Dancers have the power to remind an audience just how many ways the human body can move. Part of the wonder of dance from an audience member perspective is that we know our own bodies could never do such things, but we marvel at such skill. Then comes along AXIS Dance Company and they take the notion of skill-dance-and able bodied to a whole new level. Saturday night at the Bates Dance Festival, a display of exceptional strength and artistry was presented by dancers with and without disabilities- this is AXIS dance.
Dancers in wheelchairs, a dancer with prosthesis, and a few dancers without disabilities shared the stage. Watching this company was at first surprising and confusing. It was hard to get past the notion of a disabled person dancing so rigorously. And, for gods sake... in a wheelchair, shouldn't they be more careful? But as the evening proceeds we come to realize it's okay and all the dancers are skilled trained professionals who work at their craft and have such control over their bodies, no matter what state their bodies are in.
It's hard to describe the feeling of exhilaration of watching a dancer in a wheelchair doing a duet with a dancer on her feet where they move together with such grace and passion. Why is it so unnerving? Is it because we usually think of people in wheelchairs as unfortunate and limited, unable to do many things? So here on stage, we see the person in the chair moving with the same intensity and huge range of artistic mobility as the non-disabled dancer and it's disconcerting. It takes awhile to settle in but then it's pretty cool and we start to see them all as dancers instead of as some regular and some disadvantaged people.
Next, what about the dancing and choreographic skill level? The program featured three dances by guest choreographers that all offered complex ideas with challenging dramatic and physical demands. In the program notes of Joe Goode's 2007 "the beauty that was mine, through the middle, without stopping" he wrote "is seeing somehow limited? Does it imply an unneccessary separation between viewer and viewed?" This question is so in your face because it's hard to avoid "seeing" a person dancing who is missing part of a her limbs, yet she IS dancing, and she's dancing along side a person who looks like a traditional dancer who has all four limbs in tack. They move at first as if seeing each other through the frame of a mirror and then as one as their bodies melt together as the reach, roll and lift their legs in unison. The dancers speak saying "this is me."
Alex Ketley's 2008 "Vessel" began with two dancers lying on the floor with an empty wheelchair off to the side. Shonsheree Giles and Rodney Bell move together with alternating tender and angst filled moves as equals with the support of the floor. As Bell moves into the chair his power now comes from the chair and Giles uses her legs. Yet, as they continue it becomes obvious that they are still equals in their abilities to dance with incredible strength and speed. The wheelchairs get turned over with dancers inside them and they get tipped to the point of falling and we have to let go of worry. Next, David Dorfman's 2009 "Light Shelter" showed how adept these dancers were at quick and intricate movement. At one point, as five dancers moved in unison, the two wheel chaired dancers blended seamlessly with the undisabled dancers, so all five people were dancing the same moves, the chairs disappeared. That was a WOW moment. The lighting by Heather Basarab was superb and the original music by Albert Mathias and Michael Wall was hypnotic.
The arts always have the incredible power to move us, but this company inspires awe in the human body to a whole new level.
AXIS Dance Company, at the Bates Dance Festival, Lewiston Maine, Saturday July 31, 2010