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Theater & Dance
What you need to know for 07/27/2017

AXIS troupe turns disabilities into more expansive dance form

AXIS troupe turns disabilities into more expansive dance form

When the AXIS Dance Company takes the stage at Proctors, artistic director Judith Smith guarantees t

When the AXIS Dance Company takes the stage at Proctors, artistic director Judith Smith guarantees that the movement will be unlike any you’ve seen before. Even in the world of contemporary dance.

“We have dancers who are with and without physical disabilities, so they will see a much different kind of movement and a much more expansive kind of movement. When you combine people that move really differently, there are more options for partnering and actually for everything,” says Smith.

Some of the dancers will move in wheelchairs, others dance using crutches and prosthetic limbs.

For audience members who are disabled, an AXIS performance can be life-affirming, and illustrate the possibilities for self-expression through the arts.

“It’s just really a powerful way to get a message across without saying much,” she says.

AXIS Dance Company

WHEN: 2 p.m. Saturday

WHERE: GE Theatre, Proctors, 432 State St., Schenectady

HOW MUCH: $20

RELATED EVENT: 6 to 9 p.m. Friday at Proctors, “Art for the View” gala includes Axis Dance Company performance, private showing of art exhibit, hors d’oeuvres and dessert stations. $100. Phone 382-4586 for reservations or buy ticket at the door.

MORE INFO: www.proctors, 346-6204. For Axis Dance Company, go to www.axisdance.org, Facebook or YouTube.

Founded in 1987, AXIS has traveled from its home base of Oakland, Calif., to performances in more than 60 cities, and to Europe and Siberia. The seven-member troupe has been honored with seven Isadora Duncan Dance Awards, and AXIS dancers have appeared twice on the hit TV show “So You Think You Can Dance.”

The company’s first visit to the Capital Region is part of a celebration of “Art for the View,” an international exhibit of paintings, photography and other works by artists with physical or mental disabilities. Sponsored and organized by Sunnyview Rehabilitation Hospital, the juried exhibit runs through Friday in galleries on the second floor of Proctors, and then moves to Sunnyview from Nov. 1 to Dec. 8.

What happens at AXIS is called physically integrated dance, and 25 years ago, the company was a pioneer. Today, thanks to Smith, AXIS is internationally known for this form of movement.

“Our non-disabled dancers are crucial to this work,” explains Smith. “We couldn’t do what we do without them, and they couldn’t do what they do without us. We rely on every body’s contribution equally.”

At Proctors, AXIS members will perform three works: “The Reflective Surface,” “The Narrowing,” choreographed by dancer Sebastian Grubb, and an improvisational piece called “Falling Up.”

While Smith will not be appear at Proctors because of administrative duties in Oakland, she has been dancing with the company since it began.

Smith was a 17-year-old equestrian in Colorado, competing in horse shows, when she was injured in a car accident that left her a quadriplegic.

As a young woman in Berkeley, her life in dancing began with a class where students did improvised movement on the floor. Smith took up swimming and weight lifting, and then, at a martial arts studio, she met Thai Mazus, the first director of AXIS.

Wheelchairs, crutches and prostheses are not props, she emphasizes.

“It’s the way we move, it’s the way we get through life, it’s the way we dance. I don’t see a crutch on its own conveying emotion. It’s what the dancer brings to that crutch.”

Her wheelchair is “the vehicle for the creative part as well as the everyday part,” she says.

In the past 15 years, since Smith became artistic director, AXIS has been commissioning works from some of the nation’s top choreographers, including Bill T. Jones, Stephen Petronio, Joe Goode, Joanna Haigood, Victoria Marks, Ann Carlson, Margaret Jenkins and Meredith Monk.

“We’re creating movement that hasn’t existed before, because people haven’t considered bringing a person in a wheelchair to dance in a piece. And every time we get a new dancer, they bring new things in, whether they are disabled or not.”

In 2011 and 2012, AXIS was invited to perform on the Fox show “So You Think You Can Dance.”

“It was fabulous for us,” Smith says. “There were millions of people who never saw this, never considered it, even remotely. Our Facebook page exploded.”

Nigel Lythgoe, the British dance judge on the show, had recommended AXIS.

“He’s a huge proponent of trying to get everybody and “every body” dancing,” Smith says. “That’s one of the things that’s exciting about this form of dance. AXIS and other companies like us have created a new dance audience.”

Since Smith was injured more than 30 years ago, attitudes toward and awareness of physical disabilities have undergone major changes, and much of it came with the Americans with Disabilities Act, which Congress approved in 1990.

“There are disabilities being portrayed on television. And there are a few disabled people that are also getting television roles or movie roles,” Smith says.

“Christopher Reeve did a lot to increase the visibility ... having all these veterans coming back from war disabled ... having all the disabled athletes in the Paralympics that are starting to get attention. But there’s still a long way to go.”

Under Smith’s watch, AXIS launched an education/outreach program.

Dancers teach workshops for adults and children, from kindergarten to college age, with and without physical disabilities.

And every year, they perform for about 16,000 youth.

“They get to watch us, working together,” Smith says.

AXIS recruits dancers that are “experimental” and “open-minded,” she says.

“Our non-disabled dancers have all trained from a young age in various movement styles. Our disabled dancers often come to us with little or no experience. It’s kind of on-the-job training. It takes a certain kind of person to do what we do.”

AXIS dancers don’t expect to be rich or famous, she says.

“It’s still a relatively small group of us around the world doing this work. There is much more awareness, but there are a lot of people who have never seen this, never heard of it, even in the dance world.”

The AXIS performance is supported in part by a grant from Jack Hume, publisher emeritus of The Daily Gazette, and his wife, Connie.

Reach Gazette reporter Karen Bjornland at 395-3197 or kbjornland@dailygazette.net.

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