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Mills College Weekly

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

Ten members make up AXIS, a “physically integrated dance company” that was founded in 1987 and is committed to bringing professional modern dance to a new level. Based in the Alice Center for the Arts in Oakland, 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 after years in ballet, jazz and modern dance, others were athletes. One has a Ph.D. in biochemistry. Some have full use of their limbs and others have been disabled by car accidents or polio. Some use wheelchairs, some crutches. What all the AXIS members have in common: a love for dance.

In a recent Mills demonstration, AXIS sampled from their eclectic repertory, which 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 performed with energy and feeling.

AXIS is based on the common experience of disability as well as the passion to perform, but in the beginning it was nobody’s intention to form a dance company.

“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 described the process of becoming AXIS as an experimental one. Bonnie Lewkowicz, another co-founder, recalled her first encounter: “I got a call one day from a lady who said a group was putting together a dance piece.” The piece ended up being a live reenactment of Bonnie’s “story,” with includes a bad accident and an ambulance ride. This first, improvised piece was, she said, about the transformation from one kind of body into another.

The subsequent small group that formed met every Friday to choreograph each other and work on improvised movement. “It was very collaborative,” insisted Lewkowicz. “It took years to make a piece.” These co-founders came with various types of experience ranging from martial arts to wheelchair sports. A few, like Lewkowicz, had a background in dance.

She studied ballet and jazz for 10 years before her accident at 15, when a dune buggy rolled over, crushing her spine. The doctors thought she wouldn’t be able to feed herself; instead she became the dancer she always knew she wanted to be.

“I hadn’t a clue what the possibilities were,” she said of her life right after her injury. It was several years later when the nascent AXIS found her and then started to tackle the challenge of accommodating each dancers needs while drawing on their potential. Classical dance training doesn’t exactly accommodate limitations of the body. Lewkowicz asked; “What does it mean to do a pirouette in a wheelchair?”

As time progressed, the core founding members began to get restless with the limited pieces they performed and wanted to bring in outside choreographers. This decision marked a juncture for the group and launched them into a bona fide pioneering non-profit dance company offering integrated dance.

Program director Alisa Rasera joined AXIS over 3 years ago, during this change in leadership. She was first exposed to integrated dance by watching a filmed performance in graduate school. She happened to be living in the Bay Area the first and last time AXIS held, what she called, “grueling” tryouts. “It was the one and only time I’ve ever been run over by a power chair before,” she said.

Rasera also knew immediately that this was where she belonged. According to her, it is the people that make the company work: “AXIS feels like family.”

In the Mills demonstration, dancers recounted challenges particular to AXIS. “We don’t have steps to count,” said Smith. Also, because pieces are choreographed so specifically around individual dancers, nobody can be replaced. “There is no understudy,” said Rasera. Despite the fact that many in the group have other jobs and families, commitment is another characteristic of the ensemble. “People put AXIS first,” said Rasera.

Although travel is interesting for a group like AXIS, it manages to perform just about anywhere you might imagine and the members take mishaps in stride. A broken wheelchair here or a lost limb there becomes fodder for their public appearances. The performance in Siberia at the Railroad Theatre was memorable on many levels. “The floor was literally made out of railroad ties,” said Lewkowicz. “Daniel would dip me backwards but the chair would get hung up on the floor,” she said. Luckily, five minutes before show-time someone brought boards and masking tape to smooth out the floor.

Another “AXIS moment” occurred in practice one day when a dancer’s prosthetic foot fell off while he was being dragged across the floor.

Now that AXIS brings in outside choreographers, things are running a little smoother. “It’s a relief to be told where to go and what to do,” said Smith. Lewkowicz agrees that bringing in outside artists helps to push the dancers. “They make you move in ways you wouldn’t on your own.” Some of the non-disabled choreographers had their own challenges. “I had to learn about choreographing not only bodies but machines,” said Rasera.

But AXIS’ process and performance has always been about extending the limits of the dancer’s abilities. “From the beginning, what we were creating was art,” said Lewkowicz. “This was not recreational therapy.”

Another vital component to the company is its extensive outreach and education program. They teach classes to children of all abilities, perform at assemblies, hold after-school master dance classes, and travel across the nation as well as overseas to make AXIS accessible and known. Outreach started because people interested in integrated dance had no local counterpart. “We had nowhere to send them,” said Rasera.

This has changed, however, and integrated dance had been on an upswing since the mid-80s with companies like ReMIX Theatre Company, in England, Dina A 13, in Germany, and the Cleveland Ballet Dancing Wheels, among others, offering their own repertory.

But AXIS, to its members and its fans, remains unique. “This, for me, is a dream company,” said Rasera, who loves the challenge and can’t imagine working anywhere else. “It’s a lot of work but it feeds the soul.”

Now an 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 the success of numbers like Fantasy in C Major, a full length piece choreographed by Bill T. Jones which won an Isadora Duncan Dance Award in the 2000 season, AXIS’s experimental moments are mostly planned. “I was blown away by the inventiveness of choreography,” said Mills dance professor Judy Rosenberg. “It was very inspiring, a celebration of humanity.”

In the genre of dance, AXIS’s growing recognition is pushing for appreciation of their art as more than a special-case ensemble. “We’ve gotten enough recognition in the dance world to slide in as a dance company,” said Rasera. No small feat.