Since 1987, AXIS Dance Company has created an exciting body of work developed by dancers with and without disabilities. The company has become internationally recognized for its high artistic and educational standards and for being on the cutting edge of physically integrated dance. Under artistic direction of Judith Smith, the 10-member company has developed a powerful repertory that includes works by Bill T. Jones, Joe Goode and Joanna Haigood as well as by its own company members.
In the Spark episode “Frontiers of Dance,” AXIS Dance Company members work on a new piece directed by Los Angeles-based choreographer Victoria Marks. With six months between first rehearsal and opening night, the members of AXIS spend a week improvising together to explore how they interact as dancers and to develop different themes and ideas that will inform their movements. Over time, the themes of desire and longing emerge — desire in terms of space and the need to move forward and longing in terms of physical attraction and how the gravitational pull between them as dancers inspires interesting dance dynamics.
After several months, as recipients of the Wattis Artists in Residence award, the company moves to Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Two weeks before opening night, the piece has no ending or title and the musical score is unfinished. In more traditional dance companies, dances are set to a completed musical score. In the organic process used by AXIS, composer Eve Beglarians is able to finish her score while watching the dancers, incorporating all the sounds of the movement in the final composition, even the hums and clicks of the wheelchairs. And, at long last, the ensemble finds a title for its collaborative work: “Dust.”
One of only a few companies of its kind, AXIS Dance Company challenges our perceptions about what dance is and can be and about disability, without allowing that to be the focus of the dance except to open people’s minds to possibilities of what we are capable of, including our strengths and weaknesses. Like any professional group, they are always striving for excellence, creating performances that are poignant and whose content has weight and humor. As theater and society become more accessible, integrated dance groups will probably be more prevalent, and future generations will find it easier to participate in this art form.
In addition to their professional performances, AXIS Dance Company has an educational outreach program designed to bring physically integrated dance education directly to the community. Called Dance Access, the program comprises a team of eight teaching artists (five with disabilities) led by education director Alisa Rasera. Dance Access offers performances, assemblies, workshops, lecture-demonstrations, in-school residencies and after-school programs to schools and communities around the Bay Area.