Dance and disability through AXIS

AXIS Dance Company 2015. Dancers Julie Crothers, Nick Brentley, Dwayne Scheuneman, and Sophie Stanley.

Judith Smith always saw herself riding horses. Since she was a child she was in love with riding; particularly in equestrian jumping competitions.

Today, her life looks rather different than she imagined. When Smith was 17 she was in an accident. Now she relies on a wheelchair for her mobility. The thing that she loved so much felt taken away from her. Ten years later she was introduced to another love — dance. It was something that she didn't think was possible until after she was a part of the very first piece that AXIS Dance Company performed. Today, AXIS has become her life's work, and they are redefining how the art community sees movement.

RELATED: A dance to honor those who lost their lives in the Holocaust 

AXIS is one of the most well known modern dance companies in the world because of its unique objective — to showcase dancers with and without disabilities.

"I fell in love with moving again," says Smith, recalling her first dance.

It was in 1997 that Smith took over the company as artistic director. For the first ten years of the company's existence the choreography came entirely from within the organization. Under her artistic direction, AXIS expanded from in-house choreographers to various commissions. Over the years they have had 20-25 disabled dancers and a similar number of non-disabled.

Today, they have traveled as far as Siberia, appeared on So You Think You Can Dance twice (per Nigel Lythgoe's request), and worked with internationally known choreographers such as Sonya Tayeh, Marc Brew and Janet Das.

"We have had an opportunity to really change people's minds by doing what we do," says Smith.

AXIS also performs regularly in schools in addition to running a pre-professional summer intensive training program and a series of master classes at the university level. These are vital to the survival of the group because the level of talent that their company requires is often hard to find in disabled dancers.

"We figured if we wanted them we would have to train them ourselves," says Smith. She explained that they are lucky if they get ten disabled dancers coming to audition for a role, compared to most companies which get 100 or more trying out for a slot.

But more than anything Smith wants students to leave their outreach programs with one thing:

"Just a different idea of their own potential and their own movement vocabulary and in line with a different idea of what ability is," she says. "You know in the sense that anyone in a body can dance and should have access to dance."

AXIS will be performing at Clowes Memorial Hall later this week, and will include three pieces that are a tribute to wounded veterans. Sonya Delwaide choreographed a duet for two women, Marc Brew created the second piece and Joe Goode's dance was developed through interviews that the dancers and Joe did with combat veterans who were injured while fighting.

"It's about being resilient in the face of really catastrophic circumstances," says Goode in an interview provided by AXIS.

"Most [choreographers] find it's not that different than working with another company," says Smith. "They find they have a wider range of movement possibilities. When you get people who move really differently together the potential for movement is pretty radically expanded.

"I think dance is an incredible language that is nonverbal for the most part," says Smith. "When people have the opportunity to watch AXIS ... [it] changes their ideas about ability and about human potential."

AXIS Dance Co.

When: Nov. 6, 8 p.m.

Where: Clowes Memorial Hall, 4602 Sunset Ave.

Tickets: $20-$30; $15-$25 Students, Seniors, First Responders



Recommended for you