AXIS Dance Company

Oakland 2002 Season:
"Secret Ponies" by Stephen Petronio, music by Janis Joplin, Joao Gilberto
"Pas" by Alonzo King
"El Último Adios" by Nadia Adame
"Sans Instruments" by Sonya DelWaide, music by Sovosó

Alice Arts Center Theater, Oakland, CA

October 3-6, 2002
By Toba Singer

For a few weeks in the summer of 1972, when I had first moved to Washington, D.C., I shared a house there with a number of political activists. We were not interns who clamored to hitch our wagons to the disreputable careers of the congressional representatives who had voted (in various compromising and uncompromising ways) for the war measures that put U.S. troops, planes and bombs into service in an undeclared war of mass destruction in Vietnam. We were there to engage in the political combat intended to flank Congress and force the United States out of Vietnam. One of us was Kitty Cone. Kitty's political energies and imagination seemed boundless. Kitty's access to the political fights she itched to win was limited only because she had Multiple Sclerosis. She needed assistance, including a wheelchair, in order to be mobile. Eventually, Kitty moved to Berkeley, and the following year, Uncle Sam finally cried "uncle" and got his recalcitrant troops out of Viet Nam.

The story went that as time went on, Kitty began to think more about the physical obstacles faced by people like herself. She turned away from revolution to re-focus her efforts on reforming attitudes and expanding access for people faced with obstacles similar to those she had encountered. Those of us who were revolutionaries were sorry to lose her; but our loss was registered as a gain for the Berkeley-based Center for Independent Living, which she helped to found. She and a number of like-minded activists did succeed in changing certain conditions and attitudes affecting disabled adults and children, here and abroad.

As I watched the AXIS performance, I wondered whether Kitty had, in her vast imaginings, ever imagined this: A physically integrated dance ensemble including three dancers needing no assistance, two using wheelchairs, one using a leg brace, one using a cane, and a dancer using his only leg to dance a pas de deux, and all of it moving through an evening with no apparent hitches, except when some of the dancers with or without disabilities, hitched themselves to wheelchairs as part of the well-turned choreography that characterized the performance. That choreography included works by Stephen Petronio, Alonzo King, Nadia Adame and Sonya Delwaide, artists who clearly see a new set of possibilities in the setting of wheels to music, and the use of such props as a rhinestone-studded cane lowered from the ceiling to the dancer onstage who would perform with it, and how dance movement changes (or doesn't) when it is set on a dancer with one leg or one foot.

Secret Ponies, by Petronio, with costumes by Mario Alonso, is a series of seven vignettes to music by Janis Joplin, and Joao Gilberto and family, where "The Girl from Ipanema," a song suggestive of sublime grace and insouciance supports a choreography that captures both the ironies and capabilities of the ensemble dancing those qualities.

Pas by Alonzo King, is not only one of the best works I've seen by King, it offers dancers Andrea Flores and Homer Avila carte blanche to display their complementary strengths as dancers. Avila, possessed of a well-proportioned body, strong and focused, has one leg, the other having been amputated at the hip. The piece opens with him "bridging" on the floor, moving along a series of loci that eventually takes him downstage, where he is joined by Flores. She, who has both legs, promenades with his support. Because the piece isn't built around his requirements for support, there is interdependence and independence, as Avila relevés, jumps, penchées and balances on one foot with no support from Flores, and there are moments when he, in fact, becomes her "undercarriage." Neither is Flores' dancing supplemental. It has its own, as well as a collaborative, rationale. While Avila's tricks could take on a kind of "freak show" aspect because he is so adept, the conceptual artistry of the work and the adroit execution deflect any suggestion of that kind. The large, enthusiastic audience was enthralled by this piece.

El Último Adios, by Nadia Adame, fully uses the music, including violin scales with balalaika and what sound like bouzouki rhythms to articulate a rich, energetic, almost folkloric ensemble piece, where plum-colored costumes add depth to the diagonal, triangular and often angular en face choreography.

The last piece of the evening, Sonya Delwaide's Sans Instruments, was an ambitious work, and a collaboration with the acclaimed vocal ensemble, Sovosó. While I very much admire previous choreography that I have seen by Delwaide, here her deliberation is overt, with the resulting artistic choices appearing uncharacteristically gimmicky. The movement doesn't quite achieve the physical integration seen in the other works on the program. Costume pieces are put on and removed, as traffic onstage builds to the point of gridlock. Time and space are filled with random crises that arise and subside. Hugs are overused as support mechanisms without artistic justification. The dancers talk and the script becomes guttural at times. This deflates the piece. It works best where the force field between dancers is centrifugally held, so that a dynamic tension is created to include the audience in the suspense.

The overall impact of this company is to revise what how we think about movement onstage. The real life histories of the dancers and choreographers are not simply a resource or subtext to be referred to when needed. They are the fuel and the substance of what moves this ensemble. AXIS should be seen for its work, but it should also be seen because, while it may have its roots and raison d'être in the effort to reform how society views its disabled members, the artistic implications of this work are revolutionary, and overturn all previous notions of how we move – together – as well as independently.


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Edited by Mary Ellen.

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