Let's face it: Integrated dance — in which disabled dancers perform alongside able-bodied ones — isn't an inherently easy sell to the general populace. And as recently as 1996, AXIS Dance Company wasn't making the form much more palatable. Like dozens of other integrated companies to crop up over the last 15 years, it was really good — for what it was. The company members collaborated to choreograph honey-sweet duets that dealt with poignant human relationships and issues of power and sociological angst. They defied expectations of what disabled dancers could do — but within comfortable parameters.
Now flash forward to June 2000, and a home season program whose list of choreographers reads like this: Bill T. Jones, Joe Goode, Joanna Haigood, and Sonya Delwaide. All are renowned in the Bay Area and — in the cases of Jones and Goode — internationally. A dream repertory, and here's the kicker: AXIS is dancing it with astonishing abandon. At a recent dress rehearsal in AXIS's sweat-reeking Oakland studio, wheelchairs tore through space like roadsters, disabled dancers flung themselves upon the ground like stunt doubles, and everyone imbued Bill T. Jones' oddly elegant gestures with full impact, all while keeping time to Schubert's rapid-fire Fantasy in C Major. Where did this bold new AXIS come from?
In part it came from Nicole Richter, an able-bodied dancer who wrote her master's thesis on integrated dance and then worked with a phenomenal integrated company based in London called CandoCo. “When you're starting in a category that's cutting edge there's an impulse to protect yourself, and a lot of AXIS's early work was really careful, making sure that everyone got equal show and that no one was upstaged,” Richter said one pre-rehearsal morning, nodding at AXIS co-director Judith Smith to assure their solidarity.
“A lot of the non-disabled dancers weren't getting pushed and that was frustrating for them. We lost some people over that. The first piece we did after I came I didn't like much, and I thought, 'I'm not staying with this company.' And then there was this explosion.”
The explosion came because Smith, a disabled dancer who met the other founding members of AXIS in a kung fu class, had been trying to ignite the company for years. She'd been proposing commissioning works since 1995, but some company members — particularly former co-director Thais Mazur — weren't interested. So when Richter came on board, Smith found an ally in her vision, and Mazur left. And the first choreographer AXIS snagged, in 1998, was Bill T. Jones.
Don't think Jones took the company on out of charity. “He didn't cut us any slack,” Smith said. “He charged his usual rate. We almost didn't do the piece because we didn't have all the money, but we just decided to take the money out of the operating budget. People said, 'You can't not do this.' And Bill said later he did that because he thought, 'All right, here's this company. I like what they do. Let's see how serious they are.'”
In the meantime, the company had discovered more in common with Jones than one might think. In 1997, AXIS co-curated the first ever international festival of integrated dance in Boston — and learned that its field, like the field of black dance in the '50s and '60s, was fraught with stereotyping, even among AXIS's own members.
“It was the first time we had seen other companies and there was this expectation that 'They do what we do and we're going to love it,'” Richter said. “But there were so many companies and this huge range of work going on and the quality of the work was so wide-ranging. There were definitely companies who were working in a ballet vocabulary or a jazz vocabulary or even their indigenous forms. It's a lot like what happened in black dance. Presenters would say, 'No, we've already presented our black dance company this year, so we can't book you,' when the differences among individual dance companies are so vast! Some of these issues are with integrated dance now.”
The company's current goal is to build a repertory that's 50 percent commissioned, 50 percent by its own members, who are talented choreographers but, by their own admission, just emerging and hungry for role models. The latest big name to sign on in that capacity is Stephen Petronio, who will start work on his piece for AXIS in January.
“Stephen tends to do work that's very fast in the legs and that uses the legs to move through space, so that will be interesting,” Smith said. “His idea is to create solos and build the solos into personas. And he wants to costume the wheelchairs to bring out our personas.”
The side effect of this daring programming strategy is a form of equality even AXIS never anticipated. “Three out of five choreographers have said, 'I really feel intimidated,'” Smith said. “And I say, 'You're intimidated! We're intimidated!' It's new for them and it's new for us, and that puts us on even ground.”
AXIS Dance Company's home season, “The Ground, the Air, and Places in Between,” runs June 22-24 at 8 p.m. at Fort Mason's Cowell Theater, Buchanan & Marina, S.F. Tickets are $18 for general admission, $15 for students, seniors, and the disabled, and $10 for children under 12; call 441-3687.