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Documenting the Oakland cultural renaissance


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The OAKQ&A: Judith Smith of AXIS Dance Company

AXIS dance Company. photo by David DeSilva, courtesy www.axisdance.org

AXIS Dance Company. photo by David DeSilva, courtesy http://www.axisdance.org

Since its inception back in 1987,Oakland’s AXIS Dance Company has been a pioneer in the field of physically-integrated contemporary dance. Almost 30 years later, the idea of pairing disabled and non-disabled dancers is no less revolutionary than it was when the company started.  Although tremendous strides have been made in terms of legal and civil rights in that time, not to mention societal perceptions, when we think about what a truly-inclusive society would look like, disabled people are often the last marginalized group we consider.

After Judith Smith became wheelchair-bound at the age of 17, her desire to dance turned her into an activist. She co-founded AXIS in 1987, along with Thais Mazur and Bonnie Lewkowicz, and in 1997 became its Artistic Director. In 2000, AXIS scored three Isadora Duncan Awards, signaling that physically-integrated dance was not only a legitimate art form in the dance world – but an innovative, dynamic one at that. Since then, under Smith’s leadership, the company has notched three more Izzies, performed in more than 60 cities, and been the subject of serious critical review in major publications – exceeding previous expectations and raising the bar of what cultural inclusion looks like for the disabled community.

Though they’ve earned their place in the dance world, AXIS performances aren’t just for dance aficionados, however. The strong theater elements make their shows more universal than one might think; in addition to the unique movement dynamic physically-integrated dance brings to the table, there’s a cerebral element present which causes viewers to rethink what it means to be human and how much of human expression is a kind of adaptation. Not to mention an emotional element which can lend an intense sense of poignancy and urgency in how it makes you feel. Based in the Malonga Center in downtown Oakland, AXIS opens up its home season with tonight’s premiere of “Onward,” featuring works by Sonya Delwaide, Joe Goode, Alex Ketley, and Bobbi Jene Smith.

Oakulture recently caught up with Smith during a rehearsal, and she was gracious enough to share her artistic process and wise words of wisdom with us – and you. Check it out:

Judith Smith

Judith Smith

Oakulture: What’s the least-challenging aspect of being artistic director of a physically-integrated dance company?

Judith Smith: Probably finding great choreographers and composers to work with is the least-challenging, because there’s so many great people out there. That’s the fun part, looking at other people’s work and trying to figure out how it would match AXIS and our aesthetic with our particular combination of dancers.

Oakulture: You took over as Artistic Director of AXIS in 1997. How have perceptions of the company changed over that time?

Judith Smith: Well, I think the big driver for me was increasing the artistic quality of our work and the professionalism of the company. So I would say that when we started commissioning work from really well-known choreographers and composers, that really changed how people looked at the work. Because when critics would come to review us, it was hard for them to talk about the work. When we started working with other choreographers, they could review us in the context of what they knew about that choreographer’s work. So I think also the fact that our first repertory show, our first home season, in 2000 after I took over, was Bill T. Jones, Joe Goode, Joanna Haigood, Sonya Delwaide, you know, it was a pretty impressive lineup. So, I think it gave us a stamp of validity that we didn’t really have: ‘Oh yeah, these people are really dancing, and they’re really doing dance. And they’re serious about their work. It’s not therapy.’

Oakulture: At the recent Othering and Belonging conference, you spoke about how AXIS wasn’t intended to be political, but you realized that there was an inherent realpolitik in what you’re doing. Can you elaborate on that? Why is it political? And would you consider yourself an activist?

