For 20 years AXIS has changed the rules of dance
“There is no more defiant a land that I can think of than AXIS. They showed me what dance could be.”
—American choreographer and dancer Bill T. Jones
Judith Smith became paralyzed from the waist down after she was involved in a car accident at the age of 17. It was a difficult ordeal, and for the next seven years Smith, a former champion horseback rider, hardly moved.
The 48-year-old Smith, who possesses an equine strength and beauty herself, moved to the Bay Area in 1983. There she met a teacher who taught her about contact improvisation (referred to as CI), which worked around her disability.
Contact improvisation is a postmodern form of dance used by dancers and performance artists as well as those involved in sensitivity training and dance therapy. The technique helps participants explore possibilities of movement between people in physical contact with one another.
Smith’s CI class sparked something inside of her. In 1987 she teamed up with Bonnie Lewkowicz, a disabled dancer who came back to dance after being paralyzed in an ATV accident, and Thais Mazur, a nondisabled dancer whom Smith had met at kung-fu class, to create the first performance piece of what would soon be called AXIS Dance Company.
The Oakland company is made up of both physically disabled (yet very fit) and “able-bodied” dancers. AXIS enjoys a reputation as being the most high-profile dance company of the few dozen of its kind in the United States.
Smith, now the company’s artistic director, is quick to point out that just because a number of AXIS dancers are in wheelchairs, in no way are they “wheelchair-bound.”
“It’s a positive thing,” stressed Smith, by phone from Oakland. “We’re not a disabled company; we’re a dance company that has wheelchairs. Having wheelchairs radically expands the movement vocabulary that we have. Our company is equally about nondisabled as about disabled. We couldn’t do it without each other.”
Truly, to watch AXIS perform is to watch a moving (in both senses of the word), creative cooperation of dancers of varying physical abilities, ages (dancers range in age from 20 to 60) and ethnicities. Members present exquisite interpretations of dances by prominent choreographers, including internationally acclaimed Stephen Petronio, Tony Award winner Bill T. Jones and choreographer/aerial dancer Joanna Haigood. The company also performs the works of in-house choreographers.
One quickly sees what Smith means—if there were no wheelchairs, the dancers could not execute some of their more imaginative moves, such as having one dancer spinning gracefully while lying atop the turning wheel of a wheelchair on its side, its occupant also inextricably part of this beautiful scene.
Lisa Bufano—a former competitive gymnast who became a quadruple amputee at age 21 when she lost her hands and feet to a staph infection—is a lovely, lithe and poised brunette. The 36-year-old performs most of her moves on a pair of Cheetah prosthetic feet like those used by track-and-field athletes. Bufano is also known for her creative performance piece “Fancy,” in which she portrays a four-legged character on specially made Queen Anne table-leg stilts.
“I really believe that people have to see what we do to believe it,” said Smith. “With ballet, or contemporary or modern dance, most people can conjure up the image. But, people with and without disabilities dancing together? It’s really, really hard for most people to imagine.”
Besides being visually intricate, AXIS’ pieces also can be emotionally and intellectually complex. “Foregone,” a new piece created by New York/Oakland-based choreographer Kate Weare, which will be presented by AXIS at its Laxson Auditorium performance, deals with themes of power, relationships, hierarchy and vulnerability.
Once they get to the show, though, audiences find AXIS’ work very accessible, because many of the dancers are in wheelchairs.
“Unlike ordinary contemporary dance,” Smith observed, “people watch what we do, and say, ‘Maybe I could do that.’ “