Why Physically Integrated Dance Still Faces So Many Challenges
After 30 years of pioneering work in physically integrated dance, AXIS Dance Company co-founder Judith Smith has announced plans to retire from the Oakland, California, company. Throughout her tenure, she strived to get equal recognition for integrated dance and disabled dancers, commissioning work from high-profile choreographers like Bill T. Jones. Her efforts generated huge momentum for expanded training, choreography, education and advocacy for dancers with disabilities.
By phone from her home in Oakland, Smith reflected on how far the field has evolved since the early days of AXIS, and what's yet to be done.
Judith Smith. Photo by Andrea Basile, courtesy AXIS
When you started AXIS, what challenges did you face in terms of being accepted?
There were people doing contact improvisation and including dancers with disabilities in that. But we didn't know any other companies that were actually setting choreography. The first 10 years were really trying to convince the dance world that we were doing dance, and not dance therapy. That really shifted with the first home season that I commissioned. It had Bill T. Jones, Joe Goode and Sonya Delwaide, and Joanna Haigood.
How did choreographers respond to your invitation?
Bill T., the first thing he said when we got into the studio with him was, "I'm really intimidated by this." And we all looked at him and said, "You're intimidated!" (laughs) The exciting thing about commissioning is the choreographers go away feeling like they got as much out of it as we did. We worked with Stephen Petronio, and he took a whole section that we ended up not using and actually used it on his company. That's been so gratifying, that it's not just them doing this great thing for us, it really is reciprocal.
Did you encounter resistance?
There's one critic who told a producer and presenter that he would never come see us because he did not consider what we did to be dance. The first time he came and saw us was our 15th anniversary, and he reviewed it, and actually liked what he saw. Now, he's come to everything. Some works he likes, and some he doesn't. But it was pretty gratifying to learn that people can change their minds.
Do you think that lack of training is the most significant challenge?
I do. There are not enough opportunities for disabled dancers to get training.
What is the barrier?
Teachers are not trained. That's part of our artistic advancement platform: going out and training more teachers all over the country. Somebody like me can't just show up to a dance class. Most of the dancers don't get to pursue dance at college. Victoria Marks is trying to shift that down at UCLA, and Jeff Friedman at Rutgers.
Your teacher trainings and choreographic workshops fill to capacity, so there's demand.
We turn people away from our summer intensive every year. One of the things I would love to see is teacher trainings for faculty at festivals. I was talking to one festival and they said, "We never have disabled dancers. Why would we do that, because nobody would come?" They're not aware.
What are the hopeful signs on the horizon?
There are people at universities getting more interested in integrated dance. One thing that's really great when we tour and go to university presenters, is that we usually get to work with the dance department. We've got Trio A Pressured #X [AXIS's staging of Yvonne Rainer's seminal Trio A], and we would love to do a university Trio A tour, where we would do a teach-in and show our version, but also do physically integrated classes.
Once people experience integrated dance, whether that's coming to a show, or taking a class or a teacher training, it becomes real. That seems like the key.
It definitely is. Having the one-on-one experience just goes miles. The hard part is that people come and they're so excited, and then we leave and there's nowhere for them to go in their city. So we're always encouraging people to start their own thing. What I've done is not rocket science. It's just hard work.
We've been saying for years that dance training has benefits that reach far beyond preparation for a professional dance career: The discipline and attention to detail fostered in technique class, the critical thinking skills acquired in composition, and the awareness and rapid reaction times required for improvisation can all carry over into other fields.
But what if a choreographic tool kit could have a more direct application outside the studio? Say, to city planning?
"What if you could learn from the world's best dance teachers in your living room?" This is the question that Dancio poses on their website. Dancio is a new startup that offers full length videos of ballet classes taught by master teachers. As founder Caitlin Trainor puts it, "these superstar teachers can be available to students everywhere for the cost of a cup of coffee."
For Trainor, a choreographer and the artistic director of Trainor Dance, the idea for Dancio came from a sense of frustration relatable to many dancers; feeling like they need to warm up properly before rehearsals, but not always having the time, energy or funds to get to dance class. One day while searching the internet for a quick online class, Trainor was shocked to not be able to find anything that, as she puts it, "hit the mark in terms of relevance and quality. I thought to myself, how does this not exist?" she says. "We have the Daily Burn for Fitness, YogaGlo for yogis, Netflix for entertainment and nothing for dancers! But then I thought, I can make this!" And thus, Dancio (the name is a combination of dance and video), was born.
