A cool square of light floods a corner of the stage, revealing a man languid and motionless in a dark blue armchair. He wears a white tank top and black pants cover his thin, limp legs. Murky music pushes its way into the landscape. So begins Full of Words, which opened the performance by AXIS Dance Company at Meany Hall on Thursday, October 3, 2013 as part of the UW World Dance Series. AXIS, a physically integrated dance company based in Oakland, CA, has been building a reputation for stirring and unexpected choreography using disabled and able-bodied dancers since its inception in 1987. The three works presented on Thursday fully embraced this reputation, exploring and questioning the implications of physical disability.
Full of Words, choreographed by Marc Brew, was a dark and fervent look at how passion and limitation affect our inner psyche and social relations. The man in the armchair, Joel Brown, fought with the weight of being confined in his own body. The restrained, fluid movements of his torso and arms pulsing, grasping, forcefully picking up his lifeless legs, and crawling out of the chair drew on a deeply rooted empathy in those watching. At a table across the stage, a resigned Emily Eifler, supported by an arm brace, bent over the table as though cleaning a stubborn spot, and dropped into a chair. Sonsherée Giles followed her, a tiny sprite of a woman who entered with smooth strength, pulling herself gracefully over the table and chairs. In their duet, Eifler’s arm brace morphed into a stilt-like extension of her body, propping her up at strange angles to the floor and leveraging her movement. Meanwhile, Giles grappled with the stresses of caring for people who are physically disadvantaged; skillfully communicating frustration, love, and sadness with her lithe form. As she climbed over the furniture and Eifler, her movement alternated between smooth control and wild thrashing. Upstage, a third faint light washed over a bathtub, and an able-bodied couple (Sebastian Grubb and Juliana Monin) sauntered in, simultaneously sullen and playful. An active dynamic of zealous anger and passion roiled and cracked between them. As the dance progressed, the duet between Grubb and Monin grew less interesting—their vigorous and expansive dancing made commonplace by the understated but innovative movements of Brown and Eifler. The piece concluded with a tenderly anguished duet between Brown and Giles, pressing into the territory of romance with and as a paraplegic—an issue that the piece could easily have spent more time investigating.
In The Narrowing, choreographer Sebastian Grubb effectively shattered the traditional understanding of athleticism and physical agility. Two male dancers, one able-bodied and the other in a wheelchair, performed side by side, jumping, turning, and studying the boundaries of balance. The pairing created the effect of a distorted mirror. Unison movement became a paradox of similar and different, and assumptions about strength and weakness toppled as they lifted and flipped each other across the stage. Grubb even played with inverting the choreographic process: he modified movements of the wheelchair for an able human body as much as he adjusted “normal” dance for the wheelchair. In moments when Brown leaned over and sent his chair sailing across the stage, Grubb awkwardly pulled himself across the floor. When Brown skewed his chair on one wheel and abruptly spun out of it to recover balance and momentum, Grub tilted off balance and fell. The dance accomplished exactly what the title suggested and brought two different bodies closer to equality—to the point where one could question which was better off.
Stark and vulnerable, What If Would You by Victoria Marks was an offbeat dance that seemed to thoroughly confuse a largely middle-aged, straight-laced audience. With house lights up throughout, the piece began simply. Dropping all pretension, dancers walked unassumingly to the front of the stage and, one after another, verbally thanked the audience for coming. The subsequent movement was just as shockingly candid. Silly and gestural, it seemed to throw away the physical capabilities of the dancers without explanation. As the piece built, however, it became clear that the company had removed the guise of “superhuman performers” in favor of a chance to connect with the audience conversationally. By inviting the audience into the dance, the piece turned the simply unexpected into the extraordinary. On opening night, one young man with paraplegia crawled from the back of the audience to the stage; his determined effort and dazed presence on the stage as the company danced with and around him sent a surge of hope through the hall. It confirmed what the rest of the night had suggested—that fears are more limiting than any physical condition. The diversity of physical constructions that exist within the human race is an invitation to test how perceived limitations can become unique possibilities.
AXIS Dance Company performed at the University of Washington’s Meany Hall October 3–5, 2013. More information about the company can be found at axisdance.org.