Arts & Culture

Dancers from both sides of the fence

Axis Dance Company considers both its disabled and nondisabled dancers to be equally vital to the work.
Axis Dance Company considers both its disabled and nondisabled dancers to be equally vital to the work. COURTESY OF CAL POLY ARTS

A duet by Rodney Bell and Sonsheree Giles on television’s “So You Think You Can Dance” in June generated a tremendous reaction for Axis Dance company. Bell was dancing in a wheelchair.

“There was a huge hubbub,” said Judith Smith, artistic director of the company, “With tons of Twitter and Facebook response and inquiries from all over. We reached millions in three minutes.”

Axis dance will bring that duet, “Color Me Different,” choreographed by Alex Kefley, and two other pieces of physically integrated dance to the Spanos Theatre at Cal Poly. Two of the six dancers will be performing in wheelchairs.

“Full of Words” is by Marc Brew, a United Kingdom-based choreographer. It is made up of three duets between three couples of dancers, which he describes as a series of “physical conversations, encounters and interventions that reflect what it is to be human.”

Brew was a dancer with the Australian Ballet Company before he became disabled in an auto accident that left him paralyzed. He has an ideal perspective for creating for Axis, Smith said.

“He knows both sides of the fence, being a nondisabled dancer and a disabled dancer,” she said.

The third piece in the program is “Light Shelter” by New York choreographer David Dorfman. With five dancers, it focuses on “time, urgency and running out of time,” Smith said.

Dancers in the program are Bell, Giles, Alice Sheppard, Janet Das, Sebastian Grubb and Juliana Monin.

Axis has been at the forefront of this mix of disabled and nondisabled dancers since it was founded in 1987 by Thais Mazur. It was inspiring to be involved in the formative stages of a new form of dance, Smith said.

“We got excited by the innovation and experimentation, making it up as we went along, developing a vocabulary of both movement and words to describe it.”

Smith had been disabled from a car accident for five years when she began working with improvisational movement to get her strength and coordination back. Before the accident she had been an equestrian, jumping horses. The movement work was helping her to get back in touch with her body, exploring different ways to move and use the wheelchair, she said

“Someone suggested I take part in a dance project, and I said, ‘Yes.’ ”

Dance, and being involved in Axis became a way to transfer her passion for horses to a passion for dance. When she became artistic director in 1997, she wanted to invite outside choreographers to be involved.

“I wanted them to enjoy it, to work with a completely different kind of movement that can’t happen any other way.”

Choreographing for Axis is a “whole new movement language,” she said. It is specific to the dancer. People move differently depending on the disability and depending on the chairs—whether they are manual or powered. Some of the disabled dancers, like Bell and Sheppard in this show, are agile and even athletic, but amputees and quadriplegics have their own virtuosity, she noted. The chairs become part of the choreography, wheeling, spinning, extensions of the dancer’s body. Partnering can take many different forms, with laps and shoulders as important as arms and legs.

“Choreographers can do really great things when they can think outside their own boxes, and working with guest choreographers, we can do the same thing,” Smith said.

About half of the Axis effort is spent on outreach, going to colleges, schools and community groups. Intensive one-week workshops are held in the summer.

Smith said it’s important for people to understand that Axis is not a “wheelchair dance company.”

“The nondisabled dancers could not do what they do without us, and vice versa,” she said. “All are equally vital to the work. The combination makes the magic.”

A free pre-show lecture will be presented by Cal Poly Theatre and Dance Department faculty member Diana Stanton, at 7 p.m. in the San Luis Obispo Performing Arts Center’s Phillips Recital Hall.