The performers of AXIS Dance Company danced, rolled, spoke and sang their way through Saturday’s program at Bates Dance Festival, in a gripping, moving and exciting performance.
AXIS is the groundbreaking dance troupe, founded in 1987, that has created a dialogue and re-evaluation of how disability does and does not affect artistic movement.
At Bates, performers included two fully able-bodied dancers, one with amputations and three in wheelchairs with different degrees of mobility. Their term for the company’s makeup is “physically integrated.”
Differences in physicality proved to be both central and almost superfluous to the performance. Every piece involved examination of physical ability and/or specific use of wheelchairs in the choreography. At the same time, the choreographic whole transcended reference to differing ability.
Each of the three pieces presented Saturday was created by a choreographer in collaboration with the dancers. Each included the spoken word, with or without music. Snatches of song and some skit-type acting were integrated, expanding the concept of onstage dance performance to be more multi-disciplinary and multi-textured.
“the beauty that was mine, through the middle, without stopping” (Joe Goode, choreographer), posed questions about image and ability, using two large wooden frames as frames and mirrors for the dancers.
“This is a picture of me, but not really me, in the end” was thematically spoken by Rodney Bell from his wheelchair and repeated later by Lisa Bufano. Bufano danced without prostheses in mirror poses with Janet Das on the other side of the frame. Later, Bufano returned to the stage with prostheses, moving with less fluidity, and said, “This is me, walking.”
Here and in the next piece, “Vessel,” associate director Sonsheree Giles performed sensual duets with Bell in which the two dancers seemed to meld. Bell made athletic use of his chair, including flipping over so that Giles could float and spin on a single wheel. Their limbs rose and entwined, in floor and chair work, challenging boundaries of perceived division and ability.
Bell and artistic director Judith Smith also challenged perceptions of ability by supporting the able-bodied dancers in falls and recoveries, and manually manipulating their bodies.
For “Vessel” (Alex Ketley, choreographer), the dancers’ improvised words during movement were recorded and arranged by Carol Snow into an image-poem played over a background score.
Bell’s “When you’re planted, pushed down in something deep, you just want to push up” accompanied his lying on his back and then regaining his chair with help from Giles, in a posture suggestive of childbirth.
Alice Sheppard performed grand torso sweeps, balancing on her footrest and falling to her side, creating fascinating and complex geometries. Her recorded vocalizations were particularly telling in overall artistic terms, including the open-ended phrase, “In the absence of music…” and summary statement, “How do you talk about this when it’s movement without words?”
“Light Shelter” (David Dorfman, choreographer) was an electric composition, with the creative use of onstage lighting symbolic of the dancers’ sparking energy and athleticism.
Between lines of fluorescent lights at the front and back of the stage, Bell, Das, Giles, Sheppard and Sebastian Grubb flew, spun and contorted in group and solo movement. When they performed in a line, the jointly-created shapes were stunning, with almost frenetic movement punctuated by sudden stillness upon Smith’s called-out instructions.
AXIS’s performance gave concrete, non-euphemistic meaning to the term “differently-abled.” Unconventional elements weren’t gratuitous or distracting; instead, they enlarged and enhanced the choreography.
Each of the performers, whatever the status of their limbs, had moments of individual transcendence, with an unusually complete meshing — for any dance troupe — of all the dancers into a holistic onstage organism.
Jennifer Brewer is a freelance writer, teacher, musician and dancer who lives in Saco.