Judith Smith: I am definitely an activist. I am an activist by default in some ways. I didn’t grow up in a politically-active family. I became disabled when I was 17 and that was a long time ago at this point. And we didn’t have the ADA, we didn’t have the 504 and we didn’t have all of these laws that we have today. So, advocating for myself, advocating for my community, had just been something Ive had to learn to do.  We didn’t start AXIS with the intention that we were going to go out and change people’s minds about disability. We really just wanted to dance. But we realized that we still, until recently, rarely saw a disabled person on TV. Or in a music video. Or in an advertisement. And, when we started dancing, it was very very rare to see a disabled person onstage, let alone collaborating with non-disabled people in a way that was equal. There are still theaters in San Francisco that we can’t get into, because they’re up a flight of stairs. We’re 25 years into the ADA. How are people even getting away with that now? They wouldn’t be in a theater where somebody that was gay couldn’t get to, or somebody that was black couldn’t get to, or someone that was Muslim couldn’t come to. So, we’re still systematically discriminated against in terms of our little small community here, our little dance community. And I think we really have done a lot of educating here, with presenters and funders. When we started writing California Arts Council grants, in the demographic breakdown, there wasn’t a box for ‘disabled.’ So I’d make a box and I’d check it and I’d write it in. So now disability is, not always, but often included in the demographics that people are collecting. And it’s, not always, but often included in the list of what multiculturalism is. I think Barack Obama was probably the first president to mention people with disabilities, as part of the multicultural part of his speech. There’s buses we can’t even get on. It’s just part of trying to have a life and be active in the world, I think you have to be an activist if you’re disabled.

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“We have dancers who use power wheelchairs in this company, we’ve had dancers who use prosthetics, and they’ve danced with and without prosthetics, or they’ve used crutches. So you necessarily expand, and inherently radically expand, the possibilities of movement. And I know that’s what excites me, that’s what excites the dancers, and that’s what excites the choreographers when they’re coming in to work with us. It’s that our movement vocabulary is much more expansive because of the physicalities that we embody.” – Judith Smith

Oakulture: AXIS productions aren’t just dance. They embody aspects of spoken word and theater, and employ both social and personal commentary. For example, Joe Goode’s “To Go Again” is about veterans, and addresses the need for resiliency in the face of life-changing events. Why is it important to you to have these kind of multifaceted productions?

Judith Smith: Well, it became important because I saw Joe Goode’s work and I really liked his work. And he’s a dance theater person, so he does like to use song, and he does like to use text. Our early works were often about disability, very directly. We made a choice to not do things specifically about disability. Our early works were [also] very narrative, so it’s kind of something… we’ve used text from our first piece, that we performed at Calvin Simmons in 1998. In the Dance Brigades dance festival, the Furious Feet Festival for Social Change. So I just feel it’s, being a contemporary dance company, doing dance theater and doing pieces that include text and narrative, it just makes sense.

AXIS Dance Company. Photo by David DeSilve, courtesy www.axisdance.org

AXIS Dance Company. Photo by David DeSilve, courtesy http://www.axisdance.org

Oakulture: In the description of one of your video clips on Vimeo, it says, “these works were chosen as examples of the movement vocabulary, virtuosity, partnering and theatricality” of AXIS.  What do each of these concepts mean to you?

Judith Smith: Well, movement vocabulary, our vocabulary is obviously very different than most contemporary dance companies, because most contemporary dance companies have dancers that are all moving relatively similarly. We have dancers who use power wheelchairs in this company, we’ve had dancers who use prosthetics, and they’ve danced with and without prosthetics, or they’ve used crutches. So you necessarily expand, and inherently radically expand, the possibilities of movement. And I know that’s what excites me, that’s what excites the dancers, and that’s what excites the choreographers when they’re coming in to work with us. It’s that our movement vocabulary is much more expansive because of the physicalities that we embody. Virtuosity, I love seeing very very virtuosic dance, you know, the dance that is at the level of San Francisco Ballet or Lines or ODC or the non-disabled dancers of AXIS. And disabled dancers’ virtuosity is often very different. It’s one of those things where you cant watch somebody walking across the stage and it can be completely  mesmerizing, because it has to do with their presence, and their intention. Virtuosity for me, its not just physical. And all of our dancers work on whatever their virtuosity is, to keep growing that and improving that.

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But it’s different for every dancer, I think. Partnering, well, again, because we have so many different ways of moving, the options for partnering and the abilities for partnering are just expansive. It never ceases to amaze me. When we first started working with outside choreographers, it was the way they would see us partnering that was so much fun and so exciting and took us to places we couldn’t see. They’d be like, I’d like to see this and you’re kinda like, ok, well, we’ll try it. The partnering is just so exciting when you’re utilizing the way a wheelchair travels, or the way a crutch handles weight, you know the architecture that a cane or a crutch makes… the partnering options are really expanded. Theatricality kind of speaks for itself. Some dance pieces are much about the movement, about the music, about the timing, whatever. And then some, like Joe’s piece, are theatrical. I think Sonya Delwaide’s work is always very theatrical, even though it’s often abstract, she brings a theatricality into her work.

