Live review | AXIS Dance Company

AXIS Dance Company

AXIS Dance Company Photograph: Courtesy of AXIS Dance Company

Most commonly the preserve of the uncommonly able-bodied, [node:37847 link=choreography gets inclusive;] with the Bay Area’s AXIS Dance Company, which performed three bespoke works on November 19 and 20 at the [node:31924 link=Auditorium Theatre;] of Roosevelt University.

The hyperarticulate, prehensile movement for which [node:74580 link=Alex Ketley;] is known opened the program. In a 2008 duet called To Color Me Different, Sonsherée Giles—also designer of the company’s fashionable costumes—had no discernible handicap. A petite powerhouse in the vein of [node:7554081 link=Luna Negra Dance Theater;]’s Mónica Cervantes, Giles tangled on the floor with Rodney Bell at the show’s start, while Bell’s speedy-looking, lightweight wheelchair sat stage right in shadow.

With Giles’s help, Bell eventually made his way off of the floor and into the chair. Bell’s outstretched, muscular arm mirrored Giles’s outstretched, muscular leg at one point, two lines poetically shown in parallel. Heavily produced, clunky male vocals marred an otherwise evocative, beat-driven score but didn’t ruin the moving experience of these dancers’ deep connection, constantly made visible. (See an excerpt here, set to Bach, from ADC’s June appearance on FOX television show So You Think You Can Dance.)

[node:59263 link=David Dorfman;]’s Light Shelter (2009) introduced each of five performers with a signature phrase, imbedded into busy, fractured stage action. Alice Sheppard’s was a zigzagging gesture with two fingers, as if brushing her teeth except all over her torso. When the gesture reached her waist, her other hand joined and ten fingers crawled down her inoperable legs like frantic insects.

On a gorgeously lit stage (Heather Basarab designed), this family of sorts played abstracted, playfully competitive games. Dorfman made effective use of the contrast between Bell and Sheppard’s movement quality in their chairs—a gliding, silent, horizontal zoom—and Giles, Janet Das and Sebastian Grubb’s louder, bouncing, bipedal motion. “You can walk, and I can roll,” said Bell in his thick New Zealand accent, audible thanks to microphones onstage, which picked up gentle clicks from the wheelchairs’ well-oiled mechanics. In rebuttal, Grubb performed graceful somersaults. He also leapt and tumbled around Bell as the latter, a former wheelchair basketball player, exactingly spun.

Light Shelter started to veer into too-clever territory until the quintet came together downstage right, posed as if for a portrait. (Giles, sitting, kept her back to us.) Das and Grubb stirringly sang “How High the Moon” next to a ghost light with a tiny lampshade. Another light, like a tiny moon, switched on behind them. The entire mood of the work changed from there on out, becoming almost elegiac. Dorfman hasn’t lost his knack for emotional ambush.

Show closer Full of Words, from this year by Marc Brew, made in collaboration with the company, grasped in the dark, going barely beyond sketching some scenes and relationships on and around furniture. After watching these artists, disabled and not, revel equally in movement, Full’s confining role for Bell, who spent the piece in a recliner, seemed contradictory, reactionary. Perhaps Brew sought to remind us that life on wheels isn’t easy, even for miraculously able bodies like Bell’s and Sheppard’s. It’s a truth worth remembering. Full of Words just wasn’t fleshed out enough to drive the point home.

AXIS Dance Company played the Auditorium Theatre on November 19 and 20 and continues touring the U.S. in January. Visit the group’s website for more information.

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Laura Baginski, Editor (@TimeOutChicago)