Berkeley’s AXIS Dance to open season with ‘Adelante’ in S.F.
By Lou Fancher
AXIS Dance Company’s new artistic director, multidisciplinary Spanish artist Nadia Adame, makes for a rousing, enter-exit-return story.
If Act III arrived with Adame’s appointment last October to her leadership position and plays out publicly Sept. 16-18 with “Adelante” (axisdance.org/event/adelante/2022-09-16) the season-opening performances of AXIS at ODC Theater in San Francisco, Act I took place from 2001 to 2003, when she entered the company as a dancer. Act II had Adame in 2004 co-founding and co-directing the performance collective Compañía Y in Spain.
She later danced with Candoco Dance Company (2007-08); made award-winning appearances in theater, commercial, and independent film projects in the United States, United Kingdom, Spain and Canada; and performed at the Kennedy Center with Mikhail Baryshnikov. In 2018, she choreographed “Broken Storie,” an autobiographical work made with AXIS that explored her grandparents’ complex histories and how they became a part of her.
Increasingly, people in the Bay Area are aware that AXIS (axisdance.org) is a nationally and internationally acclaimed ensemble composed of disabled and nondisabled performers. Founded by Judy Smith and others in 1987 and with a 35-year history, the company consistently challenges perceptions and stigmas about mobility, dance and disability. Community dance education and outreach programs abruptly halted by the pandemic — along with live performances and obstacles causing them to no longer make Oakland’s Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts their home base — leave Adame eager to reinstate programs for adults and children, elevate awareness and find a “forever home.”
“We are for now at Berkeley Ballet Theatre studios. They’re loving people and want to support us,” she said. “They even made room for a little office. It’s good to be connected, with administrative and artistic together. We can have birthday celebrations again!”
Adame studied ballet and flamenco at the Royal Dance Conservatory of Madrid and has a bachelor of arts in theater from the University of Colorado. A car accident at age 14 caused a spinal injury that requires she use a cane and for a time led her to stop dancing. She said walking next to the beach in Alameda, a favorite activity enjoyed on the East Bay island where she and her family have relocated, avoids the difficulty of walking on sand, but even so, affords pleasure. Ice cream or chocolate from a shop downtown makes a hike sweeter and the sight and sound of water and wind provide welcome respite. Other than the delays and limitations of public transport for anyone without a car, Adame finds Alameda accessible for people with disabilities.
As has been reported, Adame’s predecessor, Marc Brew, who began his association with the company in 2011 and became artistic director of AXIS in 2017, departed for love. Brew’s partner had remained behind in Britain when Brew moved to Oakland. They discovered during the pandemic that they no longer wanted to live in separate countries. Adame said Brew’s artistry was extremely high, always pushing the dancers, the work and production values to topmost levels.
“I want to continue his efforts to embed accessibility into pieces for the audience. For instance, making ASL (American Sign Language) a part of the process during a concert and not just bringing someone in at the end. And Marc used supertitles for a piece made with (spoken) text, just one example of many.”
Although she is not accustomed to verbalizing her leadership strengths, Adame responded to encouragement and said, “I too have high standards for performances and the work. I’m also nurturing and like helping other people’s talents appear. I like taking chances in the studio, not saying ‘yes’ to everything, but giving opportunities to everyone. When I can put forward one of our people, I will always do that.”
A feasibility study underway will define the search for a permanent space for AXIS and the optimum timeline. In the meantime, Adame’s short-term goals include one already achieved — appealing to the Mellon Foundation and receiving enough support to raise dancer and rehearsal director salaries about 25%.
Next on the agenda is bringing in artists whose approach to dance is broad-based or even atypical, stretching the dancers’ range and command of multiple skills and developing partnerships with companies such as one undertaken with New York-based Parsons Dance Company.
“They came to us for training about language we use and the way we work. I want to develop relationships to make our work more visible within and outside our community. To show the beauty of our diversity and how we can all be included instead of exclusive.”
Adame said AXIS founder-director Smith remains a primary mentor.
“She taught me the ethos of working in the nonprofit dance world. I am calling every single person who donated to the company — if it was $5, $20 or $500, it doesn’t matter — and thanking them without asking for more support. That’s huge for me,” Adame said.
Adame also learned from Smith to speak with every visiting choreographer about inclusive language and never choreographing a dancer in a wheelchair into a corner or invisibility. Most importantly, Adame gained the confidence and maturity from Smith to never apologize for who she is or her disability.
“I will no longer say ‘I’m sorry, I can’t go so fast.’ I say, ‘Please slow down.’ She taught me strength, that I belong here just like every other person.”
Increasing acceptance of diversity in dance has Adame celebrating “open brains and eyes.” Even so, progress is slow and she admits that an audition with a professional ballet company remains impossible for her and other disabled dancers.
“Also, even with my years of conservatory-level training in Spain, I couldn’t get a college degree. Professors couldn’t see how to include me. They need to talk, see what access is needed, think about how to be inclusive. It’s not that hard.”
“Breathe Again,” Adame’s work that opens “Adelante” with its premier, tells personal stories of struggle.
“It’s the story we all felt from the pandemic but also from life in general — those moments when everything is going wrong. Then someone gives you a kiss or some chocolate, and that makes you think you have possibilities. You start trusting life again. It’s finding light at the end of a tunnel of suffocation.”
“Adelante’s” other two works, by Ben Levine and Asun Noales, are respectively a playful dance performed with wheeled children’s toys and a profound investigation of touch and significance found in human-to-human contact. In combination, the three works move from intimate stories to daring physicality to deep, universal desires and make plain the dynamic diversity of AXIS in 2022, and hopefully, for decades to come.