Spanish guitar rolls in like waves. Two people turn to each other in intent exploration, shaken with the wonder of knowing another person is close enough and comfortable enough to touch. They can brace each other, carry each other, hold each other up — launch each other into the air.
AXIS dance company in Berkeley, Calif. gathers one of the nation’s most acclaimed ensembles of disabled, non-disabled and neurodiverse performers — their artists collaborate with globally recognized choreographers to perform around the world. And from June 14 to 16 they will perform at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, on the outdoor Leir stage.
They are coming with three contemporary works: Flutter (2018) by Robin Dekkers, artistic director of Bay Area dance collective Post:Ballet, Desiderata (2022) by award-winning and internationally recognized Spanish Choreographer Asun Noales, and Historias Rotas (2018) by AXIS artistic director Nadia Adame.
‘Historias Rotas started with my own thinking of how do we carry stories from our ancestors into our present time and our journey through life.’ — artistic director Nadia Adame
“Historias Rotas started with my own thinking of how do we carry stories from our ancestors into our present time and our journey through life,” Adame said, talking over zoom with AXIS Managing Director Danae Rees.
Adame has created this work in collaboration with the company — Historias Rotas means broken stories, and she began by honoring stories in her own family. Her grandparents were persecuted in Spain, she said. They wrote letters to each other, and some of those letters they had to destroy so they wouldn’t be found.
“So I asked the performers, what if you write letters, the letters that you really want to say, tell to somebody, but maybe you don’t have the strength to say,” she said. “So it’s about relationships — about the stories we carry within our skin, within our life, and some of the stories are broken, and some of them or not.
“And which of the stories do we take with us and continue our journey and which of the stories we leave behind or we destroy and we don’t care about?”
She asked the dancers to write their own letters, she said, stories they could share their writing with the company or not, as they chose, and from the experiences and feelings they invoked, she began to shape the work.
“I don’t start with movements as a choreographer,” she said. “I always start with thought or a story … and then I dig into the performers,” to draw the narrative, the gut feeling, the expression out of them.
‘I don’t start with movements as a choreographer. I always start with thought or a story.’ — Nadia Adame
They leap, rebound, cartwheel, carry each other. The music rises in rapid percussion and plucked strings, gaining momentum in high clear strokes from a violin. Human connections more than lift them — each encounter propels them into new space, with
a sense of infinite possibility. A wheelchair can become a launch pad.
The company holds a mission to challenge perceptions of dance and disability. Any dancer can perform a movement in their own way, Adame said — with force and precision and vivid expression.
She began her career in the company, she said — she performed with AXIS from 2001 to 2003. As well as a choreographer and teacher of dance, she is multidisciplinary award-winning artist with a spinal cord injury.
She has studied Ballet and Flamenco at the Royal Dance Conservatory of Madrid for many years, as well as theatre at the University of Colorado. And AXIS opened a way for her into a new world.
‘For me AXIS was amazing. It was an experience — it was a place that I belong.’
“For me it was amazing,” she said. “It was an experience — it was a place that I belong, and I never thought I could belong in a place, as a disabled dancer. So it really opened my mind when I saw wheelchair dancers on wheelchairs … I didn’t know it was possible.”
She and many of the company know the experience of walking into a class, wanting to learn and study, and hearing a teacher panic when they see someone blind, someone walk in with a cane, someone roll through the door in a wheelchair — and say ‘no, you can’t come into this class.’
The company’s founder Judy Smith, created AXIS to open dance to a wide range of brilliant artists to teach children, to make dance accessible, in all senses.
“Her work has touched a lot of people and a lot of current choreographers and dancers in the disability world,” Adame said.
In 2003, Adame crossed the Atlantic to join Candoco Dance Company in England, and then she co-founded and Compañía Y in Spain, a multimedia and performance collective — and in 2021, she has returned to AXIS as artistic director.
In her choreography, and in her teaching, she sees each dancer as an individual. She and they think together about a movement, what the movement wants to express, and how and where they want to embody it or express it.
‘We do a lot of translation of movement to different bodies. Instead of adapting the dancer, the performer or the person to the movement, we adapt the movement to the person.’
“We do a lot of translation of movement to different bodies,” she said. “Instead of adapting the dancer, the performer or the person to the movement, we adapt the movement to the person. So it’s It’s an amazing thing, because you can have one same movement phrase in hundreds of different ways depending on who the performer is.
And that’s very exciting to me. It’s not as strict as traditional ballet, where you know how the people are going to look in their movement — for us it’s the other way around.”
She finds an endless expansion and fascination in the dancers’ versatility. They can hold a deep respect for the forms of dance, and with each new cast of performers, the work can evolve.
Many new dancers have come into the company, Rees said, in the wake of transition and pandemic, and they are giving new life to the work. Dekker has refocused Flutter in collaboration with the company.
Dekker created Flutter in 2018 with AXIS and Post:Ballet, the Bay Area dance collective they have founded to expand, stretch, play with the idea of ballet in the 21st century. They have reimagined Flutter now, Rees explained, making changes to accommodate the new artists in the company. She finds the work vibrant and technically challenging, because the movements and the music move very, very quickly.
Like Historias Rotas and Desiderata, Flutter has a clear sense of relationships, Adame said. The dancers never touch each other with their hands or bodies, but they are always looking, figuring out where their companions are. The work needs constant fast coordination — one dancer will move and another will immediately fill the space they have just left.
“So it’s about touch with your eyes,” she said.
It shares a theme she follows through all three dances — human connection. They explore an the essence of character. One person runs a hand up their shoulder, relaxing into their own body. Two or three come together, weaving an ecology of relationships, a parent holding a child, friends carrying each other, lovers shivering with a new passion taking root or a love that has lasted for generations.