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AXIS Dance Company

'Vessel' and 'Light Shelter'

by Carmel Morgan

June 11, 2010 -- Atlas Performing Arts Center, Lang Theatre, Washington, DC

In 2010, as in past years, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC, was host to the International VSA Festival. VSA is the international organization on arts and disability, and it is an affiliate of the Kennedy Center. The annual festival explores the culture and artistry of disability through a multicultural celebration of the arts and arts education. One of the star performing arts groups that participated in this year’s festival was the AXIS Dance Company from Oakland, California. Founded in 1987, and presently headed by Artistic Director and founding member Judith Smith, AXIS is a physically integrated contemporary dance company. It has performed in over sixty cities nationwide, as well as in Europe and Siberia.

Unfortunately, this reviewer inadvertently arrived late at the performance venue and missed the first piece on the program. However, I was able to see the final two works. Strangely, no one greeted me at the door with a program, and indeed, no one in the audience was shuffling through a program between pieces. For some reason, it seems there was no program handed to patrons! Nonetheless, I have confirmed that I saw both Alex Ketley’s 2008 “Vessel” and David Dorfman’s 2009 “Light Shelter.”

In “Vessel,” the dancers’ muscular bodies kept reaching, performing wonderfully stretchy moves. The dancers’ voices formed word collages that accompanied the work. Rodney Bell from New Zealand highlighted his super body strength. He pulled himself along the floor and propelled himself back into his wheelchair. In a duet, Sonsherée Giles climbed on Bell, leaned on him, slid down his chair, rode on his back, tumbled over him, and crept low to the ground beside him. The couple, co-partners, caught and pushed each other. Bell made his wheelchair pop off the ground and tip backward. At one point, he flipped his wheelchair upside down, forming a turtle’s shell. Overall, the piece conveyed a sense of spirituality and hopefulness in dance. The choreography was complex and challenging, revealing the dancers’ struggle to find meaning in movement.

In “Light Shelter,” curly-corded bent-armed lamps hung from the ceiling, occasionally swaying. Company members, along with local performers, walked a grid, pacing, forming lines on the darkened stage. Runs and jumps eventually erupted. Dancers chased wheelchair dancers, and vice versa. Then someone shouted, “Stop.” One nervous-seeming dancer failed to cease moving on command, her finger twitching as it inched down her chest. Much later a voice implored, “Go.” Dancers spun and gripped hands, throwing each other around like in a childhood game. In one engaging sequence, a dancer approached a wheelchair dancer from behind, jutting forward like a bull fighter, only to have the wheelchair dancer scoot backward, resulting in a tension-filled duet.

Importantly, AXIS showed that the company doesn’t rely upon cute wheelchair tricks to entertain an audience. To the contrary, the company’s focus is clearly artistry, like any contemporary dance company. In a post-performance talk-back session the dancers all agreed that working in this company of dancers with and without disabilities fulfilled them physically and socially. Although AXIS is concerned with artistry, company members and Artistic Director Judith Smith acknowledged that more than technique, the company seeks members who are able to connect with one another. Those intimate connections are certainly visible in their work.

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