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Dancing with wheelchairs

July 2, 2011 | 10:00 am

When she created her dance “Dust” with members of Axis Dance Company, choreographer Victoria Marks immediately noticed “how comfortable the dancers were with each other and how comfortable I felt with them. I never encountered any limitations as a choreographer because I didn’t have a set vision of what the dance should be. The dancers and I built a world together,” she says.

Founded in 1987 as a company dedicated to physically integrated dance, which is performed by dancers with and without disabilities, Axis found a winning formula in inviting Marks and other accomplished modern dance choreographers to create works for its repertory. As its website duly notes, Axis’ list of collaborators, which includes Bill T. Jones, Meredith Monk and Stephen Petronio, reads like a “Who’s Who of Contemporary Dance.” Its transformation into a respected repertory ensemble “completely changed what we were doing and how we thought of ourselves,” says Judith Smith, Axis’ artistic director, who pushed for the company to work with outside choreographers in 1997.

As a result, Axis, which will perform excerpts of its repertory at the Ford Amphitheater in Los Angeles on July 9, gained substantially more attention from critics “who had a way in to our work that they didn’t have before. They could say that they liked some of our pieces and not others instead of just writing about how inspiring we are or approaching our work only from a human interest angle,” says Smith.

Though Marks had already worked with disabled dancers, including from the U.K.-based Candoco Dance Company for the 1994 film “Outside In,” other choreographers had no prior experience with physically integrated dance. “They would come in not sure what to do with us. We get them to think outside of their own boxes,” says Smith, describing the process as mutually beneficial.

For Bonnie Lewkowicz, a founding member of Axis, the collaborations “opened up my dance vocabulary and exposed me to all the different ways that people create dance. And for the company, I think it really broadened our audience. When you have an evening show of work by the same choreographer, sometimes the pieces can all look alike, whereas we have this amazing variety,” she says.

Lewkowicz, who’s paralyzed from the chest down, never imagined she would work with so many acclaimed choreographers. “Oftentimes, you think about your world narrowing when you become disabled,” she says. “But if I were just a dancer without disabilities, I’d probably be just another dancer. I wouldn’t have had as many great opportunities as I’ve had as a dancer with disabilities.”

To read more about Axis Dance Company and physically integrated dance, click here.

-- Susan Josephs

Video: AXIS Dance Company's dancers Sonsheree Giles and Rodney Bell perform "To Color Me Different."