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Body and Spirit dance

A dancer’s spirit is more agile than her body, or so a Berkeley dance company featuring disabled and non-disabled dancers contends.

Four members of AXIS, a “physically integrated dance company,” came to Mills to give a lecture and demonstration in the Haas Gymnasium last Wednesday.

The group sampled from their eclectic repertoire that includes spinning wheelchairs, outstretched arms and diving bodies. Some pieces were playful, some somber and formal, some were set to music, one even included dialogue and props-but all selections were done with energy and feeling.

A video excerpt from Fantasy in C Major, a full length piece choreographed by Bill T. Jones that won an Isadora Duncan Dance Award in the 2000 season, was also shown.

Founded in 1987, AXIS is committed to bringing professional dance to a new level. Based out of Eighth Street Studio in Berkeley, AXIS has toured all over the country as well as abroad, reaching as far as Siberia to bring their art to others.

Company members have a wide range of abilities and experience. Some joined AXIS after years in ballet, jazz and modern dance, others were athletes. Some have full use of their limbs and others have been disabled by car accidents or polio. What all the AXIS members have in common is a love for dance.

“It was difficult to go take dance classes,” said Judith Smith, artistic director and one of the co-founders of AXIS. “They didn’t quite know what to do with us.” Disabled at 17, after suffering a spinal injury that left her in a wheel chair, she said forming a dance company was unplanned and described the process as experimental.

The group started with elaborate choreography, using members to direct each other. Now that AXIS brings in outside choreographers, things are much easier. “It’s a relief to be told where to go and what to do,” said Smith. Co-founder Bonnie Lewkowicz said bringing in outside artists helps to push the dancers, “They make you move in ways you wouldn’t on your own.”

Smith and Lewkowicz recounted challenges of finding new ways of moving through space. “We don’t have steps to count,” said Smith. She also described “an AXIS moment” when a dancer’s prosthetic foot fell off while he was being dragged across the floor.

Some of the non-disabled dancers had their own challenges. “I had to learn about choreographing not only bodies but machines,” said program director Alisa Rasera.

Now a ten member ensemble that has worked at Cal Performances, the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco and the Olympic Art Festival in Salt Lake City, and with a list of awards and praises under their belt, AXIS’s experimental moments are mostly planned.

“I was blown away by the inventiveness of choreography,” said dance professor Judy Rosenberg. “It was very inspiring, a celebration of humanity.”

Whether performing the work of well-known choreographers, giving classes for adults of all abilities, or doing outreach and education to help disabled children, physically integrated dance is gaining acceptance in the dance world and providing options for physical expression to people that might not otherwise have them.