New Range of Motion

Axis Dance Company turns difference into strength for dancers with disabilities

May 17, 2012

Axis Dance Company members Rodney Bell and Sonsherée Giles dance choreographer Marc Brew’s “Full of Words.”

Every dance company likes to think the work it’s doing is unusual. But Oakland, Calif.-based Axis Dance Company explores styles of movement that are truly innovative. “You have to see this work to understand it,” says Judith Smith, the ensemble’s artistic director. “Most people don’t know what to expect, and they leave with their minds blown.”

That’s because the company is composed of dancers with and without disabilities who share the stage. Half use wheelchairs and half have the use of all four limbs.

Smith’s choreography does not treat these differences as restrictions; instead it emphasizes the unexpected ranges of motion and interactions that the dancers’ bodies allow. “The potential we have for creating more ensemble movement is radically expanded because of how differently people in wheelchairs move,” explains Smith.

The dancers using chairs don’t just roll back and forth — they do wheelies, tip to either side and support nondisabled movers in various positions. It’s sculptural, athletic movement with lots of lifts.

Axis was established in 1987 by a group of adults with disabilities who were eager to find a physical outlet and challenge popular perceptions about movement and disability. After taking the reins as artistic director 10 years later, Smith (who is herself a disabled dancer) began inviting prominent choreographers to set work on the company — resulting in pieces created by dance-world titans like Bill T. Jones and Meredith Monk.

“[The choreographers] feel a little intimidated, but that goes away really quickly and becomes excitement,” says Smith. “They get a whole new movement vocabulary and get to think outside the box.”

In D.C., Axis will perform “Light Shelter,” a piece by Connecticut-based choreographer David Dorfman, as well as “The Narrowing,” a duet by company member Sebastian Grubb. Most intriguing is the third piece, “Full of Words,” which was created last year by Marc Brew, a former ballet dancer from Australia who became paralyzed from the neck down following a car accident and has since cultivated a career as a choreographer.

Given his personal experience, Brew brought something unique to the process of scripting a dance. “He knew both sides of our fence, and we were able to hit the ground running with him,” says Smith. “He just took off.”

Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE; Sat., 8 p.m., & Sun., 7 p.m., $15-$25; 202-399-7933, Atlasarts.org.
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