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Axis Dance Company
Malonga Casquelourde Center for the Arts,
1428 Alice Street, Oakland CA
November 10, 2006

by Paul Parish
copyright 2006 by Paul Parish

Axis's concert last week in Oakland seemed a dingy little affair — until we saw the dancing. Their theater in the Malonga Casquelourde Center for the arts is unwelcoming; it divides the crowd up into separate packages facing a sprawl of red curtain, and in any case, the audience was small, with many of the usual suspects. But the dancing drew us in, and by the finale, which was the world premiere of a new piece by Margaret Jenkins, the evening was coruscating with brilliant dancing, and there was no place on earth I'd rather be.

Axis is made up of dancers some disabled, some not, but there is nothing second-rate about them. One-third of the company are in wheelchairs, another couple have a prosthesis, and the remainder are able-bodied. They invite us to look at them: they command some highly unusual movement, and they can give stunning perspectives onto the ideal. They've commissioned some remarkable work: Bill T. Jones's piece for them was his finest new work since "Uncle Tom's Cabin." And Jenkins has risen to the challenge with gusto.

That big red curtain went up on a low-key thing called "Decorum," with three dancers at the edge of a vast space seated close together (two on a Victorian loveseat, one in a wheelchair) making small movements. But you quickly saw a potential for wicked wit in it — the gestures were impish, and the piece itself a version of the ageless vaudeville 3-in-a-row-pecking-at-each-other number, which must go back to the Romans: how many times have we seen it, and it's always delightful - Fred Astaire did it, every version of Charlie Moulton's "Precision Ball Passing" is a version of it. With a disabled person in it, it remained a comedy of spite and malice: the tableaux were always picturesque, if the whole was a bit long-winded.

Katie Faulkner choreographed "Decorum," and she danced in it, along with Bonnie Lewkowicz (in the wheelchair, one of the founders of Axis) and Sonshereé Giles. Her moves reminded me of the Mills College style (where Faulkner graduated) of some years back, especially of the work of Janice Garrett, where small gestures were often confined to one joint: i.e., the head would get shoved down to the shoulder, or the torso would hinge at the navel, though occasionally there'd be a moment of much larger mayhem, and indeed the movement eventually spilled out to roam the whole floor. The impudence in "Decorum" put me in mind of Dickensian caricatures, to wit Merry and Cherry, the two simpering, decorous, but deep-down hostile Pecksniff daughters in "Martin Chuzzlewit." The entire affair was extremely detailed with little sorties of affection and abuse, nicely graded, with the occasional flat-on attack. The fabulous BBC version of "Martin Chuzzlewit" would maybe still have been current in 2004, when Faulkner choreographed the piece, but there may be no conscious debt to it. Ms Faulkner comes from North Carolina, and as a fellow-Southerner, I can attest to having seen lots of such where I grew up.

After a pause, the curtain came back up on four women in a row: Victoria Marks's "Dancing to Music" (1988). If the moves in "Decorum" were on the small side, those made by this foursome were downright minimalist. They looked up to the left (hopefully?), and down to the right (dejectedly?), kind of in canon, with changes creeping into the sequence á la Steve Reich. At one point the woman in the wheelchair (Alice Sheppard) turned her chair around and moved upstage, as if fed up with waiting for Godot, whereupon the woman next to her on the end (Sonsherée Giles) followed her, placed a hand on her shoulder, and drew her back into the group. After this they all faced up stage, then turned back around to us, and at the end people moved forward a bit, which created a warm semicircle.

This piece might have been gripping on another day, or with more arresting performers; its geometry is certainly exacting, the exclusions are rigorous, like Racine's. But the vocabulary is pedestrian, not tragic, and more energy has to come from somewhere. Ms. Marks, now at UCLA, was head of choreography at London Contemporary Dance School, and perhaps with dancers who're more tuned to theater (as most English dancers seem to be) the moods that go with these postures might have given the piece some nervous crackle.


Sean McMahon's "Room 5600" (2006) gave thrilling opportunities to Stephanie Bastos to dart and flash about the stage. It was amazing to see her jumping with such clarity and force and confidence, since she is (I guess) an amputee and has only one foot — she'd be in mid-air in arabesque and you'd notice that the working leg did not end in the usual way, and do a double-take, by which time she was back in the air like some demi-goddess out of Ovid. She managed to conceal every difficulty and even to make it impossible to see how she took off or landed - all her flash time was spent in the air. Later, when she was back on the ground, the movement had reverted to adagio, and one had to search to distinguish her from the rest. I found myself figuring that she must be standing on one foot, since she only HAS one foot, but her balance on one foot is as good as anybody else's on two. No big deal, but one does think about such things.

Jenkins's "Waypoint" accepted their ethos and made maximum use of the diversity of the group, and somehow by taking some things to their limit created a world that was simultaneously peaceful and exciting. The piece was brief and packed with material and actually left you wanting more.

She built "Waypoint," as Jones did his piece, on geometry and relationships, symmetry and contrasts. She accepted the limitations almost as Tchaikovsky accepted Petipa's requirements and came up with material so interesting the stage seemed to be brimming with possibilities. The dancers in motorized wheelchairs she used for their ability to anchor her compositions, for their smooth gliding, their lyrical circling, and as locomotive pedestals for other dancers (though much less than most have done, and she actually she actually did without Judy Smith's famous lyrical wheelchair-pirouettes). The lone man, Sean McMahon, she set flashing about the stage in fouetté sautés, entering and quickly exiting again, as a special effect.

The foreground was given to a concertante group made up of Alice Sheppard, who was doing wheelies in her hand-pushed wheelchair almost from the outset, and to Margaret Cromwell and Giles, whom she used like viola and violin.

With the rest of the company posed motionless facing upstage in Jose Maria Francos's cool grey light, Jenkins set Giles off like a sparkler, reconfiguring in a brilliant succession of explosive jumps that seemed to break the ice, as it were, and set the rest of the group afloat. Soon Ms Sheppard was doing her wheelies, Smith and Lewkowicz were gliding; dancers would connect briefly and separate.

Cromwell became a second subject, as coolly drawn-out and fluid as Giles was sparking and evanescent; she'd take long elegant balances and let her arms melt slowly through long-breathed changes before coming down from half-toe and streaking off in long ribbon-like phrases as McMahon flashed in and out.

In the closing episode Sheppard came driving in with Giles lying like a bedroll cross-wise in the foot-space of her wheelchair. Giles would reach out with one hand and paddle the chair round in circles. She eventually crawled out of her cubby-space and, facing Sheppard, took her by the hands and pulled her out of the chair onto the floor, where just as the curtain was coming down the two of them each drew the other onto her feet, standing, facing each other.

Which left us all wondering, "Well, what's she doing in a wheelchair? What is it this woman can't do?" What a sense of possibilities opening up! Heaven itself!

"All dances are too long?" Not this one.

Photo: AXIS Dance Company in Margaret Jenkins' WayPoint. Photo by Trib LaPrade

Volume 4, No. 41
November 20, 2006

revised November 27, 2006
copyright ©2006 Paul Parish



©2006 DanceView