AXIS Dance Company marks 25th anniversary


Dancer Joel brown in AXIS studio

Allan Ulrich April 7, 2013 ( originally appeared in Datebook, SF Chronicle)

How wrong can a writer be? Back in 1987, when AXIS announced its first season, the very idea of a dance company highlighting performers who were partially abled (we used another term in those days) struck me as an example of Bay Area political correctness run amok. I suspect others shared my skepticism.

Having eaten my words and devoured my thoughts long ago, I rued my folly anew as I recently watched AXIS at Oakland's Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts in rehearsal for its 25th anniversary season. On this gray afternoon, Victoria Marks, a highly respected Los Angeles choreographer and academic, was putting the five-member cast through her premiere, "what if would you," a talking dance piece that traded in ambiguity of word and gesture. One of the dancers navigated the space in a wheelchair; a second toted a cane. The others were fully abled. The cast's addresses to the invisible audience and the demanding use of the arms presented no problem for the performers. A phalanx of backs was imposing. Even in risky moments - a couple of times, Joel Brown's wheelchair seemed on the verge of toppling over - everyone was in control. AXIS, you sensed, is not a dance company that needs to make excuses.

Founding artistic director Judith Smith seems happy about the new piece and the upward trajectory of the company in general. "Twenty-five years ago," she says, "I never expected to have a regular season." The genesis of AXIS, she recalls, was a series of workshops for women in wheelchairs held by occupational therapist Thaïs Mazur. Smith, who had fancied a career as an equestrian ("I thought I'd jump horses all my life"), until she was injured in an automobile accident when she was 17, was intrigued. She wasn't the only one. "Those workshops drew us together," Smith said. That was all the prompting she needed. After holding auditions, she gathered up enough of a company, including herself, to present a season at Dance Brigade's "Furious Feet" festival. The dance community was responsive. Pioneering aerialist Terry Sendgraff invited the troupe to work out on trapezes.

A quarter-century later, Smith can boast that Axis has performed in more than 100 cities in this country and has toured as far afield as Croatia and Siberia. The troupe has also appeared twice on FOX TV’s "So You Think You Can Dance." Smith expresses pride in the company's annual performance regimen in public schools. ("We reach 15,000 kids a year.")

AXIS, like its well-known English counterpart, Candoco (which opened a few years later), represent dramatic shifts in society's perception of disabled people and the performing arts.

But what makes AXIS so appealing to general dance audiences? Credit Smith's aesthetic policy. From the beginning, she planned to mingle disabled and abled dancers. At the moment, two of the latter include Sonsherée Giles, a diminutive firebrand, who is also the troupe's associate director, and Sebastian Grubb, a familiar face on the local dance scene, most prominently as a member of Scott Wells' company.

Since then, AXIS has evolved into a hotbed of urgent contemporary dance.

  Axis Dance Company Artistic Director Judith Smith (left) and choreographer Victoria Marks watch dancers rehearse.

"I was always hooked on experimentation," Smith says. "As our profile has grown, I have always looked for emerging choreographers. This has been a fun thing for me."

AXIS' upcoming concert bears out the claim. The all-female roster, in addition to Marks, includes Sonya Delwaide. She was the first outside choreographer commissioned by Smith, and her new Schubert-inspired duet will be her eighth piece for the company. Then, Amy Seiwert, one of the area's more prominent classicists, will make her Axis debut with "The Reflective Surface."

Over the years, Margaret Jenkins, Joanna Haigood, Joe Goode and Alex Ketley have also accepted Smith's invitation to deliver a dance. Among the roster of nationally recognized choreographers who have made work for AXIS, the names of Bill T. Jones, Stephen Petronio, Ann Carlson and David Dorfman loom highest.

Dorfman, who prepared "Light Shelter" for AXIS in 2009, recalls seeing the company at booking conferences in the mid-1990s and later encountered them in Minneapolis."Life is full of new experiences," Dorfman said in a conversation from New York. "You watch disabled dancers perform and you don't want to work with the able-bodied anymore. I learned so much. We improvised vocabularies, and after a while you lose any sense of who's disabled or what 'disabled' even means. The way they give themselves to each other is extraordinary."

Marks also believes that working with AXIS prompts mental readjustment. "I have loved, fallen out of love and found myself in love again with dance. It is conventionally about virtuosity, but I make dances for specific people. With Axis, I am forced to rethink what I mean by ability and disability."

AXIS has experienced a financial shortfall this season. Smith has been forced to reduce the number of dancers to five on tour and "seven and a half" at home. A planned engagement at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts fell through because of a shortage of funds, "a nightmare," she calls it. But Smith, now in her early 50s, still looks ahead to Axis' second quarter-century. She is pushing for a job-training program: "Not enough disabled people know that they can dance," she says. And she is seeking a more daring repertoire: a pet project is a restaging of Trisha Brown's classic "Set and Reset." Smith has not yet investigated Brown's distinctive postmodernism, which has only whetted her appetite for a new adventure. "I love a wide range of physicality," she says. "I want to redefine it. This," she declares with a wave of her hand, "is not a job for the meek."

dancers sebastian & Joel on frontpage datebook

AXIS Dance Company: Premieres by Sonya Delwaide, Victoria Marks, Amy Seiwert. 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 2 p.m. April 14, Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts, 1425 Alice St., Oakland. $10-$25. (800) Allan Ulrich is The San Francisco Chronicle's dance correspondent. E-mail: Read more: