A month ago, Rhodessa Jones, the wisely sassy performance artist, stood in front of a microphone in the Green Room of the Herbst Theater. She was accepting the dance community's Isadora Duncan Award for best choreography on behalf of her brother, Bill T. Jones. The award went to his lush and beautiful dance Fantasy in C Major, commissioned last year by AXIS Dance Company, the “physically integrated” troupe that incorporates able-bodied and disabled dancers. As she clutched a piece of paper, Jones said Bill had spoken to her by phone from New York and given her something to say. The naughty glint in her eyes suddenly softened and her voice caught with emotion as she began to read. She said that when the members of AXIS asked him to make a piece for them, he didn't know what to expect, but that they had given him the chance “to see beyond dance as he thinks he knows it and get a glimpse of what dance can really be.” From a choreographer of international renown who has spent his career smashing the art's boundaries of race, body type, content, and style, there could be no higher praise. The 200 assembled dancers, choreographers, designers, and arts administrators broke into wild applause.
But is moving in wheelchairs really dance? The packed houses at AXIS concerts suggest the public believes it is, but there are still critics who dismiss integrated movement as dramatized physical therapy, believing that not only does one need able legs to dance but that dancing is legs. History proves them wrong. Dance greats like Merce Cunningham, Steve Paxton, and Yvonne Rainier have figuratively glued themselves to chairs to dance, while Paul Taylor has danced standing still. Martha Graham stuck herself inside yards of stretchy fabric to achieve and express physical and psychological limits. The test of dance is not in the legs, but in the quality of the choreography. Choreography, however, has not always been AXIS's strong suit.
Fourteen years ago, the women who started AXIS were still asking, “How can I move?” — and not yet asking, “How can I dance?” The company began as an accident after AXIS co-director Judy Smith and some of her friends participated in a dance improvisation class. She and AXIS co-founder Bonnie Lewkowicz, the two women left from the founding days, are both wheelchair-bound, with no use of their legs, paralyzed in separate car accidents when they were teenagers. (Smith was alone on a Colorado mountain road; Lewkowicz was with a friend, devouring a box of mint Girl Scout cookies and speeding through the spring sunshine in Michigan.) Smith said by phone that she learned more about how to use her body from rolling around on the floor in that improv class than she did from all the rehab she'd been through.
That's how, in 1987, AXIS became a loose affiliation of wheelchair-bound women exploring how to use their bodies. Today it is an integrated troupe of members with an array of different kinds of bodies — a group that, under the co-direction of Nicole Richter and Smith, is critical of its past work, which was made democratically by a committee of 12. After much soul-searching — and the rise of Richter, who has a master's in community dance from the Laban Centre in England, to leadership with Smith — AXIS has begun commissioning path-breaking work from important choreographers like Jones, Stephen Petronio, Sonya Delwaide, Johanna Haigood, and Joe Goode. According to the cane-wielding former dancer John Killacky, the director for Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and one of AXIS's most devoted local boosters, “They invite us in to see dance in a whole new way.” In AXIS pieces, wheelchairs, prostheses, crutches, and atrophied legs now interact seamlessly with bodies that have a full range of motion. Dancers with disabled bodies slip from chairs and those without disabilities steal chairs away, transforming the human form and its props into metaphors and mirrors.
“The first time anyone sees physically integrated dance, she is looking to see what is integrated and if these bodies can even interact,” Richter explains. “But once those questions are answered, the audience can pay attention to the work.” For Sonya Delwaide, what matters is the arrangement in space and time. “Everything you see in my piece comes out of movement,” Delwaide said by phone last week. “The dancers' tools vary, but it's the same movement adapted, the same timing, the same amount of risk. The wheelchair is simply doing a different type of partnering.”
Delwaide is standing on the edge of the small performance area of the Eighth Street studio in Berkeley, cleaning up her second piece for AXIS, Suite Sans Suite, an anxious, skulking work that is one of two premieres for AXIS this week in its run as part of the monthlong Queer Arts Festival. It combines the Montreal native's characteristic postmodern geometries with a European expressionism. The dancers roll their heads — some easily, some with difficulty — and joke that they will get the Delwaide neck (a long, swanlike stem) from all the stretching and flexing. Suddenly, with a flip of a switch, a power chair darts off dangerously. Dancer Stephanie McGlynn creeps in pushing a folding chair. The chair becomes her crutch, while Nadia Adame, taking center stage, revolves around the one real crutch she relies on. The chair crashes; the crutch smashes down. In Suite, causality is indirect but still potent, and limitations imposed by the dancers' varied abilities become the stuff of drama and beauty.
Several nights later, a similar phenomenon takes hold as the company rehearses a new work called Secret Ponies by New York choreographer Stephen Petronio, who makes some of the brainiest and most gender-vague dances on the map. Janis Joplin on disc launches the piece in her raspy smoker's voice: “I'm now going to sing a song of great social and political import. It goes like this.” Then she belts out “Mercedes Benz,” and the dancers, tough and cool, sit in their cafe chairs and wheelchairs making shifting gestures, steering invisible wheels. Petronio says he built the piece from small stories and physical tasks, but it accumulates an ironic power that reaches all the way back to the opening images, like a snake swallowing its own tail, and alters our experience of them. According to Yerba Buena's Killacky, Petronio was nervous about taking on the commission with AXIS, as Jones was before him. “But what's glorious,” Killacky says, “is at the end, Jones and Petronio said their vocabulary and experience had enlarged.”
“In the company we've stopped thinking about who's disabled and who's not,” says Richter. “Our model is a physically integrated model, and by its nature it's avant-garde. But,” she adds, laughing, “we only recently realized that our goal is to raise the standard of contemporary dance!”