Joel Brown and Sebastian Grubb in Seiwert’s new work.
Photo by David DeSilva, Courtesy AXIS.
In her teens, Judith Smith was a champion equestrian. It was only after a disabling car accident that she became a contemporary dance pioneer. This month AXIS Dance Company, the physically integrated troupe she co-founded in 1987, celebrates 25 years of performing innovative work by the likes of Stephen Petronio, David Dorfman, Alex Ketley, and Bill T. Jones.
AXIS grew out of a movement class for women who used wheelchairs. But, Smith recalls, “I was going to performances and saying, ‘Wow, they could do something amazing with us.’ ” In 1997 she became artistic director of the Oakland-based company, hoping that leading choreographers would be intrigued by physically integrated dance, which combines performers with and without disabilities.
Contrary to the stereotype of disabilities as limitations, the creative possibilities offered by legs, canes, crutches, and wheelchairs are vast. “Choreographers have no idea what to do with us,” Smith says. She finds that dancemakers are both intimidated and excited by AXIS.
San Francisco choreographer Amy Seiwert, a 2005 “25 to Watch,” agrees. Along with Victoria Marks and Sonya Delwaide, Seiwert created a world premiere for the anniversary performances, set for April 12–14. “I’ve never been more terrified for a rehearsal in my life, having so many variables that I haven’t trained for,” she admits. Discarding her usual rehearsal methods, she and the dancers worked together to create new movement. “As a choreographer,” she says, “that’s the best gift you can have: dancers who are hungry to go into the unknown.”
AXIS’s first 25 years have seen a sea change in disability awareness, international recognition, and even two appearances on So You Think You Can Dance. Next on Smith’s list: expanding the five-performer roster, training professional disabled dancers, a degree program—and continued defiance of stereotypes. It’s an ambitious slate, but with AXIS, the possibilities are limitless.