The resident dance company on campus this semester is AXIS, the Oakland-based ensemble known in the United States for its repertory of works exploring the performance of dancers who, in relation to movement, are compromised. But as soon as audiences discover AXIS, they quickly realize the dancers are not compromised at all.
The company is comprised of both disabled and non-disabled dancers. Judy Smith, the company’s founder and Artistic Director, plans a lecture-workshop on Oct. 6 to introduce dancers and the Mills community to the concept of blended- ability performance. After that, an exchange of ideas will continue through the academic year and include a course in dance instruction for mixed-ability groups and collaborative works.
Mills MFA Sonsheree Giles, an AXIS company member, says that wheelchairs, both motorized and hand driven, are so integrated into the choreography that the dancers without disability produce humming motor sounds of their own as they move in the choreography. For Mary Taloff, a member of the Mills Disability Alliance who has seen a number of AXIS performances, the strategy of dancers with and without wheelchairs changing places in the course of a piece was particularly engaging, as was the whole project of mobilizing wheelchairs, canes and prostheses to render them commonplace for the audience.
Both Mills Dance Repertory Artistic Director Sonya Delwaide and Music department professor and composer Fred Firth have created works for AXIS. The company was awarded a $10,000 NEA grant for Delwaide’s first piece, and she has subsequently choreographed three more pieces on the company.
She will be creating a fifth during the AXIS Mills residency. It will include dancers from the Mills Repertory Company. Delwaide feels that choreographing for the company broadened her understanding of movement and allowed her to find more ways to use her own dance vocabulary.
She noted that some disabled audience members are offended when people without disabilities interact with wheelchairs, or even touch them. But in terms of her own creative growth in relation to the choreography planned, Delwaide views humor, the wheelchairs and the individual personalities of the wheelchair dancers as the driving elements of the new piece. Giles, a company member without limited movement, maintains that a wheelchair provides a wonderfully liberating way for a dancer to move through space.
Anna Kisselgoff, dance reviewer for the New York Times, wrote that AXIS piece “Flesh” had “surprisingly strong emotional undercurrents.” Delwaide responded that “it took many years for AXIS to gain the respect from critics that made it possible for them to judge a piece on its choreographic and performance merits, with secondary emphasis on the mixed-ability element”
Smith added: “It’s about dance, not disability. The pieces simply have an unusual element in that they use people who move very differently.”
Discovering new choices that make an effect possible particularly energizes Delwaide in her work.
She confided that some of the AXIS dancers are people with a powerful sense of humor and that all dancers are always “100 percent there.” She has never heard any of them say, ‘I can’t do that.’
Delwaide said that the department is moving to open the program to non-majors so that students with limited independent mobility will be able to sign up for classes such as modern dance and improvisation, opening the opportunity for students to avail themselves of the ambiance of creativity as well as body awareness.
While waiting for open enrollment to begin, take a look at the AXIS Web site: www.axisdance.org.