A Fresh Take: Company Class with AXIS

  by Ali Meyers-Ohki, Intern 

 

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A focused yet playfully applied exploration emerged as the core of company class and, I am learning, is at the heart of AXIS’ charm as well as its fierceness.

 

If you have taken a typical dance class in, say, modern, jazz, ballet, hip hop, or tap, you are likely familiar with this structure: dancers spread out and are led in warm up exercises, across-the-floor exercises in lines of two or three, memorizing a phrase of movement (likely to specific music), and mini performances of said phrase in small groups. The mini performance at the end of class not only gives each dancer more physical space to fill with the movements, but it also mimics the structure of the stage and gives individuals the chance to play performer and audience member. This practice can also work as a feedback system as it allows dancers to observe the ways in which different bodies interpret the same directive information. In a modern, jazz, hip hop or other performance-oriented dance forms, this most often means dancers striving to mimic the teacher’s example as best as they can.

Company class was a different story.

As an intern at AXIS, it is my privilege to participate in class offerings in exchange for my work in the office. For the month of June, that has meant participating in AXIS’ open company class every Monday afternoon. It is safe to say that company class with AXIS was unlike any other dance or movement class I have ever taken. While class included dancers with and without disabilities, class did not become a game of accommodation as it might in a more conventional setting. Instead warm ups, exercises, and collaboration were deconstructed to offer everyone the same invitation to participate. It is a mark of the uniqueness of AXIS that when we shared mini performances of material towards the end of one class, one pair of dancers began side by side, snubbed their noses at each other and lifted one another in the air and the next pair began on opposite sides of the room, traveled toward one another, and engaged in a highly focused and twitchy hand dance. Each pair received the same instructions, yet in the process of creative synthesis and teamwork, produced very different shapes, textures, moods and rhythms.

Class generally began simply enough with some way or another of warming up though there were very few follow-the-leader exercises. Instead we were instructed to explore initiating movement with different limbs or to travel through the space in different ways, at different levels or at different speeds. Once the group felt warmed up, the company member facilitating class would bring something to the class that they had been inspired by or were exploring.

Juliana Monin spent her time at the helm encouraging us to think about curves and lines. How can we make curves or lines with our bodies? How can we travel in curves or lines? How small or large could that curve or line be? The arc of an arm could be curve. The crook of a finger could be a curve. An extended spine. A smile. A frown. Moving in a line could mean walking forward or jumping up and down or simply looking up and down. Instead of specific choreography, one exercise went as follows:

  • make a line with your body (four counts)
  • travel in a curve (four counts)
  • travel in a straight line (four counts)
  • make a curve in place with your body (four counts)

As a result, we each created different movements. However, it was impossible not to be inspired by the other dancers in the studio. We were also forced to be spatially aware so that as we improvised, we wouldn’t knock into people. The structure of the directions encouraged us to explore sensation and proprioception in conjunction with silhouette and visual impact. Speeds, levels, shapes, and styles varied widely. We certainly didn’t work in unison. But we were unified by common threads and rhythms. In this way, there was more openness than, say, a modern class that works toward specific choreography, yet more structure and focus on performance than a contact improvisation class.

We neither followed strict directions, nor did we move without guidance.

Instead we navigated a middle ground between following leadership and owning responsibility for our input and thus, the satisfaction we were able to take from our experiences. In each class, the community of the room, relationships between partners/groups, and exploration were prioritized above specific choreography as everyone was interpreting instructions in their own way to fit their body’s capabilities and creative potential. It was implied that what is interesting to embody is by nature visually interesting as well. Nothing was corrected or discounted. Mistakes - or failing to observe rules and guidelines - were welcomed as learning opportunities. In convening after various exercises or mini performances, we shared challenges and moments of interest. What worked? What didn't work? What evoked emotion? When was it easy to follow guidelines? When did the rules collapse? When did movement feel genuine and when did it feel contrived? When did movement become more narrative? What was frustrating? Exciting? Inspiring? Challenging?

During the first of two classes led by Sebastian Grubb, we played with responding to a partner’s small movements in a clear and sequential way: one partner moves, the other reacts, repeat. He encouraged us to use eye contact and facial expressions. Many noted how this changed the dance - making it more social, sometimes more gestural. Others noted how it obscured responses or observations of other body parts - as so much information can present in the face.

Through the facilitation of our own creative impulses, we caught a glimpse of AXIS’ process.

A focused yet playfully applied exploration emerged as the core of company class and, I am learning, is at the heart of AXIS’ charm as well as its fierceness. The goal of class subverts the imperative to simply create something beautiful or powerful - though those qualities do emerge. Dancers instead seek to discover and discuss their honest experiences and ask questions that build creative momentum. We were pushed to challenge ourselves and to consider visual impact, but we were also invited to take creative liberty and to take care of our bodies. As we took our turns to perform at the end of class, we each stepped into a certain vulnerability as we displayed our own and/or collaborative work. However the culture of the class made such a risk feel relatively safe and thus facilitated a sense of empowerment.

AXIS’ method of movement is based on validation, agency, creativity and community rather than systems of hierarchy, size, ability, and gender (some of the often rigid structures that frequently influence dances bound more closely to culture and tradition). To me, this is a liberatory and radical way to think about performative dance - especially in the context of repertory dance companies which have been historically restricted by often euro-centric customs of the stage.

Why limit creativity? Why limit possibilities? What an interesting wide open world this is to begin crafting any kind of art.