AXIS Dance Company celebrates 30 years with exploratory choreography

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David DeSilva/Courtesy

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AXIS Dance Company celebrated 30 years this weekend with their home season, “Onward and Upward,” at the Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts in Oakland. Throughout the past 30 years, AXIS has earned its place as a pillar of physically integrated contemporary dance in the Bay Area and across the world. Under the creative management of Marc Brew, the company’s newly hired artistic director, AXIS continues its legacy of advocacy, outreach and, of course, beautiful dancing.

This weekend’s performance featured two world premieres and a reprisal of an older work. Restaging performances is a challenge for any company, but is especially difficult for AXIS, since their works tend to be formed based on the movement qualities of each individual dancer.

Stephen Petronio choreographed “Secret Ponies” for the women of AXIS in 2001. The original cast — composed of former company members Nadia Adame, Alisa Rasera and Nicole Richter, founding cast member Bonnie Lewkowicz, and founder and director Judith Smith — returned to the stage to reanimate selections from this work.

Seeing some older dancers on stage is a rare treat in the world of contemporary dance, which is so often dominated by young, thin, able-bodied white dancers in heterosexual pairings. Sixteen years after the first performance, the women’s connections to each other, to the history of the company and to the work gave life to a piece that has perhaps not aged quite as well as its cast.

Though Petronio’s tight gestural phrases and swinging momentum still hold their own, the work’s political messaging gets a bit muddled when separated from the context of its creation, particularly when truncated in excerpts. Adame’s duet with her bedazzled cane, however, shone with just the sort of blend of intimacy, vulnerability and defiance that makes political works legible to diverse audiences.

In the second piece of the evening, Amy Seiwert — artistic director of Amy Seiwert’s Imagery, a contemporary ballet company, and choreographer in residence of Smuin Ballet — debuted her work, “The Reflective Surface.”

She choreographed this piece in 2012, but it was delayed due to injury. It was slow to build but eventually worth the wait. The initial phrases in unison fell a bit flat but gained energy as the cast formed relationships with each other. The dancers slid in and out of partnerships and associations, slipping across each other’s skin as if on glass.

Lani Dickinson and James Bowen’s duet was particularly stunning. In fact, every duet Bowen was part of throughout the evening was captivating; it is as if his presence brings a level of trust to each partnership that invites something special to surface in every dancer he works with. Dickinson is a remarkable dancer in her own right; her movements are fluid yet committed — she brings her whole self to even the simplest moments in the choreography.

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David DeSilva/Courtesy

Dwayne Scheuneman and Yuko Monden complimented each other in their duet as well; his fierce athleticism and her balance of precision and release were well-suited within the playful chase of their partnership. The score, an original work by Darren Johnston, and the gray wash lighting on stage added a contemplative and exploratory tone to the performance.

In the final section of the evening, Brew displayed his choreographic prowess with his first home season work as the new artistic director, entitled “Radical Impact.” Brew, along with his collaborators composer JooWan Kim and lighting designer Allen Willner formed an emotional landscape of nonstop momentum. Even in the freezes, illuminated by strobe lights, the whirling music performed live by a string quartet kept a sense of motion present.

Though Brew has only been in this position with AXIS for a short time, it’s clear that he has taken the time to understand the strengths of each dancer in the company. Each one of them brought a different energy to the performance, yet they blended seamlessly under the current of Kim’s cinematic score. Bowen and Scotty Hardwig’s duet was so tender that it almost felt voyeuristic to watch them dance.

As with many small dance companies, staying afloat is a massive undertaking. With Brew’s creative vision, a new wave of advocacy and teaching for physically integrated dance and the impeccable quality of the dancing, AXIS is in a good position to take on year 31.

Contact Katie O’Connor at [email protected].

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