The Boston Phoenix
June 15 - 22, 2000

[Dance Reviews]

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New philosophies of moving on stage

by Marcia B. Siegel

It's surprising how almost any amount of oddness can get incorporated onto the dance stage, and how quickly the audience can adapt to it. Odd is probably a politically incorrect word to describe the presence of people in wheelchairs, but I mean odd in the sense of what disturbs the rules, the assumptions. Founded in 1987 and based in Oakland, California, Axis Dance Company has gained sufficient assurance about its mixed membership that it can refer to, comment on, and occasionally make fun of physical disability, as well as absorb it into choreographed activities. The company returned to the Emerson Majestic last weekend as the final event of the Dance Umbrella season.

Back to the question of oddness. When you think about it, theatrical dancing is a pretty odd thing all by itself, remaking and deploying the body in ways it wouldn't intuitively go. Physical comics, mimes, acrobats, masks, and surrealism have always been at home on the dance stage -- along with, more recently, flying bodies, moonwalkers, and okay, wheelchairs. All these exaggerations and ultra-specializations of human behavior can enrich that peculiar ability dance has to superimpose the imaginary on the real before our very eyes.

The best of the pieces Axis brought here, I thought, was the one that seemed the least literal, Sonya Delwaide's Chuchotements (Whisperings). To various selections by Baroque composer Georg Philipp Telemann, two women in wheelchairs, Bonnie Lewkowicz and Judith Smith, partnered Nicole Richter, a dancer on foot who trailed a long white cloth attached to her back. Smith and Lewkowicz gestured with mysterious conviction, gunning their chairs around Richter as if she were an intruder in their private world.

Alone for a time, Richter struggled with her train. It turned out to be anchored high up somewhere off stage -- an encumbrance, a disability perhaps, that hampered her access to the entire stage and restricted her movement. This metaphor of confinement of course suggested a bond among the performers. Smith and Lewkowicz encountered each other warily. Richter returned with shreds of white cloth attached to her back, having perhaps torn herself free of the incubus, and she gradually accommodated herself to the other two women. They sped past on either side of her; she mounted the backs of their chairs, lay on the floor as Lewkowicz echoed her movement. The last image I remember, she was sitting on Smith's lap, or perched on the footrest of her chair, and they were fused for an intimate moment.

Both Bill T. Jones's Fantasy in C Major (to Schubert's Fantasia for Violin and Piano) and Ta Kala, choreographed by Nicole Richter and Stephanie McGlynn, were quite conventional dances, made as if this were just an average dance company with people who can do different things. Ta Kala used seven-foot flexible poles as props and propellants for a variety of locomotor and rolling movement patterns. Jones's formal setting of the Schubert piano-and-violin variations revealed a rare but welcome affinity for classical music.

All four wheelchair dancers in the company contribute dancerly gifts to the repertory. Smith has a fine musicality; she can modulate her upper-body movement as well as the speed and attack with which she propels her motorized chair. Uli Schmitz, with almost no use of his legs, has the strength and agility of an acrobat. Megan Schirle can narrate and act. Lewkowicz is a funny comic and mime. In some obscure way, I found Richter and the other two dancers, Stephanie McGlynn and Alisa Rasera, less interesting to watch. Their effort and their achievement seemed so much less heroic.

Joe Goode's Jane Eyre started way out in the land of dada but receded to a more conventional set of interactions and melodramatic gestures. First there was Judith Smith, revolving in a downlight, wearing a Victorian shawl and a dress with an enormous skirt that hid her wheelchair. Every few revolutions, she delicately raised a hanky to her face and said, "Oh!" Megan Schirle, with deaf-signer Jodi Steiner nearby, was dressed in a smoking jacket and ascot. She quoted Charlotte Brontë's classic novel of love and self-sacrifice, expressing a heavy postmodern skepticism about its faith in "perfect concord" and "boundless love." The rest of the dancers wafted in and out, commenting and gesturing with similar sarcasm on Brontë's text, including the punctuation marks. They scoffed at the idea that Jane Eyre could have been faithful and fulfilled while serving Edward Rochester during the years of his blindness. I didn't quite understand the irony of this, unless it was meant as a message that people in wheelchairs don't want to think of themselves as dependent on others. But the performing the Axis dancers did all evening more than confirmed their toughness.

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