There's a surprising twist to Regina Willoughby's last season with Columbia City Ballet: It's also her 18-year-old daughter Melina's first season with the company. Regina, 40, will retire from the stage in March, just as her daughter starts her own career as a trainee. But for this one season, they're sharing the stage together.
Last night, the New York City Ballet board of directors approved ballet master in chief Peter Martins' request for a temporary leave of absence amidst an ongoing investigation into sexual harassment.
The investigation came to light on Monday, when the New York Times reported that NYCB and the School of American Ballet had hired a law firm to investigate their leader after receiving an anonymous letter detailing instances of harassment.
You dance like a knockout—but can you take a punch? Intense stage combat is a crucial element in many shows, from the sword fighting in Romeo & Juliet to the left hooks of the Broadway musical Rocky. But performing it well requires careful body awareness, trust and a full commitment to safety. Whether you're dancing a pivotal battle in a story ballet or intense partnering in a contemporary piece, these expert tips can help you make your fight scenes convincing, compelling and safe.
1. Master the Basics
When Luke Ingham was cast as Tybalt in San Francisco Ballet's Romeo & Juliet, he spent a full month practicing the basic body positions, footwork and momentum of fencing. "You need to be really grounded, you need to know where your feet are," Ingham says.
Brooklyn-based burlesque troupe Company XIV isn't afraid to take risks. Nutcracker Rouge, their take on the holiday classic, features a cast of jack-of-all-trades dancers who double as greeters, ushers, singers, actors and aerialists, while baring a good amount of skin but even more confidence. (Disclaimer: The show is for mature audiences only.) What's most impressive about these artists is how captivating they are. Regardless of what style of dance you do, if you want to become a better performer, consider taking a page out of their playbook.
You've got to be "on" the moment the audience walks in the front door.
Former New York City Ballet dancer Wilhelmina Frankfurt first spoke out about sexual misconduct at NYCB in Psychology Tomorrow in 2012. Since October, she's been working with The Washington Post reporter Sarah Kaufman for a story about Peter Martins, and when the School of American Ballet began investigating Martins for an anonymous accusation, she was called in to discuss her experiences. But Frankfurt feels there's more to the larger picture, and shares that here with Dance Magazine, as edited by Maggie Levin.
In 1994, I began to write a book of essays about my life in dance—mostly as an exercise. When the #MeToo movement began this year, I knew it was time to brush the dust off and take another look. Although incomplete, these essays addressed the roots that have long run between sexual abuse, alcoholism and ballet. They involve George Balanchine, Peter Martins and numerous stars of the New York City Ballet. It's painfully clear that my story is the same story that has occurred thousands of times, all over the world.
I'm heartbroken that I might have to drop out of the Radio City Christmas Spectacular. My back has been spasming since I did an extra-high kick to the back. My X-ray and MRI are normal, but my doctor thinks I hurt my sacroiliac joint. Physical therapy hasn't helped yet. How can I know for sure that this is the real problem?
—Injured Rockette, New York, NY
Freddie Kimmel's musical theater career was just taking off when he woke up one morning with a pain in his groin. A trip to the doctor assured him it was nothing of concern, even though the sensation returned a few months later. As a dancer, Kimmel was used to pushing through discomfort, so he kept going to dance class to "work it out."
But the pain persisted. During a run of The Full Monty at Westchester Broadway Theatre, Kimmel was diagnosed with advanced metastasized cancer. Ten tumors had infiltrated his body.
Japanese-born, New York–based choreographer Kota Yamazaki returns to his roots as a butoh dancer in Darkness Odyssey Part 2: I or Hallucination. He explores butoh founder Tatsumi Hijikata's idea of the extreme fragility of the body. Yamazaki is joined by contemporary luminaries Julian Barnett, Raja Feather Kelly, Joanna Kotze and Mina Nishimura, each of whom engages in drastically eccentric pathways, making the body appear to disintegrate before your eyes. Music is by Kenta Nagai and visual environment by lighting wizard Thomas Dunn. Dec. 13–15, Baryshnikov Arts Center. bacnyc.org.