Radical Dance

Disability in dance

by by David Sanchez-Aguilera

illustration by by Cecilia Salama

You say a word, and then I’ll say a word, and we’ll make a sentence.” These lyrics reverberate through the rehearsal room set in motion by choreographer Marc Brew has set in motion.  His voice answers the song’s call, throwing the words out to the room as if in a game: “The word is weightlessness,” he says. Dancers Sonsheree Giles and Rodney Bell understand the task being asked of them. They have performed improvisation exercises like this before, and understand that it will morph into a finished product.  So they translate “weightless” into movements: an exercise not uncommon in this early stage of the creative process. But there is a complication: Bell is wheelchair-bound, and has been since a motorcycle accident left him paralyzed from the chest down at age 19. He dances alongside his partner, the ambulatory Giles.  Their improvised dancing speaks desire and reciprocity and falling.

Brew composed the piece, Full of Words, for the Oakland-based Axis Dance Company earlier this year. The contemporary repertoire company was founded in 1987 when artistic director Thais Mazu, along with Axis’s current director, Judith Smith, got the idea to fill the demand for creative expression within the disabled community by bringing together dancers of mixed abilities to create performance dance pieces. Their first show premiered in 1988 to a standing ovation. Indeed, Axis is not the only company of its kind in the world or even in the US: the London-based Condo Co Dance Company and the Chicago-based Dance Detour are just a few examples of the similar work that is being done out there. Axis, however, enjoys some prominence in its field. The company has commissioned work from some of the contemporary world’s foremost choreographers, and has reached acclaim for producing innovative gems of professional dance.

Full of Words premiered last month a Oakland’s Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts during the company’s home season, another name added to Axis’s growing list of impressive works. They are set to take their 2011-2012 program on the road beginning in early January. They plan to feature Brew’s work alongside revivals of Alex Ketley’s ruminating 2008 piece, Vessel, and David Dorfman’s combustible and athletic 2009 piece, Light Shelter.

A new vocabulary
A dash of brazenness has been a necessary component to the company’s success. As as a spirit of resilience: Annika Nonhebel, education director at Axis, told the Independent: “When we started about twenty years ago, we had to fight… it took a lot of time for a reviewer in the Bay Area to even come see a show.” And, according to Judith Smith, the people most unwilling to recognize physically-integrated are usually fellow members of the dance community.  She tells the Independent, “Within the contemporary dance community there is more of an awareness and acceptance than in ballet.”

Of course, Smith acknowledges ballet speaks a language that is over 200 years old, a language of posture and convention that in no way fits Axis’s vision of what could be possible if disability were introduced to dance.  Axis’s success stems from its ability to fashion a new language in which, according to Smith, the “vocabulary of able-bodied dancers is added to the vocabulary of disabled dancers.” She explains, “The movement possibilities when you move really differently—when you have dancers with prosthetics or in wheelchairs—are exponentially expanded.” What, for example, happens when the prosthetics comes off of a disabled dancer? What will dance look like then?

Choreographers have been all too eager to answer these questions. Take a moment between Sonshiree Giles and Rodney Bell from Alex Ketley’s Light Shelter as example. Watch Bell rear in his wheelchair, recoil, spin around and face Giles. Watch Giles somersault onto his back; fall from point into his arms, watch as she climbs Bell’s wheelchair and the grace with which she dismounts. It’s a pas-de-deux of different sorts, but a pas-de-deux nonetheless. The passion and the sexiness is all there. As is the vulnerability: the number ends with Giles lying on the floor and supporting Bell who leans backwards over her in his wheelchair. Giles places her feet on his back, her hands grip his wheels, and he gives over everything.

The cast currently features eight members: four disabled dancers in wheel chairs, four able-bodied. But don’t try to pinpoint Axis’s movement down. Their movement vocabulary—the visual picture and range of their movement—is continually evolving as cast members come and go. “Movement is constantly added and constantly lost,” says Smith. In the past, they have worked with dancers with prosthetics or that use canes, and this inevitably shapes a new form.

The point, as Nonhebel puts, is that “you have to see Axis to believe us.”

Body politics
Axis’s success also owes something to the political climate and the recent trend in acknowledging and supporting the disabled community through policy-making. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in the same way the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does for race and ethnicity, passed around the same time that disabled performance art took a larger presence on the scene.

