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Flash Review Journal, 6-13: Authentic Movement
AXIS & Kasai do it with Commitment and Feeling

By Aimee Ts’ao
Copyright 2001 Aimee Ts’ao

SAN FRANCISCO -- When PBI requested that I turn two separate Flash Reviews into one Flash Journal, I was stymied for a few days because I didn't want to just write two separate sections on the two concerts. I wanted to connect them somehow. If I had been seeing two ballet companies or anything vaguely related, that would have made comparisons logical. In ten seconds or less, tell me, what do AXIS Dance Company (disabled and able-bodied dancers) and the butoh master Akira Kasai have in common? It wasn't until after Kasai's performance of "Kafun" ("Pollen") Sunday night at Theater Artaud in San Francisco that the answer became clear. It is the authenticity of their movement.

Kasai induced the same post-performance syndrome I gladly suffered after seeing Netherlands Dance Theater. In awe of the amazingly high artistic levels, both choreographically and interpretively, that the Dutch company sustains, I had a great deal of trouble seeing any other dance for months afterwards. While Kasai is operating on a much smaller scale, often solo or with a few other dancers, his presence and total (and I mean TOTAL) commitment to his art is something I have rarely seen on stage. He never makes a false move; every gesture, every facial expression, every word comes from a deep place within him and is executed with absolute assurance and conviction. And that a 58-year-old dancer, with the body of a thirty-year-old, can be performing for over an hour, and put out so much energy is phenomenal.

I know that butoh is not to everyone's taste, but like any other form of dance, be it ballet, modern, or flamenco, there is a very wide range of styles within the genre and I feel it's worth the effort to see if any of them appeals to you. Just as a hundred years ago ballet was very narrowly represented by "Giselle" and "Swan Lake," butoh until recently was identified with the type of work performed by companies such as Sankai Juku and Eiko and Koma. In its relatively short life of just under fifty years, butoh has diversified rapidly in recent years to encompass many more interpretations.

Although I found "Kafun" ("Pollen") could have been a little shorter, at least I got to watch the master move in his profound way for even longer. You can't usually say that about most performances that are too long. I am also sure that had I seen his partner, Petra Vermeersch, dancing by herself, I would have been impressed, but how could anyone look good next to Kasai unless they were equally powerful? Afterward I spoke with Brechin Flournoy, producer of the San Francisco Butoh Festival, and asked her how much of the piece was improvisation. She said that the whole piece is carefully planned in terms of what type of movement occurs at specific times, and probably the parts when the two were dancing together is set, but the actual steps are indeed left hanging in the air up to the moment of execution.

Last Thursday I attended the opening night of AXIS Dance Company at the Cowell Theater, also in San Francisco. I have a special place in my heart for this 14-year-old integrated troupe of disabled and non-disabled dancers because they are able to show us that dance is so much broader and deeper than whatever we may have imagined it was or could be before we saw them. It really is a revelation to discover that anyone who moves with feeling, who starts those movements from within their soul is a dancer in the truest sense of the word. How many times have you watched a ballet company offer up the most virtuosic of steps in a manner totally devoid of inspiration? Or a modern dance company tearing around the stage in elaborate patterns, going through arcane motions without a clue as to why they're doing so?

In the last two years, AXIS has been commissioning works from choreographers outside the company to develop a repertory that challenges the dancers on new levels. Last season, performing pieces by Joanna Haigood, Sonya Delwaide, Joe Goode and Bill T. Jones, the company won three Isadora Duncan Dance Awards (For San Francisco Bay Area-based dance): one for Company Performance, one to Uli Schmitz for Individual Performance and the third to Bill T. Jones for Choreography for "Fantasy in C Major," which he created on the company This season AXIS reprised the Jones piece, invited Delwaide and Stephen Petronio to make new works, revived a piece from the repertory and presented a premiere by two AXIS dancer/choreographers.

Opening the evening was Petronio's "Secret Ponies," which I had seen in rehearsal, and again at an informal showing at Yerba Buena Forum. In an interview after the rehearsal Petronio admitted that he had been terrified to work with the company. Disability is a dancer's worst nightmare. He also confessed to never having set a piece on any company besides his own. He said that he did not want to do something like Jones had (although he hadn't seen the piece but understood it moved at high speed around the stage) and instead wanted to explore more stationary movement. I could understand the reasoning and I knew that the company and choreographer had very much enjoyed working together, but the results were disappointing for several reasons. Even though the separate sections placed the dancers in different formations on stage, the dance was simply too static overall. Nadia Rojas Adame's solo was welcome relief. And the actual movements could have been larger and more varied, and really explored the possibilities within the decision not to move through space. The piece would have benefited greatly from drastic pruning as many parts went on and on and on relentlessly. I did enjoy the last section -- "I dreamed I was a rose on morphine" -- but even some of the nuances I saw in the informal showing didn't make it to the stage.

Ironically, the next two pieces, created from within AXIS, were much more explorative. "Of Air," originally made in 1994 by Uli Schmitz and Lynelle Sjoberg, and re-staged by Schmitz with Stephanie McGlynn this year, utilized a bunch of ropes hanging from the flyspace, that both dancers (Schmitz and McGlynn) used to rotate and swing through space separately and together. Alisa Rasera and Megan Schirle choreographed and danced "Up Syncline" to match the lightness and goofiness of the music by Stimmhorn.

After the intermission, Sonya Delwaide premiered "Suite sans Suite (Part 2)." Though a lot of fun and giving the cast a variety of styles of movement, the piece was largely composed of gestural choreography (I saw a lot of that a few weeks ago with Janice Garrett and then at Delwaide's own show the weekend before) and I wish that everyone would go back to communicating using movement without being so "literal." The music by the Tin Hat Trio helped soothe my biases.

And saving the best for last, Bill T. Jones's "Fantasy in C Major" proves to be an enduring masterpiece. I could watch it again and again without ever getting bored. I had seen it several times in rehearsal, and then last season, but even on this viewing I discovered more details I hadn't noticed before. The dancers exude absolute joy in their performing of this devilishly quick and complicated choreography. In fact, watching AXIS in this piece sums up everything I love about this company -- total love of and commitment to dancing.

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