Seeing the Invisible at AXIS Dance 

The company's new commission interprets Alice in Wonderland as a vehicle for confronting California's homelessness crisis.

click to enlarge Lani Dickinson, DeMarco Sleeper, Yuko Monden Juma, AJ Guevara, and JampiStar will dance in in·ter·twine.

Photo by David DeSilva

Lani Dickinson, DeMarco Sleeper, Yuko Monden Juma, AJ Guevara, and JampiStar will dance in in·ter·twine.

In 2018, during a break in rehearsals for a ballet he was making in San Francisco, Arthur Pita saw a homeless woman bring a syringe to her arm. "It was like a movie and I thought, 'Wow, she's really doing that, right here on the street.'" Twenty minutes later, as the London-based choreographer returned to the Opera House, the woman lay prone on the ground; maybe drugged, maybe dead. People walked past, some glancing, but no one stopped to help. Because he's not a local resident, Pita didn't know there were help lines to call to enlist aid. He left the scene, eviscerated by the dilemma and overwhelmed with despair.

It is those kernels of homelessness — painful, surreal existence for people visible but unseen and the cruel reality that people lack recourse to help or become desensitized — that Pita is exploring in a new work made in collaboration with six dancers of AXIS Dance Company. In bringing his first international commission to the Oakland-based physically integrated dance company, Artistic Director Marc Brew wrote in an email that Pita's work has wit and "genius in crafting narrative, characters, and storytelling through dance."

The skill set will be essential, because In·ter·twine: Alice in Californiland, is woven out of — but not slave to — the masterful storytelling of English author Charles Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll). Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, the 1865 novel many people have read and can recall the characters but few can describe its plot, is nonsensical; all atmosphere, mood and surreal characters, according to Pita. In other words, it's perfect fodder for a dance about homelessness.

Placed against the dream state backdrop of California, Pita initially anticipated that the work that has Alice tumbling to hit rock bottom as a homeless character would follow a simple ABA structure. Instead, it cavorts acrobatically along an "ABABCDZC and back to A path," he said in an interview. Iconic plot lines and some characters from the novel are included. As examples, the Queen plays croquet using a flamingo as a stick, but Tweedledee and Tweedledum do not appear.

French composer Maurice Ravel's lush, elegant La valse is juxtaposed with street and collected sounds in Ben Juodvalkis's sound design. "The valse takes you into the romantic, Disney-fied world, then that's contrasted with voices, vehicle noises and footsteps that take the lushness away," Pita said. "There's a backward and forward, cinematic sound, as if you are spinning the score back-and-forth on itself."

Alice as she plunges into the tragedy of being invisible while in plain sight descends from real life to the afterlife. Her disturbing interactions and reactions Pita suggested might be real, an escape only in her mind, or a hallucinogenic drug dream. Discomfort has always been his experience with Alice and other characters in the novel. "She is too big, then too small," he said. "Her tears make her shrink and she drowns in them. There's a headless cat."

If the narrative is a rough ride along homelessness that Pita said is abundant and shocking in the United States, he and the dancers have not hesitated to dive into the fearful rabbit hole. Volunteering with community partners Coalition of Homelessness, Hospitality House, and Martin de Porres House of Hospitality and consulting with Mary Rogus, a formerly homeless individual, the company gained vital insight. Nearly overwhelmed, but turning knowledge into active statements, the set design includes signage. "It's the literature of the homeless," Pita said. Among the phrases displayed, are "Help needed," "Seeking assistance," "My mother told me to wait here 7 years ago and I'm still waiting," and questions about invisibility.

Brew, who acquired his disability as a young adult and uses a wheelchair, said, "I do feel a connection between disability and people who are displaced and homeless as feeling like we are invisible. I often feel people ignore me, make assumptions that because I am disabled, I am not independent and can't do things."

Of course, dancers face physical limitations — stiff feet don't point, tight achilles limit jump height, and so on. Choreographers like Pita are adept at work-arounds, finding solutions for the dancer who doesn't turn well to the left or, in the case of Axis, relies on a wheelchair for mobility. "Certain things aren't possible, of course, but the negative space opens up the exploration," Pita said. "The Rabbit, how he can hop? Do people hop the chair or is he out of the chair and hopping on the floor?" One dancer, he noted, is in a sleeping bag; another wears high heels and an enormous bird's head. "He's bound, more disabled than the disabled dancers, and she has a massive restriction."

Rogus, the consultant working with Axis, wrote in an email, "The vast majority of chronically homeless individuals have one or more disabilities. AXIS offers unique perspective and understanding at this intersection."

About homelessness in the UK versus in the Bay Area, Pita said there are differences. Beyond the sheer greater volume of homeless people in America, he said they more often exhibit poor mental health. In London, they might lack economic resources or have addiction problems. "Here, it's the insanity in their eyes. I feel they're somewhere far away, somewhere in their heads."

There are likely few heroes in Pita's Alice, but there is bravery. Courage presents the disabled dancers of Axis not as what Brew cautions could be positioned as "super crips," able to perform superhuman acts, but blending with "non-disabled" dancers, a wave of "new normals" in a more inclusive world. Brew and the dancers work toward the day when stigmas around disability disappear. And Pita, he dreams of a time when major ballet companies include dancers in wheelchairs — and a world in which homeless people are seen with compassion and provided with essential, ongoing care.

The performance also includes Flutter from choreographer Robert Dekkers, and a world premiere from Jennifer Archibald.

Oct. 25-27, $20-50, various times, AXIS Dance Company, Z Space, 450 Florida Street, San Francisco, ZSspace.org

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