Sarah Nguyen: 2020/21 Fellowship with AXIS Dance Company

Sarah Nguyen is a 2020/21 Dance/USA Archiving & Preservation Fellow. Phase 1 of her Fellowship ran from June-September 2020, and was hosted remotely by AXIS Dance Company. For Phase 2 in the summer of 2021, Sarah will travel to Oakland to continue her work with AXIS. Read more about the Fellowship program here, and read Sarah's bio here.

September 30, 2020: Preserving people-first language in the studio & in the archives

“We don’t have a language in the same way that ballet has a language that’s 200 years old at this point. So, learning how to talk about our work, describe our work, has not always been easy. Because again, dance is a visual art, and it’s never complete until there’s an audience there. And I don’t think it can be described in words as well as it can be felt in person.” (Judith Smith, 2009. From “AGENCY: AXIS Dance Company” Interview by Montalvo Arts Center).

Walk across the stage, like a pedestrian. Jazz step, like Fosse. Bourrée downstage while floating your arms. Stand tall for two eight-counts. These phrases begin with verbs that many might not think twice about, and the unawareness of those action words disregards a large population of bodies and dancers whose movements and means of travel do not involve feet, legs, hands, or arms. These are the words that Judith Smith, Artistic and Executive Director Emerita of AXIS Dance Company (AXIS), was referring to in the quote above. This is the type of language that Smith, AXIS, and the physically integrated dance community has transposed for the past thirty-three years to evolve into a  people-first vocabulary for dance, movement, and performance in the studio and theater. I was introduced to this vocabulary throughout this summer’s journey into archiving AXIS’ work, which is dance, performance, and the human condition—delving into the vocabulary practice of people-first and disability-first languages. After this summer of researching how to archive AXIS, I intend to incorporate these language practices into the archiving workflow for when AXIS migrates their archives into their proposed future home, the University of California, Berkeley Bancroft Library archives, for future dancers, researchers, and community members to experience.

AXIS Dance Company logo (left) and University of California, Berkeley (UCB) Bancroft Library logos (right). 

Summer 2020 has lived up to the perpetual nibbles, pecks, and nips that aggregate to an impending implosion—reflecting the current zodiac year of the rat. Global quarantine and grief are taking a heavy toll due to the pandemic, heightened racism and economic disparities, political disruptions, explosions, and wildfires—and yet, I have been fortunate enough to dip a toe into the cultural history of a few pioneers of contemporary-modern dance. More specifically, I have had the luxury to virtually meet, learn from, and watch AXIS, one of the  pioneers in the physically integrated contemporary dance landscape. While Dancing Wheels, based in Cleveland, OH, was the first repertory dance company to train and present dancers with and without disabilities (Austin, 2011), AXIS has built an exceptional repertory by commissioning established, well-known contemporary choreographers to create works for the  company (e.g. Bill T. Jones, Sonya Delwaide, Joe Goode, Alex Ketley, Shinichi Iova-Koga, Joanna Haigood, Stephen Petronio, Victoria Marks, Margaret Jenkins, Kate Weare, etc.)

This summer, as an Archiving Fellow, my main deliverables included conducting oral histories and writing a records management collection policy for AXIS to use as a reference guide as the active dance company prepares their records and documents for an archive, but this post will focus on a different aspect of the archival process. Before diving into digitizing and creating access to content, virtually meeting with AXIS made me realize the importance of taking a step back, slowing down, and considering the diverse needs to be represented and included. In the library and archives world, it’s well-known that dance and performance commonly runs into issues with the “standardized” Library of Congress Subject Headings and other controlled vocabularies (i.e. canonical lists of key terms used to systemize interdisciplinary practices), so how can we ensure that physically integrated dance, disabilities, and all individualized embodied experiences be represented and not described under the “language of inspiration or heroism” (Winkelaar, 2019)? 

People-first and disabled-first language refers to practice that places respectively the person or  the diagnosis first (e.g. dancer with a disability vs. a disabled dancer). Depending on the person, preference can vary whether person or disability is placed first. There are still many more conversations and convenings to have, and research to be done on what the language is and how to incorporate the language, so this post will not provide exact answers on how this can be done, but will focus on the diversity of ways archivists and dancers with disabilities (or disabled dancers) prefer to be identified. As with many aspects of life, there is no canonical be-all-end-all—this language is a dynamic form.

(Left) A sepia tone photo of Judith Smith, AXIS Founder and Artistic Director Emerita, sitting in her wheelchair with her right arm reaching straight out to the right, head looking right, with dancer Janet Das in back of Smith holding Smith’s arm out. Photo by Andrea Basile from KQED. (Right) A black & white photo of Marc Brew, AXIS Artistic Director and Choreographer, sitting in his wheelchair with arms caressing around his head and neck. His eyes are closed with a slight grin with the touch of his hands on his body. Photo by Nathan Lainé from @marc_brew Twitter.

