This week, Axis Dance Company was in residence at the Flynn Center. Last night they performed on the main stage. I attended the performance and stayed around for the post-performance conversation.
Axis is a mixed abilities, gender, and ethnicity dance company, composed of a multinational group of dancers and choreographers. Some dancers are able bodied, others have physical disabilities that challenge their mobility. All are exceptional dancers. The choreography embodied by the company draws on the unique skills of each dancer, and seamlessly incorporates wheelchairs and props into the dance. The result is artistic magic.
I noticed early on in the performance that the company’s style of dance was quite different than it had been when I last saw them six years ago. (It doesn’t seem THAT long ago!) During the post-performance conversation the dancers repeatedly referred to the choreography as having been “written on the bodies” of the dancers. It turns out that choreographers design each dance to fit the capacities of specific dancers in the troupe. The pieces are literally choreographed on the bodies of the dancers! One implication of this is that the pieces performed change as the composition of the troupe changes. Another implication is the choreography begins to map the bodies of the dancers in ways similar to the mapping created by disability and by the “the gaze” of others.Yet, the choreography also CHALLENGES the viewers concepts regarding disability, and in so doing, the gaze.
During last night’s performance there was a marked reduction in the centrality of the wheelchair. In it’s place were recliners, tables, and bathtubs. There was also an emphasis on floor based dance, with dancers seated or lying on the floor of the stage. The dancers were also enormously acrobatic at times. Sonsherée Giles, in particular, showcased her yoga fed limberness and physical theater training in this way. Rodney Bell, Maori, brought pathos and humor, along with intense physicality to the stage. It was warming to see him perform, to listen to his rich voice on performance tape and in conversation, and to have another disabled, Indigenous person on the stage.
The dancers were demonstrative in their belief they are doing “good and important work”. They were equally clear they are dancers first and foremost. They believe that if their work is to have an effect on the ways able-bodied and disabled persons understand disability, it can only do so through the vehicle of the highest caliber dance and artistry. Their performance last night lived up to those lofty expectations.
I am grateful to Axis Dance Company, the Flynn and John Killacky (Executive Director), and to Judy Chalmer, Executive Director of VSA VT, for their continued support of artists of the highest caliber who just happen to have disabilities, and whose art reflects that lived experience.