The field of disability studies itself is relatively new: the first PhD program was established at the University of Illinois at Chicago in 1998. The field, evidently, has followed in the somnambulistic wake of the Civil Rights, feminist, and LGBT/queer movements. We have learned from the tools of feminist and queer theory analysis, and now disability analysis, how gender, class, sexual orientation, and dis/ability, are slated dimensions that uniquely shape our experiences with the world. According to Human Rights Watch, “In Europe, North America, and Australia, more than 50 percent of women with disabilities have experienced physical abuse, compared with one-third of nondisabled women.” And this number is higher still for disabled women of color. The humans rights violations that the disabled community experiences across the spectrum, including physical and sexual abuse, limited access to medical and rehabilitation services, and cultural stigmatization, are numerous and far varied.

Disability theorist Rosemarie Garland Thomson sees performance art as altering public perceptions of disability and furthering disability activism. The history of disabled performance art especially abounds with solo artists, such as Mary Duffy, Mike Lamitola, and Cheryl Marie, who stood before audiences and soliloquized on their own disabilities in the early 90s. Thomson saw these early artists as manipulating the “stare-and-tell rituals” used in marking corporeal differences in order to reincarnate disability and reconstruct it own their own terms. What these early artists showed is that disabled people, more often than not, view their bodies as complete. What they saw is that normalcy is manufactured. Conventions police, disability keeps the system operating.

Axis, understandably, has always eschewed the kind of politics that conceal difference. It has embraced difference as a site of exploration and inexhaustible possibility and has challenged the art community to accept that its conventions may have grown static over the years. This involves a history with some tumult

No work Axis has commissioned represents physically integrated dance’s struggle for legitimacy more than Bill T. Jones’s 2000 piece, Fantasy in C Major. Director Smith accredits Jones for ushering Axis into a new era of national recognition from what might have become for Axis a gimmick turned stale. This was a vital maneuver in the wake of Jones’ controversial 1994 opus. Still/Here,which grappled with the reality of living with terminal illness, and included real testimonies from people, even some who had already passed by the show’s premiere. Their voices were incorporated as audio and projected on mobile screens. Jone’s dance was divided into two halves. Still: reticence, denial, absence. Here: alive, alive, still alive. The flames surrounding Jones’s material were fanned when Arlene Croce, former dance critic of The New Yorker, labeled the work “victim art” in a piece entitled, “Discussing the Undiscussable.” The “undiscussable” nature of the piece allowed her, as she saw, to refuse to review it.

What else should be left unaddressed? Perhaps the fact that Jones’s is a self-labeled H.I.V. positive black man. Perhaps it is a mere coincidence that Jones is black and Jones has H.I.V. and that this makes audiences very uncomfortable, particularly when he decides to make art out of “victims.” But still, I wonder what things where reaffirmed in silence when she refused to see his show.

We can understand why, then, Smith recalls about Axis’s collaboration with Jones in 2000 as the stakes being high. We can understand why, in her words, “When (Jones) agreed, he said pointedly, we can’t fail.” Pointedly. What exactly was on the line at that point?

To lose difference, to become a “victim,” is to have the will stifled.

Fill the silence
Axis is aware of existing between the realms of dance and disability. While they are trying to close this gap, they are aware they will encounter unawareness, and this bears a certain weight on the company’s consciousness.

Education director Annika Nonhebel speaks of the direct approach being taken by Dance Access, Axis’s outreach program, which features company members and choreographers speaking at lectures and hosting dance workshops. “We give permission to stare—dance needs to be watched,” she says. “For many people, it is their first opportunity to stare and ask questions.”

“What we do we do because we like movement and we like dance,” Smith asserts. But, she admits, “the sociopolitical slant will always be there.” As will the racial and technological implications of what it means to be a “physically integrated” dance company.

These concerns are present in most Axis performances whether there is a deliberate effort made by the choreographer to discuss them or not. One of Axis’s most iconic works, the beauty that was mine, though the middle, without stopping (2007), saw Joe Goode tackling the question of whether, in his words: “the actuality of the 'seen' entity (is) ever close to what we presume it to be.” The answer, I am comfortable providing, is not:

In the quintessential moment of Goode’s piece, Sonsheree Giles dances around Rodney Bell—who is overturned in his wheelchair—with a panache and technical tactility in a display of all the usual power dynamics. And then she pounces.  As she centers herself on one his overturned wheels, Bell capably, gracefully, dodges her spinning, then comes eventually to turn himself and his wheelchair upright. In this moment Bell becomes a site of paroxysm where performances of ability explode on previous assumptions of disability, and Axis ultimately succeeds in creating something generative, something powerful.

DAVID SANCHEZ-AGUILERA B’13 was a dancer all along.