An Interview with Judith Smith of Axis Dance Company

The company is in Miami Beach, FL for a week long residency at danceAble presented by Tigertail and the Florida Dance Association. Artburst spoke with Judith Smith, founding member and artistic director, about the company’s work since she took directorship in 1997. Click here for original article By Miguel Angel Estefan Jr

Q: Ten years into the company’s existence, what inspired you to start commissioning work from other choreographers?

A: “We were getting stagnant,”  says Smith, who started to educate herself on the work of others and began seeing dance performances and chose choreographers whose work “would meld well with the company.” Creators like Bill T. Jones, Molissa Fenley, Joe Goode, David Dorfman, Victoria Marks, to name just a few, are creators who in their own work pushed the boundaries of dance and performance art in general. As a result of these commissions, the company increased its artistic quality, found new inspiration, and enhanced their movement vocabulary. “All who have come in to it got something out of the process….It was a little bit scary but it added validity to what we were doing with better work and new movement. And the dance community took note.”

Photo by Richard Finkelstein. AXIS Dancers Alice Sheppard, Sonsheree Giles, Sebastian Grubb, and Juliana Monin in Full of WOrds by Marc Brew

How were these commissioned choreographers immersed or introduced to the company of physically integrated dancers?

Choreographers came in and found themselves working with dancers, some of whom used crutches, canes, prosthetics, wheel chairs, and motorized chairs. After 10 years of commissioned work, the process to integrate choreographers evolved into two-day workshops to explore movement and then two or three weeks of making work, taking a break, and then coming back to revisit and cement the final collaboration. Smith also remarked when Bill T. came in early on that he admitted he was intimidated; in those early days he was doing The Breathing Show in the evening and working with Axis during the day. His was a rushed process.

Speaking of Bill T., I am reminded of his company’s tour of Still/Here and Arlene Croce, dance critic for the New York Times, who refused to review the piece. 

“I remember that very well. That was right before Bill came in and he said We cannot fail. Because of who you are and who I am, we cannot fail.”

With your company now into its third decade – do you still find artists or critics who will not see your company’s work or argue, “This isn’t really dance?”

Smith recollected a story of a critic who would not see them for years. For their 15th anniversary, Oakland-based Axis Dance shared the stage with Victoria Marks at the Yerba Buena Center and the critic had come to see Marks. Apparently having his preconceptions challenged, he has gone to all their local performances since then.  “Sometimes he likes it and sometimes he doesn’t. But not everyone likes contemporary dance.” And physically integrated dance is something you “have to see it to believe it.  We try to get them in but it’s a slow process [to] show them it’s not what you think it would be and a stretch to get people to see us.”

I saw the excerpt of Rodney Bell and Sonsheree Giles on So You Think You Can Dance.  Some of the press material out there exclaims this is proof “you’ve arrived!”

“It was a weird experience. After 23 years busting our butts and then after a three-minute dance there is this huge buzz. We were in the Wall Street Journal; our Facebook page blew up. TV is so powerful. The actual work was a difficult experience, three minutes of work, cameras, editing, screaming teenagers…but what an incredible opportunity….people are wondering who is Axis Dance.”

Sebastian Grubb, choreographer of The Narrowing, said that in his piece themes arose about the specific role of physical disability in a performance. What then is the specific role of physical disability in dance? 

“Well, I would have to let Sebastian speak to his own statement, but in general we do not hide disability – we don’t for example camouflage chairs. And we give credit to able dancers as much as disabled dancers. What we are trying to do is showcase everyone’s virtuosity.”

Do you think it is unavoidable for physically integrated dance to always make a social or political statement?

“Social/political is implicit to what we are doing.  It has been an interesting line for us to travel. Early on we worked to specifically address disability. Since ’97 we worked without addressing the disability specifically and let the audiences take from it what they could.”

I read that you choose dancers by audition, scout for dancers, or meet people in your workshops. How much of an athletic or movement background is required?

“The non-disabled dancers come with backgrounds with extensive movement discipline. Some disabled dancers had a dance background before their disability and found their way back to dance. But most came from other backgrounds like myself who was an equestrian.  But stage presence is what we are really looking for.”

Do you think there is a sense of empowerment for disabled dancers being part of this company?

“Yes, but for all dancers and audience members. We want to empower everybody and change their minds about what they can do. You can see something you wouldn’t expect someone to be able to do and it opens your mind for the possibility of what you can do.”  And at the very core Axis dance is a “contemporary repertory dance company doing physically integrated work.”

Are you looking forward to your return to Miami?

“We love Miami – Bill Doolin and Mary Luft [of Florida dance Association and Tigertail respectively] have been a great support.  This is our fifth time coming. danaceAble is so committed and the only program of its kind offering a week long residency. And Mary has embraced us with her continued commitment to residency work.”

The residency includes “jam-packed” workshops and a return of David Dorfman’s piece Light Shelter, with a major community component of nine or ten local dancers performing. The first time the company ever did such collaboration with local artists was in Miami, and audiences will have the pleasure of seeing the original cast return for the special event.