If a truly great piece of dance is supposed to change how you think about the art form, and actually cause you to reconsider how you perceive movement, then Axis Dance Company may be one of the most artistic companies running. The standards of dance and how we think about contemporary movement are brought to a whole new level with this fully integrated company of physically disabled and non-disabled dancers. They call their work, “physically integrated dance” and through their high artistic caliber and diverse spectrum of dancers they are able to create completely unique work that challenges the conventions of dance.
The company will be performing at the Los Angeles Music Center’s Very Special Arts Festival this coming Friday as well as in the newly renovated Grand Park amphitheater on Saturday. In anticipation of these upcoming free performances, I sat down to chat with Artistic Director Judith Smith and Dancer/Choreographer Sebastian Grubb about the company and their Music Center debut.
Based in the Northern California bay area, the company grew out of a movement class for women in wheelchairs taught by co-founder Thais Mazur.
“I knew [Thais] from a martial arts class I was taking. I was in the process of figuring out how to get back in my body again and I needed a way to stay active.” Recalls co-founder and current Artistic Director Judith Smith. Smith had been a competitive equestrian before an accident left her wheelchair bound. But through her collaboration with Mazur, Smith was able to find an ideal outlet for both her want for physical activity and competitive spirit. Thus, in 1987 Axis was born.
Not knowing exactly how to approach the idea of a physically integrated dance company, Smith describes the first 10 years as something of an experiment. ” There was a lot of confusion over if what we were doing was therapy or dance, and it was our own problem of not knowing what we wanted to be.”
After 10 years, Smith got restless and wanted to take Axis to a more viable, visible platform by bringing in guest choreographers, broadening the repertoire and expanding the company’s outreach and education program. She took full control of the company in 1997, and they’ve been extremely busy ever since, touring domestically and abroad, while building a solid community outreach and education program in the bay area.
Most small repertory companies don’t do nearly the amount of touring and performances that Axis takes on and with only 5 dancers, you can bet they all stay busy on stage. Additionally, all the dancers and staff are involved with the education side of Axis dance, which makes up about 40% of their agenda. They offer everything from masterclasses, workshops and youth summer intensives to Community performances, Q&A’s, lecture demonstrations, and Accessibility Trainings.
“It’s certainly tricky to balance it all,” says Sebastian Grubb, who dances, teaches and choreographs for Axis in addition to performing with Scott Wells & Dancers and creating pieces for companies across the country. “You don’t want to overdo it, but fortunately what we do is so interrelated with health and physicality, so I’m able to stay aware and not burn out.”
Grubb specializes in teaching dance from a bio-mechanics and health perspective that focuses on longevity and rehabilitation which aptly fits into the Axis Dance Company culture. He described one class as focusing on learning how to fall, how to prepare and guard against injury, which sounded fascinating and well, fundamental to everyone. He explains that through working with disabled dancers he understands that we really “don’t have the luxury of not paying attention to our health and our physicality.”
The company has performed works from such innovative choreographers as Bill T. Jones, Stephen Petronio, Joe Goode, Victoria Marks, Ann Carlson, and David Dorfman to name a few. Smith explains that the choreographic process can be intimidating at first for the outside choreographer as they are presented with a whole new vocabulary of what can be done. But time and again, she sees choreographers “excited with their new knowledge of different physical abilities. They reach a new level of comfort, while feeling like they accomplished something important and they sort of fall in love with the company.” That’s certainly the case with Sonya Delwaide who has created 6 new works on the company to date.
But that’s not to say the creative process isn’t thriving from within the company too. Grubb, who has created multiple pieces, describes the choreographic process at Axis as extremely unique and liberating. “It’s hard to stay in a rut or be fearful,” he says, “because the dancers themselves, and their own physicality, provides immediate direction. I look for new ways to mine movement from what’s natural to the dancers in the room.” Grub and fellow company member Sonsherée Giles will both have their work performed this weekend in LA, along with a piece by Delwaide that has been in the company rep for over 5 years and was recently excerpted on SYTYCD.
While the overall company intention is to make artistic, thought provoking dance, Smith admits that the social and political impact is a fulfilling aspect of what they do. “It’s nice to have a body of work that changes people’s perception and has a positive impact on the world.” Neither is she unaware of the double entendre of Axis as a company name (providing access and the axis of a wheel) though she explains that it actually wasn’t an intentional decision. “We just needed a name for the company and we wanted something sort of abstract. We didn’t want to name it Wheels of Fire, or something like that!”
But Smith stresses that a defining aspect of Axis is that they are not a “wheelchair dance company.” The non-disabled dancers are just as important as the disabled dancers, and it’s only when combined that Axis is able to do what they do. “Standard dance companies actually just can’t do what we do. You can put someone in a chair but it’s not going to be the same, because they can’t have the same relationship to that machine as someone who lives in it.” Smith explains.
Grubb sums it up, explaining that “People often have a hard time picturing what it is we do, but then they see us and are blown away by the innovation and artistry. It’s definitely worth checking out.” And check it out I shall this coming Saturday!
If you’re in the LA area, be sure to come out Saturday to enjoy these free performances of Axis Dance Company. You can get more information here and I hope to see you there!