Physically Integrated Dance

AXIS identifies as a physically integrated dance company, but this term can vary depending on community and dancers’ preference. In AXIS’ case, disabled dancers included, but are not limited to, those who use manual and power wheelchairs, crutches, and prosthetics. Physically integrated dance is also known as “mixed-ability” in New Zealand, “disabled dance” in the U.K, “inclusive dance,” or “integrated dance.” Professor of Medieval studies turned dancer, Alice Shepphard (2019), notes that “mixed abilities” can be an undesirable term since it takes “away from the art form and looks at the abilities of the dancers instead[...] focusing on ability instead of art.” Shepphard points out that Smith questioned the term first since “[i]t makes you wonder about the mixed abilities; who are the good dancers, and who are the bad dancers?” Focus on the disability or what is lacking from popular social expectations are “stereotypical representations of disability—as pitiable, as dangerous, as a medical ‘problem’ to be eliminated” (Brilmyer, 2020). In particular, disabled dancers commonly face tropes from dance writers and audience members, such that only “what is visually spectacular” is emphasized, “project[ing] what they imagine someone with a disability” is/is not capable of doing, and not appreciating the art of “movement on the dancers’ bodies” (Sheppard, 2019). Political economist scholar turned dancer, Winkelaar (2019), moves to support “[t]he new aesthetic [that] goes beyond assumptions[...] present[ing]  something the public doesn’t expect, like the idea that disabled people have sex and romance. We’re blowing disability out of the water.” Hannah Sampson, dancer for Stopgap Dance Company, prefers “inclusive” and “integrated dance” since it is more open. It doesn’t focus on only physicalities, but inclusive of those with a diversity of special needs. The AXIS archives strives to use organizational, metadata (i.e. descriptive information that characterises/describes an object), and access practices to avoid perpetuating these stereotypes and bring the disabled artists’ creative works to the forefront—as Herman (2020) puts it, extending and “using physically and culturally accessible practices that range from a ramp to a sliding scale pay option”.

Dancers James Bowen, Julie Crothers, Lani Dickinson, Carina Ho, Liv Shaffer, and Dwayne Schuneman from AXIS Dance Company, wearing black clothes, striking dynamic movement poses, outside in front of the Port of Oakland industrial cranes. Photo by David DeSilva, from the AXIS Radial Impact Tour Press Kit

Transposing People-first & Disability-first Language

Through six oral history sessions with Smith (and counting) and four sessions with Marc Brew, current AXIS Artistic Director and Choreographer, each about their time with AXIS, both have mentioned that while physically integrated dance has been a clear mainstay to describe AXIS and other similar dance companies, the terminologies used in the studio and amongst independent artists and institutions vary—whether it is person-first or disability-first language. This flexibility was reflected and further established when I joined the Dance/USA Deaf & Disability Affinity Group monthly meeting. Each meeting takes the time and care to not only introduce housekeeping, such as Zoom call technicalities and agenda items, land and intersectionality acknowledgments, and participant introductions, but also meeting agreements. Thus far, it has been encouraging to have Douglas Scott, Artistic/Executive Director of Full Radius Dance, begin with ground rules, adopted from the AXIS National Convening Report (2017), creating a respectful, productive, and evolving meeting space. He states:

"We work in different communities with different resources. We have different sorts of practice and we have different aesthetics and politics. We want to learn from our differences, and build a future that includes all of us. We are all on the same team. We use different languages based on our own communities and situations. Everyone in this room intends to be respectful.

We need to create an environment where people can speak freely without feeling worried that they will inadvertently offend someone else by the way they speak about physically integrated dance, disability, gender, or any other potentially sensitive topic. We would rather you speak freely then fear you will use the wrong language."

This practice and language sets a precedent which I hope to uphold in the archive, so that metadata and organization systems used to improve searchability and discoverability are also flexible and dynamic for the AXIS community to update terminologies as needed. For example, Smith has mentioned that in and out of the studio, she has found that she prefers “strolling” over terms such as “walking” or “standing.” It is more inclusive for those using wheelchairs or crutches, but these “‘different modalities can have multiple bodies, which require separate training and technique.’ [...] the apparatus is part of the body and transforms not only the person’s physiology, but their emotional perceptions of it, and of the world around them” (Lawson in Herman, 2020). Different dancers with different disabilities interpret movement onto their own bodies, and the archives’ metadata and systems need to reflect that, as well. 

The practice of “transposing” and “translating” movement between dancers with and without disabilities is a major aspect of physically integrated dance. This is different from “adapting” movement, because body parts and movement quality are not one-to-one from disabled to non-disabled bodies. On the affinity group call, Marc Brew and Mark Travis Rivera agreed that dance and movement education needs more clarity and emphasis on “transposing terminologies, so that dancers know what the movement feels and looks within their own specific body instead of just one standard.” During that same call, James Severson, from Bay Area Disabled Dance Collective (insta: @bay_area_disabled_dance), distinguished transposition from translation as “pedagogical diversity”. They “address the same issue but don’t use the same method. We could push for a culture of semi-synchronous learning, what works for their body[...] where people can tap in and out[...] offering classes for audio descriptions because of the inherent connection to dance studies hallmark methodology of description and its conflicts with audio description.” In the dance studio, the practice of translating and transposing movement can either motivate or hinder both disabled and non-disabled dancers throughout physically integrated dance, and so it is even more crucial that archival documentation allows for the transposition of materials for future dancers and researchers to make it for their own bodies. 

