Pennsylvania Ballet's Lillian DiPiazza was out with an injury when her new director started, but was eventually promoted under his leadership. Photo by Arian Molina Soca, Courtesy PAB
When news reached the Limón Dance Company that Colin Connor was replacing longtime director Carla Maxwell in 2016, the tight-knit group experienced a range of emotions. "Everyone agreed that fresh energy would be a benefit to the company," says veteran dancer Logan Kruger. But the excitement lasted only until the fear sunk in—there would be changes, and some of them might even include saying good-bye.
It's understandable to experience feelings of shock, fear and even abandonment if your director leaves. It's not just that you'll have a new boss—a shift at the top can have a domino effect on casting, programming, rehearsal structure and branding. Here's how to forge a relationship with your new director and take advantage of the opportunities that come from having fresh eyes on your dancing.
AXIS's Lani Dickinson and James Bowen. Photo by Matt Evearitt, courtesy AXIS
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.
On July 1 and 2, San Francisco audiences will encounter a performance that's an unsettling kick to our assumptions. Stephan Koplowitz has created Occupy, A site-specific journey through an urban garden to be performed by AXIS Dance Company at the Yerba Buena Gardens. This is a dance about inclusion.
When Jerron Herman was diagnosed with hemiplegia cerebral palsy, the doctors told him that he would likely need help doing everyday tasks like eating and getting dressed.
Today, Herman is six years into his professional dance career. He currently performs with Heidi Latsky Dance, an integrated company that includes dancers with a range of physical abilities. He also serves as the youngest member of The New York Dance & Performance Awards (or Bessies) selection committee.
Watching Dwayne Scheuneman and Keon Saghari partner is like watching contact improvisation meet parkour. She climbs up his body and balances on his shoulders as if they were just another floor. The two dart in a tight, quick circle, and then he flies across the stage, rounding each corner with dangerous speed. Rather than being seen as a limitation, Scheuneman's wheelchair is leveraged as a choreographic tool.
Twenty-nine years ago, before “diversity" was a dance world buzzword, before the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law, AXIS Dance Company was making work that challenged ideas about whose bodies were capable of dancing. Now the country's premiere physically integrated company (both disabled and nondisabled dancers perform), AXIS still leads the push for more-inclusive dance, working with choreographers like Bill T. Jones, Kate Weare and David Dorfman to create one-of-a-kind pieces that couldn't be replicated by your average modern dance company.
Scheuneman and Nick Brentley
The headlining work of the Oakland-based troupe's current tour, to go again by Joe Goode, explores the experiences of combat-injured veterans and their families. Goode's signature dance-theater blend tells their stories using text from interviews conducted by the choreographer and the dancers. The performers speak and sing about the veterans' resilience while moving through phrases that reflect the trauma of war. The dancers' bodies hold hints of their own trauma, and suggest their own resilience as disabled movers.
“It's very difficult to show up at a dance class and expect that it's going to work for you, that the person teaching is not going to freak out, and will be able to teach in a way that someone like me can translate the material," says artistic director Judith Smith, who has been wheelchair-bound since a car accident at age 17. And yet, movement has immense rewards for those who have experienced debilitating losses. Scheuneman says that after severely injuring his neck in 1995, “dance helped me understand my new body and improved my ability to navigate in a wheelchair."
AXIS' process isn't much different from that of other modern repertory groups: They use the same improvisational activities, the same weight-sharing exercises, as you'd find at any other company. “There's just a learning curve with figuring out how somebody in a wheelchair moves, or what our balance issues are, or how crutches work," says Smith.
The cast of to go again.
That's part of where AXIS' rich movement vocabulary comes from. “When you have a cast of people who move differently and use adaptive equipment, you have this incredibly varied spectrum of movement to steal from," says Sophie Stanley, a nondisabled dancer. “It could be the way Dwayne's wheelchair swoops in a big, circular motion. I might want to emulate that beautiful curve."
But rather than just celebrating the integration of disabled dancers with nondisabled dancers, AXIS values each individual. “Every company is different," Scheuneman says. “I bring my wheelchair to the group, that's my offering. But everyone has a background. Mine is just more obvious." Stanley adds: “It's not about there being this one type of person and this other type of person. It's about five or six very different people coming together to create something."
Marc Brew's Divide, part of AXIS' to go again tour.
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.