Accustomed to overcoming limits, the physically integrated company has gracefully adapted to the challenges of making art in a pandemic.
Like many arts organizations impacted by the COVID-19 crisis earlier this year, AXIS Dance Company was forced to rethink its entire program practically overnight. But the Oakland, California-based ensemble of disabled and non-disabled dancers was accustomed to pivoting. “AXIS is a very resilient company,” says its artistic director Marc Brew. “We’ve had to overcome a lot to exist, in a non-accessible world. We are very adaptable and I think that has really been a strength.”
With disability “you’re always looking at other ways, other possibilities,” adds Brew, who has worked as a dancer and choreographer from—and with—his wheelchair for more than 20 years, “and I think that’s what’s really helped us to keep moving forward.”
Still, after the pandemic hit, Brew wasn’t certain what would happen with the second edition of Choreo-Lab, an immersive weeklong professional development and mentoring program scheduled to take place in June. Supported by the Mellon Foundation, the Lab provides emerging disabled choreographers with studio space and a cast of dancers to create new performances under the guidance of a disabled role model. After COVID hit, long-planned travel and in-studio rehearsals were out of the question.AXIS Dance Company performing "Petrichor." Photo by David DeSilva.
Choreo-Lab quickly morphed into an online event, with most studio activities happening in virtual space, including the showcasing of new choreography, communal conversation, and peer-to-peer support. This year, choreographer and former AXIS dancer Nadia Adame mentored four choreographers, including Stephanie Bastos, who began her training with the Miami Ballet. In 1995, Bastos lost her lower right leg in a car crash, and has continued to perform both with and without a prosthesis.
“It’s very important to us that our disabled choreographers are supported in how they want to be identified and how they want to make work,” says Brew. “You hear a lot about ‘diversity, equity, inclusion,’” adds Brew, citing what has become a mantra for many arts organizations these days, “and disability keeps on getting forgotten within that equation.”
AXIS re-centers disability, treating it not as a limitation, but a distinction, a creative conduit, and a means to increase awareness of accessibility and inclusion not only in the field of dance but in the world more broadly. In addition to touring and performing for dance enthusiasts, the company has twice appeared on the TV show So You Think You Can Dance, exposing millions of viewers to the physical and artistic possibilities of integrated choreography and expanding the definition of what dance can be.
“We’ve had to overcome a lot to exist, in a non-accessible world. We are very adaptable and I think that has really been a strength.”
Launched in 1987, three years before the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, AXIS has always been a pioneer in the field. Cofounder Judith Smith has said that she spent the company’s first ten years convincing the dance world that what AXIS was doing was dance, not physical therapy. But, by the time she retired in 2017, Smith had succeeded in making AXIS function as both an advocacy organization and a rigorous artistic enterprise, collaborating with established choreographers such as Meredith Monk and Bill T. Jones. She also sought out emerging choreographers like Brew, who worked with Smith on several projects before taking the reins at AXIS in 2017.
Two decades earlier, the Australia-born Brew was a 20-year-old ballet dancer beginning his professional career in South Africa when his life changed. In 1997, the car he was traveling in was hit by a drunk driver. Brew was paralyzed from the chest down and the three people with him in the car were killed.
Unable to walk but determined to keep dancing, Brew retrained. Following rehabilitation, he moved to New York to work with Kitty Lunn, a professional ballerina who continued performing after an accident left her in a wheelchair. He eventually moved to the UK, and in 2008 formed his own Marc Brew Company while also receiving commissions from San Francisco Ballet School, Dancing Wheels, Scottish Ballet, and in 2011, from AXIS.AXIS Dance Company Artistic Director Marc Brew. Photo by Maurice Ramirez.
As director, Brew has continued AXIS’s original mission of access and inclusion not only for dancers and choreographers but for set and costume designers as well as thinking about new or enhanced entry points to dance for people with limited or no eyesight. And Brew and his company of five full-time dancers are still navigating the COVID pandemic. Since the spring, he and his team have connected virtually, a shift he believes is helping, not hindering, the organization’s inclusive mission. “It’s actually resulted in a lot of creative and really important new programming and new ways of engaging with our community,” says Brew.
One such effort is the program of daily online dance classes AXIS has been offering since the pandemic began, which can be followed in real time or as recordings. “We’re getting more people now in our company classes than we did in our studio,” says Brew, citing more than double the typical participation, with students who, because of the limitations of their physical conditions, economic barriers, or geographic distance, were previously unable to join in person.
In addition to online classes, AXIS has begun rehearsing virtually for Roots Above Ground, a new work-in-progress choreographed by Brew that explores the multiple meanings of “home” as it peels back the layers to uncover the human need for belonging. As part of the creative process, AXIS is partnering with the East Bay Sanctuary Covenant, an immigrant rights organization in Berkeley, holding virtual workshops where participants have shared their experiences and perspectives about what home means to them. Developing new dance work online may have its challenges, but the company’s persistence speaks to the importance of staying creative and building new connections through difficult times—rewards that will outlast any pandemic.