A pure example of AXIS’ repertoire using transposition is from their Air Mail Dances (premiered in 2009). AXIS was commissioned as artist-in-residence at Montalvo Arts Center to translate Remy Charlip’s Air Mail Dances. Smith recalls that throughout the process of building and performing the dances, dancers and audience members would not only get to come and see the work but then make their own version of it.

“The nice thing about Remy’s work is that it’s very interpretable. We don’t like to talk about adapting, we like to say translating movement. So we’ll look at those diagrams[...] thinking about how that particular little picture on that little page is going to translate into something for Sonsheree and I[...] take movement and translate and make it our own” (Judy Smith, 2009. From AGENCY: AXIS Dance Company Interview by Montalvo Arts Center).

It will be important to keep these transposed terminologies in mind when organizing and assigning metadata to AXIS’ records so that both disabled and non-disabled dancers will be able to find and access the stories.

What's waiting in the wings?

Archives attempting to preserve the cultural heritage of dance and disabilities movements benefit from including histories such as AXIS’ because these stories are about the underrepresented artistry of body movement for persons with disabilities, as seen in UCB Library’s Disability Rights and Center for Independent Living Movement collection. Brilmeyer (2020) quotes Susan Wendell (1996) in that 

“The lack of realistic cultural representation of experiences of disability not only contributes to the ‘Otherness’ of people with disabilities by encouraging the assumption that their lives are inconceivable to non-disabled people but also increases non-disabled people’s fear of disability by suppressing knowledge of how people live with disabilities.”

An archive that gives access to the process and products of physically integrated dance offers an avenue for the everyone to see how physically integrated dance is not just a spectacle because of the expectations of disabilities, but that there are exponential possibilities in seeing past the aesthetic of what is lacking and raising the artistry of physically integrated dance in parallel to the “traditional standard contemporary company” (Smith at MANCC, 2007).

While the pandemic has given me an opportunity to begin a remote process of researching AXIS Dance Company, in preparation for working with the physical archives, I invite you all to keep in touch and see how this journey continues through next Summer 2021. I will be working with AXIS and UCB Library to further train AXIS staff to prepare their backlog and new materials for transfer to the library, and hopefully collaborating with the other Dance/USA Archiving Fellows (check out their blog posts!) to save and honor the pioneers of major dance movements on the traditional, ancestral and unceded territory of turtle island (i.e. North America). I look forward to supporting UCB Library in collaborating with movers to truck AXIS’ filled office closet inventory into the temperature controlled warehouse in Richmond, CA, and helping to prepare catalogs, train staff, dancers, and community members in organizing creations for future ingest, prepare for digitization grants, and probably much more. Most of all, I look forward to redefining the performing arts and dance preservation practices such as AXIS has/is done for dance. In the words of former AXIS dancer, current Rehearsal Director, Sonsherée Giles: “AXIS challenges stereotypes regarding what is dance, who can dance, and what does that body look like that is dancing? We continue to redefine dance” (Bauer, 2010).

References

Alice Sheppard: “I Want to Build a Network of Legacy.” (2019). Stance on Dance.http://stanceondance.com/2019/05/16/alice-sheppard-i-want-to-build-a-network-of-legacy/

Austin, K. (2011, February 1). Company demonstrates that there is no such thing as a disability when it comes to dance. Mlive. https://www.mlive.com/onthetown/2011/02/company_demonstrates_that_ther.html

Bauer, C. (2010). AXIS and inkBoat Redefine Dance. East Bay Express.https://www.eastbayexpress.com/oakland/axis-and-inkboat-redefine-dance/Content?oid=2172025

Brilmyer, G. M. (2020). “It Could Have Been Us in a Different Moment. It Still Is Us in Many Ways”: Community Identification and the Violence of Archival Representation of Disability. In A. Sundqvist, G. Berget, J. Nolin, & K. I. Skjerdingstad (Eds.), Sustainable Digital Communities (pp. 480–486). Springer International Publishing.https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-43687-2_38

Herman, J. (2020, September 22). Choreographing Disability Justice. Dance/USA. https://www.danceusa.org/ejournal/2020/09/17/choreographing-disability-justice

Laukkanen, S. (2019). “We’re Blowing Disability Out of the Water.” Stance on Dance.http://stanceondance.com/2019/06/03/elizabeth-winkelaar-were-blowing-disability-out-of-the-water/

Montalvo Arts Center. (2010). AGENCY: AXIS Dance Company.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-3D73-0Kyfw&feature=youtu.be&t=296

Smith, J. (2014). AXIS Dance Company. Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography.https://mancc.org/artists/axis-dance-company/

Wendell, S. (1996). The Rejected Body: Feminist Philosophical Reflections on Disability (1st ed.). Routledge.

Wiederholt, E. (2019). Hannah Sampson: “How We Respect and Treat Each Other.” Stance on Dance.http://stanceondance.com/2019/05/27/hannah-sampson-how-we-respect-and-treat-each-other/