We’ve been trying for quite a while to get the acclaimed, Oakland-based AXIS Dance Company to perform at Children’s Fairyland. Founded in 1987, AXIS aims “to create, perform, educate, and support ‘physically integrated dance’— a contemporary dance form that evolves from the collaboration between dancers with and without disabilities.” We thought it would be a cool thing to bring 400 kids from Oakland’s underfunded schools to our theater to see dancers who look at differences as opportunities for creative ideas. And we were right.

Oakland school kids join members of AXIS Dance Company for improvisation on Fairyland’s stage during a performance last week.

Oakland school kids join members of AXIS Dance Company for improvisation on Fairyland’s stage during a performance last week.

Last week AXIS put on a show that absolutely captivated our group of second- and third-graders. The company, half of whose programming is geared toward education, understands that it’s important to immediately connect with the kids. “Who here likes to dance?” was AXIS education director Annika Presley’s first question. Hands shot up, and it was game on. Kids got moving in their seats along with the dancers, and then were treated to a duet featuring one able-bodied dancer and one in a wheelchair. “They’ve never seen anything like it,” whispered a teacher to me. Neither had I.

The dance numbers—which featured a beautifully eclectic mix of mostly original music—featured wheelies, gravity-defying tilts and acrobatics, all greeted by enthusiastic “oohs.”  Between dances Annika explained the concepts behind them: partnering to create momentum, improvising, shape shifting, falling up. At one point, she asked the kids to spell “axis” and then hear how similar that word is to “access.” Pointing to the ramp onto our stage, she encouraged the kids to talk about accessibility and barriers.

Then she invited some of the kids to join the dancers onstage, where they responded to prompts such as “make a round shape and move it through space.”

After the performance, Annika told me about the best comment she ever received. It came from a 5-year-old girl who observed: “What it all means is that you can do the same thing as me, but just a little differently.”

Before returning to their schools, the hundreds of kids in the audience enjoyed the park for the remainder of the day. Later, we received evaluations from the teachers who attended. My favorite: “Kids were enthralled. Sparked appreciation for inclusiveness.”

I think other messages were conveyed as well: That dance can be cool and athletic. That guys can dance. That live performance is fun. That the guy at the audio board can do his thing from a wheelchair. That it’s exciting to create something new. That art can connect you to other aspects of life, like partnering.

The AXIS troupe is off to perform in St. Paul, Minn., but they’ll be back in Oakland in time for their home season, which begins April 11. For information, go to Axisdance.org





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