Every parent can recall a time when his or her child, in a moment of sheer unadulterated honesty, said something embarrassing in public. For me, that moment could have come when my three-year-old daughter, referring to a woman with one arm, said, “I like the girl in purple – that’s so funny that she only has one arm!”
The thing is, it wasn’t embarrassing; in fact, I was excited that the moment presented itself as it did. The moment happened at the AXIS Dance Company performance at the 2017 TYA/USA One Theatre World conference in Oakland, California. AXIS, currently in its 30th year, features dancers both with and without disabilities with a three-pronged focus on artistry, education, and advocacy. At One Theatre World they provided a sampling of their touring educational performances, designed to provide increased visibility for and celebrate bodies of varying abilities. During this dialogical and interactive performance, my daughter was also surrounded by an audience of TYA practitioners who are accustomed to the unfiltered wonder of youth. In this environment, openly conversing with my daughter – who likely had never before seen a person with one arm – about differing abilities was not just accepted, it was encouraged.
The AXIS dancers brought to the stage collaboration, humor, free spiritedness, strength, and artistry. Breathtaking moments of choreography met my expectations of this group; in particular, a duet choreographed by Joe Goode entitled “to go again” about war veterans involved a wheelchair-using performer flipping himself onto his knees, a movement engrained in my memory for its duality of strength and vulnerability.
The majority of the performance, however, was not full of the spectacle and physical tricks I anticipated. Rather than wowing us with their prowess, the company took a more understated, playful, and whimsical approach. In one number, audience volunteers were invited to participate in an improvised dance, with a facilitator offering directions to interpret. Another number used audience suggestions such as animals, noises, and shapes, which the dancers then integrated into an improvised piece. A third number, “Just Add Water” choreographed by Sophie Stanley, explored dance composition through clown-like physical antics set to a recorded voice-over describing the ingredients of composition as though parts of a recipe.
AXIS Dance Company only revealed a small portion of their physically capabilities in this educational presentation. However, the educational choice to instead engage us in dialogue and interactive activities left a lasting impression for me as I considered ability from multiple perspectives. While the programming was designed to have a message of inclusion, suggesting that anyone can dance, for me, it also offered a hidden message. As they demonstrated improvisational dance, I watched performers playing spontaneously, and realized that they possess an emotional freeness that I do not; my inhibitions and insecurities get in the way when I’m on the dance floor. My understanding of abilities broadened as I realized that their courage, creativity, and confidence actually enabled them to physically not just meet my own capabilities as an able-bodied person, but to surpass them.
Had AXIS focused on showing off what they are capable of physically, no doubt the performance would have been awe-inspiring, but in a different way. My eye would have been drawn to their beauty, strength, and physical ability, and surely I would have said “I could never do that,” while focusing specifically on how, due to my able-body, I would likely never have to move in such ways. Instead, the company uses its touring educational programming to encourage all to explore, create, and express within their own physical abilities. However, the performance had the added layer of witnessing the performers’ freedom and juxtaposing it to my own inhibitions, which served as an important lesson that our abilities are more complex than any one particular physical or mental trait.
Perhaps my own experience illustrates how a performance is received differently depending on the audience member’s age or other identifiers. I imagine the target audience members (elementary school students) would leave the performance inspired to dance and be more accepting of others with varying physical abilities; as an adult, the performance brought a more introspective reflection. While perhaps not the intention of the performance, my response was valuable in its own right, and as a Theatre for Young Audiences practitioner I was excited to examine my differing but equally meaningful experience as an adult audience member – proof to me that TYA can be created for youth but benefit anyone of any age.
For my three-year-old daughter, well younger than the target demographic of the performance, the evening offered the chance for her to see and identify with people of varying abilities. She was too young to realize the rarity of what she was watching on stage, but her curiosity was piqued about bodies and abilities. Her curiosity – and her uncensored comments – drew out of her genuine engagement in the performance. The aforementioned one-armed dancer has a big fan in my three-year-old daughter. After all, she was beautiful, had a vivacious personality, headbanged with her ponytail, wore my daughter’s favorite color, and was one hell of a dancer. And I’m pretty sure my daughter thought she was a princess (Consider that a call to action, Disney!).