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Dance company looks beyond disabilities

on October 5, 2010

Wheelchairs and disabled people are not common sights on most stages throughout the country—Judith Smith, who has been in a wheelchair since age 17, can personally attest to that. But Smith is also the artistic director and a founding member of Axis Dance Company, an integrated company with both disabled and non-disabled dancers which mixes exciting dance moves with powerful messages about disability and accepting differences. The company is currently comprised of eight dancers, five who are disabled and three who are not.

Axis performed its unique style of modern dance last Thursday at Dance Access Day: A Day of Dance, Disability, Performance and Fun at the Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts in Oakland. Audience members included children as well as disabled adults and seniors. Smith said she hopes these workshops provide children with “a seed of something different than what the traditional stereotypes of disabled people are—[that] these kids can come up with the idea that when people with differences work together, really beautiful things can happen.”

Halfway through each workshop, kids of all different ages, shapes, sizes, races, genders, and abilities were brought up onto the stage to dance alongside the performers. “Can you float?” Sonsheree Giles, the company’s associate director, as well as a dancer, choreographer and costume designer, asked of the kids and performers on the stage. She helped the kids try different movements that they’d seen during the professional pieces.  “Can you make a sharp shape, sharp jagged lines?  Now can you travel really fast?  Fast and bouncy?”

Giles, dancing since she was a little girl, said that dancing with the Axis company answered her lingering questions about “what is dance, and who can dance, and why is dance valuable and important to my life?  It continues to challenge and validate my artistic desire to move in a skillful and creative way.”

Bonnie Lewkowicz, a dancer and a founding member of Axis, also helped guide the children through the dance pieces and movements while the entire company of dancers stood on either side of her in a straight line running across the center of the jet black stage.  Manual wheelchairs, power chairs, and people without chairs blended together.  The dancers’ legs seemed to disappear, all covered in simple black bottoms that blended into the background of the stage, allowing audience members’ eyes to naturally fall on the brightly colored tops, many bordering on neon, worn by each dancer.

The sign language interpreter similarly blended into the background of the floor length, heavy black curtains as she stood to the right of the stage, her hands moving swiftly and her short, curly, dark blonde hair forming a halo around her head.

Axis was formed in 1987, and Smith feels confident in where the company is today. “To be a nationalized recognized contemporary repertory company with a strong education program, that was really the goal,” Smith said, as well as “to work with some of the best choreographers, composers and designers we could.”

The company’s next original show debuts in San Francisco on Nov. 5 and will be performed in Oakland Nov. 12 through Nov. 14.

For tickets to the San Francisco performances visit the ODC Theater website.

For tickets to the Oakland performances visit the Brown Paper Tickets website or call 1-800-838-3006.

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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