2017-2018 has been a momentous season for Oakland-based AXIS Dance Company – thirty years at the forefront of physically integrated dance and the first year with new Artistic Director Marc Brew. Both milestones call for acknowledgement and celebration, and the troupe is responding with expanded Bay Area programming. Not only did AXIS host their annual home season last October at Malonga Casquelord Center for the Arts in Oakland, but also decided to bring a spring program to San Francisco audiences – the Radical Impact Tour, a mixed repertory bill of encores and new work. Returning from the fall line-up are Brew’s Radical Impact and Amy Seiwert’s The Reflective Surface, along with the world premiere of Historias rotas from AXIS company alum Nadia Adame. Brew describes physically integrated dance as “dancers of different physicalities uniting together as equals, colleagues and collaborators to create high-caliber art that is relevant and reflective of the world we live in.” And each offering on the program, which opened Friday evening at Z Space, embodied that spirit and sentiment.
With its industrial, warehouse feel, Z Space is one of my favorite performance venues in San Francisco. Its huge, open space offers artists a blank canvas, which they can transform in any number of ways. At the same time, dance performance can easily get swallowed up by its cavernous nature. AXIS handily dealt with Z Space’s expanse and managed to craft quite an intimate performance container for the program’s three choreographic voices. Even though every dance was unique, a couple of through lines connected the evening together. Innovative partnering filled every work, and each utilized one striking compositional device.
In Adame’s Historias rotas, translated in the program notes as ‘Broken Stories,’ that element was the suitcase. Suitcases hung from the light grid and each member of the quartet (James Bowen, Lani Dickinson, Yuko Monden and Dwayne Scheuneman) had a suitcase with them throughout the dance. Immediately the narrative of journeying and traveling had been established. But was this a new voyage or a path previously traversed? With its introspective, somber and reflective nature, the mood onstage suggested the latter. The suitcases were weighty, not packed with items for an upcoming excursion, but loaded with the poundage of the past.
The suitcases were not theatrical props in the scene, but active parts of the cast – specifically, pas de deux partners. Yes, there were certainly pas de deux between the performers in the quartet, but the moments when the company danced with the suitcases were particularly emotive. They grasped them, stood on them, lifted them high in the air. They extend their legs onto the suitcases, embraced them with their arms and used them for support in large balanced poses. These duets changed the narrative. Here, individuals were not just lugging or carrying the past, but engaging with it – working through events and perhaps, even gaining closure in the process. And having played a significant role in rotas, the suitcases were appropriately included in the dance’s bows.
For Seiwert’s The Reflective Surface, the compositional question at play is right in the title. What can act as a surface for choreography? How can we change visual perspective by changing where and what the ‘floor’ is? With an integrated company of disabled and non-disabled performers, what new dance surfaces can be explored?
In this ensemble work for six (rotas’ quartet plus JanpiStar Rodriguez and Edisnel Rodriguez), Seiwert investigates these lines of inquiry, and in doing so, takes a deep dive into the possibilities of dance architecture. The experiment unfolds as a series of continuous dance chapters, each a different grouping of the six performers – solos and full cast sequences, duets and quintets. And every segment asked the viewer to consider new foundations and bases on which movement could develop: the stage, the bottom of a chair, another body, the frame of a wheelchair.
A pas de deux for Bowen and Dickinson posited the body as the stabilizing surface, Dickinson spiraling down Bowen’s core, his spine the grounding entity. In later vignettes, the shoulder became a place for the entire body to balance and swim during a contemporary bluebird lift. Chair seats transformed into bases as dancers created shapes and postures while standing on them. The backs of chairs become weight bearers for leaning bodies. And hands firmly planted on the frame of a wheelchair provided the foundation for inverted poses, legs freely soaring in the air. While all these scenarios were visually engaging, the middle portion of the dance remained at the same dynamic level for too long.
During Surface, the dancers conveyed a range of emotions, with the most powerful arising in a duet between Bowen and Scheuneman. Both communicated such a sense of joy as they cycled through their choreography. You could see them encountering fresh movement pathways as the choreographic surfaces changed and shifted, and their delight in uncovering this newness together was so obvious on their faces. It was an immense pleasure to witness.
AXIS’ San Francisco program closed with Brew’s Radical Impact, a full company work, set to an original score by JooWan Kim and performed live by a string quartet. Placing this work last on the bill was a smart move. Live music lifts the whole energy of a dance performance and had Impact come before rotas and Surface, I wonder if their respective recorded music might have felt disappointing.
Impact was indeed impactful. Brew’s choreography for this work is exhilarating and high energy; athletic and tactile, drawing inspiration from many movement lineages including various martial arts. Egalitarian partnering factored heavily with everyone partnering everyone, physicality and gender absent from the equation. But it was the collaboration between the choreography and Allen Willner’s lighting design where Impact’s potency resided, and the piece’s message was revealed.
From the beginning to the end of the dance, shapes of light were cast onto the stage’s surface: squares, rectangles, L-shapes and more. As the dance opened, it seemed as though the movement was being confined to the borders set by the light’s geometry. But if you looked closely, something else was going on. A hand would venture outside the glow; a toe would dip into the darkness. And the edges of the light were purposely fuzzy, creating a blurry and porous boundary begging to be crossed. As the dance went on, this moving outside the light continued and intensified. At one point, the stage was divided in half, with one part lit, the other not. Those in the light remained still, while those in the dark danced with full abandon, perhaps the opposite of what one might presume would happen. This was the essence of Impact. Brew was challenging expectations, assumptions and restrictions, upending them by placing artistic experiences outside an imposed box.