Research Catalog

Interview with Judith Smith

Interview with Judith Smith, 2021/ Conducted remotely by Emmaly Wiederholt on June 14, 16, and 18, 2021; Producer: Dance Oral History Project.
Smith, Judith, 1960-

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Moving imageSupervised use *MGZMT 3-3507Performing Arts Research Collections Dance


Additional Authors
Wiederholt, Emmaly
3 streaming video files (approximately 4 hours and 22 minutes) : sound, color. +
  • Judith Smith speaks with Emmaly Wiederholt about her childhood in Woodlawn Park, Colorado including her success as an equestrienne on the hunter/jumper show circuit; her disabling injury as the result of a car accident at age 17; moving to Boulder (Colorado) when she was 21 and meeting other disabled people for the first time; her move to Berkeley, California in 1983 when she was 23 and seeing disabled people who became role models; Gail Pacifica, who introduced her to improvisation, and how this reconnected her with her physical life; coming out as a lesbian around this time and becoming involved with the gay community; learning and teaching the martial art Kajukenbo Kung Fu, which included figuring out how to transpose the movements to her body; meeting Th̐as Mazur and Nina Haft through martial arts; dance and martial arts as key to how she gained strength and coordination and a far greater degree of (physical) independence; becoming friends with Mazur and performing in her work [In this body] as part of Dance Brigade's Furious Feet for Social Change [Furious Feet: the Dance Brigade Festival for Social Change]; how this experience opened up new possibilities of movement for her; the transition from a group of dancers who performed together to a company (AXIS Dance Company) including an invitation from Dance Brigade to put together a piece for The revolutionary nutcracker sweetie; starting a monthly community (improvisational) dance jam; the source of the name AXIS Dance Company; the company's choreography at the time including its highly collaborative and improvisatory nature; disability as the direct focus of many of the company's early works; becoming aware of other companies with disabled dancers; early critical response as primarily "sympathy reviews" rather than critical analysis of the performances; the lack of visibility and acknowledgment of disability at the time; the difficulty in finding accessible studios and stages then and now; more on the monthly community improvisational jams including her goal of inclusiveness; Mazur and her husband David [Russell] taking the lead in teaching on behalf of the company; early presenters of the company including John Killacky, Arnie Malina, and Jeremy Alliger of Dance Umbrella (in Boston, Massachusetts), who invited the company to perform in the Aerial Dance Festival in 1992; educating herself about how to run a dance company as well as about dance in general, particularly in the Bay area; the International Festival of Wheelchair Dance including Alliger's role in bringing it about; how the Festival, which included the company CandoCo Dance Company, opened her eyes to AXIS's potential to choreograph better work; her also realizing that the disabled dancers should teach in addition to performing; the factors that led to her and the rest of the company's split with Mazur (and Russell); the circumstances that led to her becoming the company's artistic director and Nichole Richter the educational director; how working with Mazur and attending dance performances over the prior ten years had prepared her to run the company.
  • Streaming file 2 (approximately one hour and 47 minutes), June 16, 2021. Judith Smith speaks with Emmaly Wiederholt about first having the idea of commissioning choreography for AXIS Dance Company around 1996; Th̐as Mazur's opposition to bringing in outside choreographers; the circumstances that led to the company's commissioning a work (Fantasy in C Major) by Bill T. Jones, including the role of Jeremy Alliger in bringing this about; commissioning a work by Sonja Delwaide [Chuchotements] in 1997; other choreographers who created for the company including Joanna Haigood and Joe Goode; reasons she wanted the company to bring people in to choreograph and teach; critical response to their performances; more on the work by Bill T. Jones including the music Fantasy in C Major by Robert Schumann; the challenges performing this work presented to her and other members of the company including Nichole Richter, and their hiring of Delwaide as rehearsal director; her, Richter's and Bonnie Lewkowicz's experience working with Delwaide, on Chuchotements; Haigood's piece [Descending chords], an aerial work in which Uli Schmitz had a major role; more on Goode and working with him on his piece Jane Eyre, in particular the partnering and her unwieldy hoop skirt costume; why working with this first group of choreographers was mutually beneficial to the company and the choreographers; the premiere of these four works (by Jones, Delwaide, Goode, and Haider) on the same night; the response from the disability community, in particular with regard to Jane Eyre; the company's having decided to move on from so-called "disability pieces"; the high morale and camaraderie within the company during this period; reasons it was difficult to replace disabled dancers including the increasing professionalization of the company; the company's educational activities; more on the difficulties of maintaining a repertory company; more on the company's educational, outreach and advocacy activities; former dancers and erstwhile dancers who re-entered dance through the company's summer-intensive program; Stephen Petronio and how much the company enjoyed working with him on his piece Secret ponies; Victoria Marks, who choreographed and restaged works for the company including Dust, Dancing to music, and what if would you; reasons it was exciting to work with Marks, in particular her concern with virtuosity; Marks' advocacy of integrated dance, in particular in her work at UCLA [University of California, Los Angeles], and her championing of the idea of a disability