This is an archived article.

March 31, 2005

Dancers with and without disabilities to blend talents in innovative summer program

Most of us, when we think of a dancer, are likely to think of someone gliding across the stage with ease and grace. A wheelchair probably isn’t part of the picture. Yet for AXIS Dance Company, wheelchairs are an integral part of the performance. So are canes and prosthetics of various types.







Press the play button to watch a video with excerpts from the Axis Dance Company’s performances. Windows Media Player required.

The 18-year-old company performs what is known as physically integrated dance, which includes both disabled and non-disabled dancers, and this summer they’ll be offering an “intensive” — an all-day, two-week workshop — on the subject at the UW.


“AXIS is one of the world’s leading integrated dance companies,” said Jürg Koch, a lecturer in the UW Dance Program who helped arrange the class. “I’m really excited about having them here.”


A native of Switzerland, Koch trained in England and danced for four years with the British integrated dance company CandoCo. That’s why he decided to go to San Francisco last summer to meet Judith Smith, the artistic director of AXIS.


“AXIS has a very similar outlook on integrated dance, so I really just wanted to get in touch with them,” he said. “I taught a master class there and we had very good rapport. And it just happened to be that at that time they were looking for a place to hold their intensive.”


So Koch returned to the UW and began investigating the possibility of hosting the program. The intensive will be held Aug. 19–28, after the B term of summer quarter. It is open to people ages 16 and up, of all dance levels and experience, with and without physical disabilities. Koch will be a teacher, along with AXIS dancers and Olive Bieringa, dancer and co-director of the Cartography Project.


This isn’t the first time that Koch has taught integrated dance at the UW. He offered a course last summer and will do so again this summer. Such classes, he says, aren’t all that different from regular dance classes. Students start with warm-ups, then train and expand their dancing skills by working with set material — where they work within defined parameters — and finish with creative tasks or improvisation.


“When you work with a mixed group, the differing levels of training can be more of an challenge than the differing bodily abilities,” Koch said. “Currently, the situation is still such that a person with a disability is less likely to have had dance training before because there aren’t many places that offer integrated training.”


Still, the instructor of an integrated class needs to be careful not to make assumptions about what a disabled dancer can or can’t do and be ready to help develop movement adaptations when necessary. Sometimes, Koch says, a dancer with disabilities can do things that someone without a disability can’t do. He told a story of doing a duet with another dancer in the CandoCo company, a dancer who had one leg.


“At one point she had a back injury and couldn’t perform, so I began rehearsing the piece with another dancer — one who had two legs,” Koch recalled. “We had a very difficult time getting the material to work because that second leg kept getting in our way.”


Dancing with one leg may seem hard enough, but how about dancing in a wheelchair? A video featuring AXIS in performance shows what’s possible: able-bodied dancers riding on the back of the chair or in the lap of the dancer in the chair; the dancer leaving the chair to work on the floor, or with a trapeze; the dancer even popping wheelies in his or her chair.


“Just recently I choreographed a piece with Charlene Curtis from Light Motion — she’s a wheelchair user and performer — and she does things in her wheelchair that I would never attempt to do because I would fall backward on my head,” Koch said. “She has a set of skills, of moving, that are unique to her.”


That’s why Koch was attracted to integrated dance in the first place. “I was always more into the modern contemporary field than ballet because I felt it was about exploring the possibilities that I’ve got in this body; the training was optimizing my abilities rather than trying to fit an absolute outside ideal,” Koch said. “When I first saw CandoCo, I thought they were taking that idea — of pushing your facilities to see how expressive you can be — to its natural conclusion.”


These days he tries to bring some of that notion to all his teaching. One of the statements on his syllabus is, “in pursuit of an individual ideal.”


This summer’s class is the first intensive that AXIS has offered. It will culminate with an informal presentation by students and faculty on Aug. 27. Those interested in participating in the intensive should contact AXIS; online registration is available at http://www.axisdance.org/education/schedule.html. Tuition is $500, but scholarships are available. To apply for a scholarship, send a letter of interest, curriculum vitae or resume of dance, theater or athletic experience plus a 10 to 15 minute video or DVD of yourself dancing to the AXIS office at 1428 Alice Street, Suite 200, Oakland, CA 94612.


Five scholarships for UW students only are available separately. Contact Koch in the Dance Program for information. Registration deadline is April 30; scholarship applications must be in by April 15.