Tickets for AXIS’ 2015-16 Season are here.

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©Eric K. Arnold 2014


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Third Eye Visionaries: Hiero Day 2014

Live music review/ Linden St. Brewery, 9/1/14. All photos © Eric K. Arnold/EKAphotography

©Eric K. Arnold 2014

A-Plus raises his hands in tribute to 22,000+ Hiero Day attendees

Late Monday afternoon, after watching an unannounced surprise set by Deltron 3030, the alt-rap supergroup featuring Del the Funky Homosapien and Dan the Automator, Oakland Mayor Jean Quan read an official proclamation declaring “Hiero Day” on stage at the event of the same name, in front of a crowd of more than 22,000 hip-hop lovers and diehard fans of the Hieroglyphics. Quan’s reading of the proclamation may have been one of the few, if not only, times in recent memory when a major city’s top elected official embraced hip-hop culture as part of a community engagement strategy.

All eight members of the Hiero crew—founder Del, emcees Casual, Phesto Dee, Tajai, A-Plus, Opio, DJ Toure, and producer/ road manager Domino—beamed as Quan handed Domino a piece of paper, upon which, one imagines, suitably puissant and laudatory words were written. The gesture may have been symbolic, yet its meaning was magnified by the fact that 2,000 miles away, in Ferguson, Missouri, the aftermath of the Mike Brown police shooting had created a level of civil unrest which threatened to set the clock back to South Central Los Angeles, circa 1992, or perhaps Detroit, 1967 – an uncertain, volatile mix of racially-tinged cries for justice and equally racially-tinged clamors against looting, curfew-breaking, and civil disobedience.

Mayor Jean Quan poses with Hieroglyphics, after handing them an official proclamation

Mayor Jean Quan poses with Hieroglyphics, after handing them an official proclamation

Meanwhile, Oakland—a city not immune to protests against police hostility toward unarmed black men, a city which had marched for Trayvon Martin, as well as its own martyrs Alan Blueford, Oscar Grant, Derrick Jones, and Gary King—remained calm, if that word can be used to describe a boisterous yet well-mannered crowd who thrust 20,000+ three-fingered salutes into the air and smoked enough ganja to give the Mayor’s entire entourage a contact high.

For the mayor to co-sign on Hiero’s accomplishments was major; Politicians generally don’t openly acknowledge the positive contributions of hip-hop, or align themselves with rappers, since such approaches could be perceived as not being tough on crime. Yet crime is down in Oakland, without the mayor or local government resorting to such draconian measures as instituting a youth curfew.

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©Eric K. Arnold 2014

Hieroglyphics/Souls of Mischief emcee Phesto Dee

Hip-hop often gets a bad rap because its practitioners tend to be young and black, even though its audience crosses all racial and ethnic lines. Historically, hip-hop concerts have been linked to violence ever since the infamous Run-DMC Long Beach show in 1986, and Oakland itself once declared a yearlong moratorium on rap shows after violent incidents at the Oakland Coliseum and the HJK Auditorium in 1989. The threat of riots breaking out has been used to justify cancellation of shows and tours, high insurance and security costs, and exorbitant ticket prices, and rap shows which do turn bad are sure to get extra media attention. Just a week prior, a local promoter had been murdered backstage at a Wiz Khalifa show in Mountain View, and a high-profile warrant served on rapper Young Jeezy and his entourage. Yet there was no heavy-handed police presence at Hiero Day, despite a crowd which had swelled by 50% since last year’s installment.

The Grouch addresses the Hiero Day massive

The Grouch addresses the Hiero Day massive

That there were no fights, no scuffles, no drama and no violence at an event attended by so many is a testament to Oakland’s native sons, whose three-eye logo is synonymous with authentic West Coast underground hip-hop. Hieroglyphics have always represented conscious hip-hop, albeit with gritty urban overtones which never quite sink into clichéd gangsterdom.

