Pursuing their visions, choreographers bravely seek out unconventional ways of moving. But how often do they employ dancers with unconventional bodies?
The Axis Dance Company, which performed on Nov. 17 in the Victoria Theater at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, takes an uncommonly courageous approach. This troupe from San Francisco mixes the usual sort of dancer with others who lack the standard equipment. Partially paralyzed, Dwayne Scheuneman dances in and out of his wheelchair. Another company member, Julie Crothers, has an arm that ends just below the elbow. And while Axis’ repertoire tends to blur these distinctions, integrating everyone onstage in a community that each work defines with its particular atmosphere and style, this troupe naturally offers audiences a fresh way of looking at dance. Commissioning works from a wide variety of contemporary artists, Axis offers a program that is action-packed and engaging.
The mixed bill opened with a duet for Crothers and Sophie Stanley called “Dix Minutes Plus Tard” (“Ten Minutes Later”), choreographed by Sonya Delwaide. The melancholy patter of raindrops sets the tone for this piece, in which Crothers walks on alone and stands downcast in a pool of light. She does not remain despondent for long, however. Stanley’s appearance sets in motion an intimate, weight-sharing partnership in which, thanks partly to the stormy Romanticism of a Schubert string quartet, no one remains still long enough to despair. The women embrace, or roll off each other’s backs. They prod each other and run in tandem like sisters. Perhaps the key image, however, shows them trying to settle down, but unable to rest. As they lie on the floor, forming a cross, one woman cushions her head on the other’s body, only to start up again disturbed. It’s as if she hears the future knocking at their door.
While “Dix Minutes Plus Tard” takes place in a landscape of indistinct and fluid boundaries, a line drawn on the floor nails down the location of the following piece, Marc Brew’s “Divide.” As simple as it is, this white line, which angles sharply and then continues on its way, gives the space a geographic map with zones and directions. At one end of the line, Scheuneman and Brendan Bartel gaze into the distance while making semaphoric gestures with their arms. At the other end, a woman’s body lies on the floor, mysteriously immobile.
The line also gives the dancers a path to follow, like the snaking rope in Martha Graham’s “Errand Into the Maze.” When Keon Saghari appears, she balances in a deep “penché,” taking risks as a tight-rope walker might; and as she follows the path she traces invisible circles with her foot or hand. When she retraces her journey, the two men twist to watch her. Later, the immobile woman will awaken and make the trek herself.
We may never guess who these characters are or where they’re headed, but they surprise us in the ways they find to knit together. Scheuneman, in his wheelchair, takes an active role as a partner, lifting Saghari and supporting her against his back, or allowing her to stand on his shoulders. When Saghari and Bartel tumble, Scheuneman pitches forward and rounds his back, echoing their movement. Slipping out of his chair, he manipulates the weight of his legs, in effect performing a duet with himself while Saghari and Bartel dance together nearby. At such times, and despite the obvious differences, these three appear more unified than divided.
Axis commissioned the final piece on the program from renowned Bay Area artist Joe Goode, and this work, “To Go Again,” employs some Goode signatures including intimate confessions and the peculiarly wistful sound of a doo-wop chorus. Yet “To Go Again,” which lays bare the consequences of American militarism, mostly lacks the double-edged irony of earlier Goode works addressing serious topics like AIDS and natural disasters. Perhaps that’s because unlike plagues, dust bowls or even the personal tragedy of a romance gone sour, making endless war reflects a choice. The pain that mutilated veterans and their families suffer results from decisions we can criticize directly, and from policies we can change. “To Go Again” also seems remarkable within Axis’ repertoire in soliciting pity for the wounded.
The stories the dancers tell — all true, they assure us — inevitably dominate the piece. They can be odd, like the tale of psychic intervention and the one about soldiers rescuing damaged tanks. Or they can be heartbreakingly familiar, recounting a couple’s last hours together before a loved one’s deployment and how a young man’s search for himself leads to irremediable loss. Chillingly, we hear a young wife describe the dress detail who come to tell her, “He’s not dead.”
Avoiding the mention of specific injuries, these stories allow us to fill in the blanks; and perhaps only a heroic dance vocabulary like Graham’s could compete with our imaginations. Goode’s pedestrian movement style is easier to eclipse, and his simple choreography includes rearranging standing microphones and chairs to vary the Minimalist environment. Nonetheless, as “To Go Again” progresses small gestures have a cumulative impact. Taking a woman’s hand and holding it to her chest, or slithering nimbly across the floor, the dancers remind us of what’s at stake by showing us outtakes from a normal life. Though small in scale, this humanity moves the audience to interrupt the piece with bursts of applause.
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