith to be in a piece in conjunction with a workshop for women in wheelchairs she was developing.

"I didn't have a dance background, I was an equestrian, but since I was already doing a lot of movement with martial arts and learning and adapting forms, it sounded like it would be interesting," Smith says.

According to Smith, the original intention was just to create and perform one dance piece for a Bay Area festival. But following a warm reception from the dance and disability communities, they pursued the creative process after receiving continuous requests to perform. That was 25 years ago.

"We loved what we were doing and before we knew it, the [company] had taken off," she said.

Photo: John Spicer.
Photo: John Spicer

According to the Music Center, AXIS serves as a reminder to all of the limitless potential that can be unleashed through the arts. And, says Smith, beyond the social and political implications, "We want to have a great time making really good dance together."

Adds Grubb, "We are saying lets do a different style of modern and contemporary and let's approach it from a different standpoint where we're looking to innovate past what's known which are more traditional forms."


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