Hiero came up at a time when a tongue-twisting lyrical couplet was enough to confer cultural elite status, and for the past two decades, they’ve outlasted hundreds, if not thousands, of less high-brow rappers with a more simplistic focus on ghetto storytelling—without the conceptual narratives Hiero spin.

©Eric K. Arnold

Hieroglyphics founder Del The Funky Homosapien

They’ve obviously remained relevant, as the hundreds of t-shirts emblazoned with their logo visible from the stage Monday afternoon attested; Many of Hiero Day’s attendees weren’t out of preschool when Hieroglyphics made their first appearance in 1992, on “Burnt,” a B-side of a Del tha Funkee Homosapien record. In fact, it’s difficult to name another non-mainstream hip-hop act whose fanbase spans such a wide demographic spectrum of listeners.

On Monday, Hiero performed several classics, among them “You Never Knew”  and “Oakland Blackouts” from 1998’s Full Circle, and a mini-spotlight on Casual (in honor of the 20th anniversary of his 1993 debut Fear Itself), who tore through “I Didn’t Mean To Do It,” “Me-O-Mi-O” and “That’s How It Is.” Newer songs like “Gun Fever,” however, emphasized the fact that Hiero is no mere hip-hop oldies act.

The highlight of Hieroglyphics set, however, was another unannounced cameo appearance, this time by Goapele, whose regal presence all but confirmed her as the reigning queen of Oakland Soul.

©Eric K. Arnold 2014

Got Goap?

Up until then, the male-dominated bill had been somewhat of a sword fight—a fact that didn’t go unnoticed in online forums in the days leading up to the event. While a valid case can be made that Oakland’s resident female emcees should have been represented in the festival’s lineup, there’s no taking away from the inspirational upliftment Goapele blessed the crowd with, appearing with Hiero on “Make Your Move,” then segueing into “Milk and Honey,” followed by her signature song, “Closer.”

That provided a high note which was only surpassed by the show-closing rendition of Souls of Mischief’s eternal classic, “93 Til infinity.” The chorus, “this is how we chill from 93 til…,” has become not just a mantra, but a truism for Hiero and their fans; no matter how many times one has heard it, the song never fails to take listeners to their happy place.

©Eric K. Arnold 2014

it’s like that, and-a, the Hieroglyphics, yeah!

Hiero’s performance, overall, was like watching a well-oiled machine being revved up to maximum capacity. 20 years of rocking together onstage has created some tight-knit bonds between group members, and the show never felt like any one emcee wasn’t completely in sync with the rest of the crew; even Del’s streak of blonde hair in his natural—a la Wesley Snipes in “Demolition Man”l— didn’t prove too much of a distraction during other emcees’ verses. Up and coming artists would do well to study Hiero’s stage show as a textbook example of how it’s done.

Speaking of up and coming artists, Hiero Day offered a potpourri of flavors, from the intricate battle-raps and supreme fluidity of Locksmith and Planet Asia to Los Rakas’ vibrant Town variant on reggaeton to the Mystik Journeymen’s “underground as fuck” credo, to the Hydra-like mini-supergroup of Zion-I, the Grouch and Eligh – and dozens more I didn’t get to see because there were three stages, a high level of crowd density, and the laws of physics say you can only be in one place at one time.

©Eric K. Arnold 2014

Raka Rich of Los Rakas fires up one of Hiero Day’s multiple stages

The best part of Hiero Day was that it remained a free event. That’s right, free. While traffic flow could be improved, beer lines were reportedly horrendous, and there was a shortage of water (promoters only expected about 15,000-18,000 people), that’s just a tremendous achievement any way you slice it. Attendees came from as far as Los Angeles, Sacramento and Tahoe, and any destination event helps a city’s financial bottom line.

Furthermore, when you consider the high prices of music festival tickets, Hiero Day not only has the most bang for the buck of any local event, but leaves festival-goers more room in their wallets to buy merch, which in turn supports artists, musicians, small clothing companies, food vendors, entrepreneurs, and the list goes on.

In other words, Hiero Day is a huge win-win for the hip-hop community, but also, as the mayor made plain, for the city of Oakland.

©Eric K. Arnold 2014