aesthetic and vocabulary in dance; the company's invitation in 2011 to appear on the television show So You Think You Can Dance including the roles of Danae Rees and Nigel Lythgoe in bringing this about; her initial concerns about appearing on the show and the factors that persuaded her to do so; Alex Ketley and the work he created for the occasion; the very enthusiastic response to their appearance and increased visibility of the company; appearing again on the show in 2012; press coverage including her concern that the focus is typically on the disabled dancers and the problems this creates within the company; the diverse types and abilities of the dancers she ideally envisions for the company; Ann Carlson's work Flesh (created for AXIS to music by Meredith Monk) which AXIS performed at Monk's 40th anniversary season [in New York] as well as at a later tribute in California; Yvonne Rainer's Trio A Pressured #X, a version of her Trio A, which she staged on AXIS, without music; Stephan Koplowitz and Occupy, his site-specific work for AXIS, performed in Yerba Buena Gardens [in 2017]; her retiring after this work.
  • Streaming file 3 (approximately one hour and 22 minutes), June 18, 2021. Judith Smith speaks with Emmaly Wiederholt about AXIS Dance Company's engagement and education programs including the school assembly programs; how the educational programs grew from the offering of community outreach and recreation to include the providing of pre professional training for disabled dancers; the wide reach of the programs in terms of age group and the nature of the participants' disabilities; the frequent use of improvisation, creative movement, and task-oriented work in the classes; her preference for the word "translate" rather than "adapt" with respect to a dancer's transposing a movement to accommodate a disability; a method she has used in technique class for disabled and non-disabled dancers; the National Convening on the future of physically integrated dance (held at Gibney Dance Center in New York in May 2016); the reasons she believed a national convening should be held, in particular the lack of progress over the last 30 years in the field of integrated dance with respect to such issues as visibility and artistic values; raising funds and organizing the convening with Jennifer Calienes and Debra Cash as consultants; the decision to hold regional convenings after the national convening; the two major priorities that emerged from the National Convening: developing a training program and pedagogy for disabled dancers and increasing visibility; her excitement at how the National Convening functioned as an opportunity for greater collaboration and cooperation among integrated dance companies; the brainstorming with John Killacky, Sam Miller, Marc Brew, Calienes, and Victoria Marks that led to AXIS's platform for artistic advancement; the six regional convenings; how the National Convening dovetailed with the work of Dance/NYC to advance the field of integrated dance; some regional differences she has noticed; momentum and greater cooperation as the most significant result of the national and regional convenings; various reasons, both professional and personal, for her retiring as artistic director in 2017; Marc Brew, his relationship with her and with AXIS; more on the circumstances that led to her early retirement, Brew becoming artistic director and Robin Anderson becoming executive director; her feeling that she had left the company in good shape including with respect to goodwill as well as financial support; how she felt about retiring; her activities after leaving AXIS including the forming of the Deaf and Disability Affinity Group under the aegis of Dance/USA; the increase due to the Covid pandemic in the number of classes disabled dancers can take at home; more on the Deaf and Disability Affinity Group and the issues it is addressing; her pride in AXIS and all that it has accomplished, including as a performing company and for its work in education and advocacy; advice she would give to a young person with a disability who wants to dance; her feeling that she was lucky in whom she has met and the experiences she has had.
Alternative Title
  • Dance Oral History Project.
  • Dance Audio Archive.
  • Video recordings.
  • Oral histories.
  • Interview with Judith Smith (in Oakland, California) conducted by Emmaly Wiederholt (in Albuquerque, New Mexico) on June 14, 16, and 18, 2021 remotely, for the Dance Oral History Project of the Jerome Robbins Dance Division, at The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.
  • For transcript see *MGZMT 3-3507
  • As of March 2023, the video recording of this interview can be made available at the Library for the Performing Arts by advanced request to the Jerome Robbins Dance Division, The video files for this interview are undergoing processing and eventually will be available for streaming.
  • Title supplied by cataloger.
Access (note)
  • Transcripts may not be photographed or reproduced without permission.
Funding (note)
  • The creation and cataloging of this recording was made possible in part by the Howard Gilman Foundatio.
Call Number
*MGZMT 3-3507
  • 1369204984
  • 1369204984
Smith, Judith, 1960- Interviewee.
Interview with Judith Smith, 2021/ Conducted remotely by Emmaly Wiederholt on June 14, 16, and 18, 2021; Producer: Dance Oral History Project.
Playing Time
Type of Content
spoken word
two-dimensional moving image
Type of Medium
Type of Carrier
online resource
Digital File Characteristics
video file
Restricted Access
Transcripts may not be photographed or reproduced without permission.
Recorded for the Dance Oral History Project of the Jerome Robbins Dance Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts 2021, June 14, 16, and 18 Oakland (Calif.) and Alburquerque (N.M.)
The creation and cataloging of this recording was made possible in part by the Howard Gilman Foundatio.
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Added Author
Wiederholt, Emmaly, Interviewer.
Research Call Number
*MGZMT 3-3507
*MGZDOH 3507
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