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AXIS Dance Company Aims for the Sky

April 6, 2017

Be center stage. When they tilt you, don't fold. Focus intentionally. Never look down.

The words ring out in a cavernous dance rehearsal studio at Oakland’s Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts. Ten professional dancers of the physically integrated AXIS Dance Company instantly shift their travel patterns, devising ways to brace a spine that is tipped 90 degrees while seated in a wheelchair. Heads held firmly in line, all eyes lift from the reassuring floor.

Taken and writ large, the short phrases issued by guest choreographer Stephan Koplowitz express not only the Oakland-based dance company’s 30-year mission, but the art form’s ultimate ambition. Dance aims to be central, forever unfolding, gaze to the horizon and higher.

Perhaps no other 10-day period broadcasts the Bay Area’s appetite for dance and its universal appeal across the United States as does National Dance Week. The over 400 community events in the Bay Area April 21–30 spill beyond seven days into an impressive stretch of physicality that includes free classes, workshops, open rehearsals, performances, symposiums, and more. Sponsored by Dancers’ Group and featuring 700 organizations and artists, the participants and audiences gain access to an astonishing array of styles: hip-hop, jazz, ballet, modern, salsa, contact improvisation, ballroom, hula, traditional Indian, Chinese, West African, aerial dance, and other forms.

Grasping it all can seem like a beast.

But temporarily telescoping and looking into the window of AXIS reveals clarity and hints at the ways in which art — music, theater, visual, and dance — must constantly reinvent itself or risk perishing in repetitive or derivative output. Crystallized perfection is an unexpected, equally dangerous cousin, because classical forms lose their oxygen — and their audiences — if disruption and new ideas never ruffle the feathers.

AXIS, since its origins in 1987, has not succumbed to stasis. Even so, a bold step in 2017 takes place as founder and former Artistic Director Judith Smith passes the baton to incoming Artistic Director Marc Brew. Smith’s assured guidance and vision has led the company to national prominence. Her work as an advocate and expert in the field of integrated dance has received multiple awards and international recognition.

AXIS today includes six professional dancers with and without disabilities, a 100-city annual tour schedule that includes regular performances in the Bay Area, burgeoning apprentice and teacher training programs, school visits that reach approximately 15,000 students, two appearances on FOX TV’s So You Think You Can Dance, and partnerships with institutions and organizations in the vanguard of inclusive instruction and physically integrated dance. Company repertoire includes choreography by Brew, Victoria Marks, Amy Seiwert, Alex Ketley, Sonya Delwaide, and Joe Goode, among others. Collaborations add to the company’s expansive holdings in work created with Bill T. Jones, Stephen Petronio, Yvonne Rainer, Ann Carlson, David Dorfman, Meredith Monk, Joan Jeanrenaud, and Fred Frith.

Handed the embarrassment of riches, Brew says in an interview that the passion and fierceness he sees in the dancers are like embedded gems or seeds that attracted him to the position. “I felt like I could contribute and help grow this company. Not just on a national level, but on an international stage. It’s an organization with a strong founder, board, staff, and dancers who are a team and work collaboratively.”

Brew brings broad-spectrum awareness to AXIS. His childhood in Jerilderie, a village of 900 people in New South Wales, Australia, was spent dancing as he prepared for a professional ballet career. A car accident irretrievably changed his trajectory. “After the accident, I still identified myself as a dancer, but I presented to people in a wheelchair. I’d introduce myself as a dancer and I could just see the look in their faces: ‘Oh, poor guy. He thinks he’s a dancer, but he’s a guy in a wheelchair.’”

Twenty years later, Brew, 39, has established an international career while living in Glasgow in the UK. He is undeniably a dancer and choreographer of broad scope with work in the repertory of Marc Brew Company, Australian Ballet Company, State Theatre Ballet Company of South Africa, Infinity Dance Theatre, CandoCo Dance Company, AXIS, and others.

In Oakland, he will give up a lifestyle, live for now separated from his life partner, lose the free health care and disability benefits available to residents of the UK, and continue, but be less active in the running of his company.

But like the “never look down” of AXIS dancers, Brew’s forward momentum is unwavering. History fuels his eagerness to build upon the Bay Area’s dance ecosystem.

“The area is more forward than other parts of the country,” he says, about accessibility, awareness, and opportunities for people living with disabilities in the Bay Area. Fundamental to his perspective is a social model of disability; a view that considers the physical environment when considering disability. A medical model, Brew says, looks at “what’s wrong” with the person who is disabled. “What’s disabled me is society,” he says. “It’s built stairs instead of ramps.” The social model outlook is empowering: the solutions are more elevators, BART, and other public transportation, ADA compliant performance venues — not miracles or newfangled robotic devices that he says are terrific, but for which he wasn’t willing to “wait around until science caught up with where my body wanted to go.”

Although the Bay Area is relatively progressive and Brew offers comparison to Europe primarily as inspiration, he says improvements are needed. Inclusive classrooms are standard in Australia. “It’s integral for children, because it’s more like real life. It’s not a big thing to engage with someone who’s disabled or with special needs.” Funding for the arts and independent artists that is backed by governmental law, not choice, means institutions in Europe must have policies and real structures for including the work of artists with disabilities.

But that doesn’t mean there’s never time for separation. At AXIS, some dancers need practice with wheelchair skills while others must work on floor work or jumps. “As long as we still are coming together and training, that’s where we learn a lot from each other,” says Brew.

To reach an acceptable level of support for artists with disabilities in the United States, Brew says institutional change must occur in tandem with societal change. Talk about diversity and equity needs to include people with disabilities. It’s not enough to have special festivals, or even Special Olympics, although the latter has brought attention to the physical prowess of people with disabilities that Brew appreciates. But even admiration can stray into segregation. “The London 2012 Olympic Games created more exposure. But we don’t want to be seen as super human. I’m not a ‘super crip.’ I do as much training as my nondisabled counterpart. We get more comments about how amazing we are, instead of how we’re integrated and we all put the same amount of effort into our work.”

Reviewed as a choreographer, Brew is sometimes encapsulated in a bubble. “I don’t do work only around disability as a topic. I own who I am. It informs my work. I’m interested in restrictions and how it relates to dance. The work should be reviewed for how it is, for how it’s seen. I don’t like it when a review speaks about the functionality of a dancer with crutches or a wheelchair.”

Better writing about physically integrated dance, he says, will have less fear and more focus. Artistry will be saluted. AXIS will be recognized as ambassadors for the next generation of dancers, demonstrating an empowered model of what is to come. Language will develop in each setting cooperatively. “Handicap” will be dropped — ”I hate that word,” Brew says, — and “disabled” and “nondisabled” will be a stepping stone to “just Marc.”

Claiming identity, putting it center stage, unfolding its beauty and flaws without reservation and rising above the horizon line. Dance now, as it always has, intends to take a note and run with it.

Lou Fancher is a San Francisco Bay Area writer. Her work has been published by WIRED.com, Diablo Magazine, Oakland Tribune, Contra Costa Times, InDance, East Bay Express, Oakland Magazine, SF Weekly, and others.  She is a children's book author, designer and illustrator, with over 50 books in print. Also a choreographer, ballet master and teacher, she coaches professional ballet and contemporary dance companies in the U. S. and Canada.  Visit her website online at www.johnsonandfancher.com.

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