AXIS Dance Company, Oakland, CA


AXIS_dance_Oakland_10-11
AXIS Dance Company’s “Light Shelter” choreographed by David Dorfman, with dancers (from left)
Sebastian Grubb, Sonsherée Giles, Rodney Bell, Alice Sheppard and Janet Das
Photo by Kevin Colton

Lively Dimensions

AXIS Dance Company
Works choregraphed by Marc Brew and David Dorfman
Malonga Casquelord Center for the Arts, Oakland, Calif.
Oct. 9, 2011

AXIS Dance Company, founded in 1987, has long been known as the leading U.S. company with “an ensemble of performers with and without disabilities.” In a post-performance discussion on Oct. 9 at the Malonga Casquelord Center for the Arts, it became clear that “disability” is not a word they use. “We don’t think about it,” said one dancer. “We concentrate on what we can do.” They do wonderful work and recently, with choreographers David Dorfman and Marc Brew, they have excelled.

Best works first. Marc Brew is from the U.K. and has worked with Australian, South African and New York dance companies. He was commissioned by Axis to premiere “Full of Words” for this season.

The program describes the work as “created as a series of physical conversations, encounters and interventions that reflect what it is to be human.” Five dancers intermittently inhabit the stage, set with a table and chairs, a bathtub and an easy chair. When asked about the set, Brew remarked, “It should be like looking into the windows of an ordinary house.” What happens then is remarkable.

Sonsherée Giles and Alice Sheppard confront each other in a series of movement conversations that range from hostile to consoling. Giles is a redhead, small, compact and skilled. Sheppard, in and out of the wheelchair, is able to support, assist and accompany Giles in her many maneuvers, all of which are breathtaking. Giles also approaches Rodney Bell, seated fitfully in the easy chair, but cannot make contact.

Meanwhile, upstage center, Sebastian Grubb and Juliana Monin confront the challenge of moving in, on, over and around the bathtub. If ever a duo were faced with challenges, this is it. The couple pushes, somersaults, embraces, sinks and sits in the tub. It is a complete episode of couple interaction, winsome, funny and fantastic to behold.

The successful score for “Full of Words” is by Dan Wool, costumes by Sonsherée Giles, lighting by Heather Basarab. All in all, a fine work.

David Dorfman’s “Light Shelter” (2009; see video excerpt below) used the same cast with the addition of Janet Das and artistic director Judith Smith doing some of the calls. The score for “Light Shelter” is by Albert Mathias and Michael Wall. Words are thrown to the dancers and they respond with various pre-set moves, all of them varied and beautifully executed. The “call and response” theme presents a “stop and go” dynamic that is pleasing and then, to this viewer, gets dull and goes on too long. But, there are well-executed ensemble sections. The back lighting shining out to the house often makes it difficult to see the extraordinary skill presented.

Sebastian Grubb, who is a master of contact improvisation, works regularly with San Francisco choreographer Scott Wells, and his training and skill are outstanding. In the opening number, “The Narrowing” (2011), Wells and Grubb (in a wheelchair) perform a duet that echoes and amplifies each other’s movements. Their timing is splendid. The piece directs us to ask: What are performers roles? And what is the specific role of physical disability? Using a range of movement skills, from intricate finger play to wild tumbling, these two both ask and satisfactorily answer those questions. A very fine work.

AXIS Dance Company will tour the United States with this program in the next few months. When they return to the Bay Area, be sure to see them in their home season, November 2012.

San Francisco, CA
Joanna Gewertz Harris, Ph.D, is a dance teacher, historian, reviewer, and lecturer. She taught dance and theater at UCB, UCSC, Cal State Hayward and Sonoma, and is a frequent contributor to scholarly journals and books, most recently to H'Doubler, and Legacy in Dance Education, both from Cambria Press. Beyond Isadora, Bay Area Dancing 1915-1965 , her book documenting Bay Area history (Price $40. + 2.00 shipping) is available from her web site beyondsadora.com and her e mail, joannagharris@comcast.net.