It’s inevitable that a large number of people will want to check out coverage of the Invictus Games’ opening ceremony Sept. 9 in Germany to see the international sporting event’s celebrity founder, Prince Harry, along with his wife, Meghan Markle.
But those gathered in Dusseldorf’s Merkur Apiel-Arena, as well as the millions of viewers watching online, will also be introduced to a unique and innovative dance troupe already well-known to Bay Area fans: the AXIS Dance Company.
The artists from the Berkeley-based contemporary dance company will be among the featured entertainers at the Invictus Games opening ceremony, and their exuberant eight-person piece, “Dawn,” should beautifully complement the purpose of the games, which Prince Harry founded to provide an opportunity for military veterans from around the world to recover from physical and mental injuries, including PTSD, by competing in different sports.
For its part, AXIS integrates the talents of professional dancers, some of whom have disabilities, into world-class productions that are designed to redefine perceptions of disability and to expand ideas about what dance, the most athletic of art forms, can be.
“I’m super happy and super excited to be performing at the games,” said JanpiStar, a charismatic, Puerto Rican-born dancer who uses a wheelchair. At a rehearsal Thursday for the company’s Invictus performance, they expressed pride that the world will see the company, whose artists, with their “different bodies, backgrounds and stories,” use dance “to represent and celebrate diversity.”
In “Dawn,” JanpiStar, who uses they/them pronouns, whirls their chair around the stage on the power of upper body strength and explosive energy, as the music moves from a soft instrumental melody into a pumped-up Latin beat, accompanied by a female vocalist. JanpiStar pulls dancer Zara Anwar, who is not disabled, up into a lift, positioning her on their legs. JanpiStar also takes a turn at a quick solo and joins the others in breaking out into a dance party of claps, whoops and shouts as the song reaches its anthemic climax.
The Invictus message about gaining strength through adversity resonates with JanpiStar, who was just a year old when a car ran over their legs, leaving them paraplegic. As a small child, JanpiStar was eager to perform — “I love Britney Spears!” — but they struggled with the idea: “I’m disabled. Society puts out this image: If you want to be a dancer or artist you can’t be disabled.”
JanpiStar put that idea aside and persisted, first by finding a dance group in Puerto Rico, which, like AXIS, is “integrated.” Eventually, JanpiStar found their way to the Bay Area and to AXIS, which invited them to join the company as a full-time dancer.
Founded in 1987, AXIS has long featured dancers with a spectrum of disabilities, including those who are neurodivergent. The company also is no stranger to touring internationally. But rehearsal director Joseph Hernandez, who also appears in “Dawn,” said the Invictus Games represents a milestone for the company. AXIS will be the first integrated dance company to perform at the games, he said, while the stadium crowd, plus the millions of potential online viewers, could give the company a new level of international exposure. For this opportunity, artistic director Nadia Adame choreographed a new work and commissioned composer Paul Shapera to create original new music.
“It is going to be a thrill performing for such a massive audience,” said deaf performer Anna Gichan who, like JanpiStar, started dancing as a young child. For “Dawn,” Gichan can’t hear the music though she was able to prepare for the piece by memorizing “the textures” of it by listening to it at home on speakers or through her hearing aids. While performing, she takes cues from the other dancers and follows an internal rhythm of her own, which sets for her a precise movement for each count.
“It’s a hard piece. We’ve been working on it almost nonstop,” Gichan said. It’s both intimidating and exhilarating, she said, to prepare for an audience that will include two of the most famous people in the world. It has been confirmed that the American Duchess of Sussex will accompany her royal husband to the game’s opening. “When I think about performing in front of a celebrity like Harry, I have this motivation of ‘Bring it on!’”Gichan said. “Our team is ready. I know it.”
People can watch the AXIS Dance Company perform at the Opening Ceremony on the Invictus Games website. https://invictusgames23.de. The ceremony begins at 6 p.m. in Germany (CEST); 9 a.m. PST. Prince Harry’s new docuseries, “Heart of Invictus,” follows the stories of athletes preparing for the 2023 games and is streaming on Netflix.
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