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Movements with a message

Dance companies bring social issues to the stage at Stanford

The stories of disabled veterans and the plight of marine wildlife will be portrayed on stage this weekend, when Stanford University will host two acclaimed dance companies, both presenting socially conscious works.

AXIS Dance Company, which features contemporary work performed by a mix of dancers with and without disabilities, will perform three pieces, including one on the experiences of wounded veterans, at Bing Concert Hall on Saturday, April 23. And, in honor of Earth Day, choreographer-dancer Camille Hanson will present "The Sacrifice of Giants," a piece exploring the behavior of marine mammals in the wild and in captivity, the following day.

AXIS Dance Company's mission is "to change the face of dance and disability," and the Oakland-based company which in addition to its professional performances also offers classes and workshops for kids and adults, advocacy and community outreach has been pioneering physically integrated dance since its founding in 1987.

"Rather than there being limitations because of the disability component, it really just radically expands the possibilities for movements, especially with partner work and ensemble works," AXIS Artistic Director Judith Smith said.

At the Stanford show, sponsored by Stanford Live, AXIS dancers will perform "Divide," a trio piece choreographed by UK-based Marc Brew; "Dix minutes plus tard," an intricate female duet by Sonya Delwaide; and the featured piece, "to go again," by San Francisco choreographer Joe Goode.

"to go again" is built on the experiences of disabled veterans returning from war, including those with physical disabilities, traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder. The 30-minute piece combines dance with music and text to address the challenges facing disabled veterans, as well as their resiliency. Smith and Stanford neurologist Dr. Amit Etkin will hold a pre-show conversation on the topic.

"I'm really excited to bring it to Stanford because the Palo Alto VA helped us a lot with outreach to the veterans whose stories are reflected in the work," Smith said.

Under Goode's guidance, the dancers interviewed veterans and their families, then created a "theater patchwork of story, song and dance," to be performed by four dancers, AXIS company member Sophie Stanley said. One powerful story tells of a mother whose daughter was horrifically wounded in Iraq and winds up profoundly traumatized in a U.S. hospital. The mother is eventually able to soothe her daughter's continuous screams by going against the advice of her Western physicians and seeking help from a psychic healer.

"From this tragedy emerges a mother's persistence, a willingness to go against the grain. ... From that courage comes a moment of change, a transition and ultimately hope," Stanley said. "I absolutely love this story and feel so honored that I get to tell it."

As for what she hopes audiences will gain from the performance, she said, "I hope our art serves to illuminate some part of the human condition. ... I hope that we expand their preconception of what dance is, the stories it can tell, and who can tell them."

On Sunday, April 24, Dinkelspiel Auditorium will be home to the West Coast premiere of "The Sacrifice of Giants," a dance and audiovisual performance that celebrates cetaceans (the intelligent group of ocean mammals that includes whales, dolphins and porpoises) and takes a stand against their captivity and slaughter.

The piece was created by Minnesota-raised, Madrid-based choreographer Camille Hanson and photographer/filmmaker JC Arevalo and comes to Stanford from Europe, directly following a performance at New York's Lincoln Center.

"(Conservationist) Aldo Leopold said, 'There are some who can live without wild things and some who cannot.' I am one of the some who cannot," Hanson said.

While she's long been interested in animal behavior, "The Sacrifice of Giants" was inspired after she was invited by the European group La Dolphin Connection to perform in an international event, "Empty the Tanks," dedicated to the defense of dolphins and whales around the world.

"Due to the global demand for marine parks, zoo aquariums and programs such as 'swim with the dolphins,' there exists a million-dollar business behind the brutal capture of wild dolphins from the oceans of Taiji, Japan," she said.

She conceived "The Sacrifice of Giants" based on the premise that "habitat dictates behavior." In the piece, she and her three co-dancers portray the behaviors of cetaceans in their natural ocean habitats and of those in captivity. The choreography is rooted in the observations of scientists and is enhanced by projected videos and oceanic audio.

The contrast between the experiences of the animals in the different environments is stark and powerful. In the natural marine environment, the dancers demonstrate lively interactions and aerial movements, such as breaching, spy hopping and cooperation, staged with soothing ocean colors and sounds. In the harrowing captive situations, marked in dramatic hues, the dancers portray "unnatural behaviors found in captivity such as repetitive physical tasks, aggressive responsiveness, and states of remaining motionless."

Admission to the performance is free to the public thanks to Planet Earth Arts, a Bay Area interdisciplinary initiative that brings artists together with scientists, nonprofits and universities to promote environmental and social-justice awareness. This year, Planet Earth Arts has explored "Water" as its theme. The group has conducted a visiting-artists program at Stanford, bringing playwrights, directors, actors, dancers and poets onto campus to collaborate with the school's faculty, who will lead a post-performance discussion, said co-founder Michael Fried. Hanson's piece was a natural choice, especially fitting for Earth Day weekend.

Research on cetaceans has shown them to be extremely intelligent, sentient creatures.

"Treating self-aware beings as a commodity for economic advantage is fundamentally offensive from an ethical standpoint," Hanson said. "My desire is to get this awareness to go viral, as well as inspire people to make meaningful and powerful decisions for the natural world."

She said the response from audiences so far has been encouraging especially from young viewers, some of whom have written to Hanson asking for more information.

"At our last show, a 5-year-old child in the audience approached one of the dancers after the show and said, 'It was so beautiful I wanted to cry."

Info: AXIS Dance Company performs Saturday, April 23, at 7:30 p.m. (pre-show conversation at 6:30 p.m.) at Bing Concert Hall, 327 Lasuen St., Stanford. Tickets are $30-$65 and must be purchased by phone at 650-724-2464 or in person at the Bing ticket office. Go to Stanford Live for more information.

"The Sacrifice of Giants" will be performed Sunday, April 24, at 2 p.m. at Dinkelspiel Auditorium, 471 Lagunita Drive, Stanford. The performance is free, but tickets can be reserved in advance online. Go to Stanford Tickets.

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