Lani Dickinson is a dancer in San Francisco, California. After training in classical ballet, she graduated summa cum laude from the LINES Ballet BFA program in collaboration with Dominican University of California where she was first exposed to contemporary dance. In 2015, Dickinson received the Princess Grace Award. She now dances with AXIS Dance Company, a physically integrated contemporary company in Oakland, California. We spoke to Dickinson in January about her training, her current projects, and her work translating the language of dance to fit all bodies.
The Margin : Are you coming from rehearsal?
Lani Dickinson: I had a rehearsal earlier today and I also stayed to work on a solo.
TM: What’s it for?
LD: There is a festival at the Grace Cathedral up on Nob Hill in San Francisco. This year there are two hundred artists performing. I’m one of them. There are different stations throughout the space with some dance groups and some soloists. You perform in a loop through the night. It’s really amazing. Last year, I did it with AXIS.
TM: So the audience walks through?
LD: Yes. There’s a great rotunda in the center. That’s where I danced last time. This year, I’m dancing in a little ten-by-ten space in the back. It's right where this red cube is [located] which is considered to be the Grace Cathedral’s heart. They say if you picked up the building and put it on its back, that’s where the heart would be.
TM: That’s beautiful. Do you know the other performers?
LD: Most of them that I know went to the same college I went to—the [Alonzo King] LINES BFA program.
TM: That’s why you moved to San Francisco—to do the BFA program?
LD: Yes. Then I went right into dancing with AXIS Dance Company three months after graduation and I’ve been with them for about a year and a half.
TM: Is it mostly contemporary dance?
LD: It’s a contemporary repertoire dance company [composed] of people with and without physical disabilities. We do a lot of creative movement because it’s a physically integrated dance company. Currently we have three dancers that are not disabled and three that are disabled.
TM: Do you also do improvisation?
LD: A big part of the movement we do is self-generated and often created from improvisation tasks. What we teach and how we communicate revolves around having an awareness of the language we use. So instead of saying “your legs,” you say “the lower part of your body,” or “upper part of your body” for your arms. Or we use terms like “spiral”—a lot of imagery. It seems like a simple concept, but it is about breaking habits and about being aware of what kind of language you use. Because language is a very serious barrier. We do summer intensives at AXIS and people come from all over the world. There are usually a couple people who get emotional because they think “I never thought I could take ballet.” If you look at ballet terminology, they say “plie” is “two legs bending.” Or “port de bra” is literally “carriage of the arms.” It’s very body part specific. Our new artistic director, Marc Brew, was a ballet dancer before becoming disabled. He’s now using a chair because of a car accident. We’ve worked a lot on how to translate ballet. He does it with his arms mostly. A challenge for him is to keep that new language consistent—he’s not just making it up as he goes. A tendu for him is always the same thing with his arm.
TM: Do you think you would ever want to teach?
LD: I love teaching. We teach a lot. We have three pillars of activity in our company mission: artistry, education, and advocacy. We perform, but when we tour, we often go to colleges and spend up to a week with their dance majors or even with their physical therapy majors. We exemplify the social model of disability. Also, when we get the opportunity to teach kids ranging from 2nd grade to 8th grade I enjoy that too. Just because I am the teacher does not mean that I am not learning. That is what I find beautiful.
TM: Would you ever want to choreograph?
LD: I choreographed in my senior year of high school and in my senior year of college. And right now I’m choreographing my own solo. I do like choreographing. I think it brings out a lot of things about me that I can discover through movement.
TM: Do you prefer being the dancer or the creator?
LD: I prefer being the dancer. Lately, a lot of the choreographers whom I’ve worked with inside and outside AXIS ask us, the dancer, to create movement phrases prompted by a concept or quality. But I do like learning a phrase and then putting my own spin on it. Or problem solving through it. So really the dancer and the creator are the same thing to me.
TM: At AXIS, do they bring in other choreographers or are you mainly working with the director?
LD: We bring in other choreographers. Marc, he set a piece on us. We also have a piece by Amy Seiwert, who is a well-known Bay Area choreographer. And now we are working with Nadia [Adame]. She, too, was involved in a car accident. She’s disabled. She uses a cane. We work with both disabled and non-disabled choreographers. AXIS is physically integrated but we are working on getting the company just plain-and-simple integrated. We have a very diverse group. James Bowen, who I dance with really well, is a black man. He speaks a lot about he danced for a company of black [dancers]. He started dancing because he wanted to learn to twerk! He also trained in professional cheerleading. Integrated dance was something new to him as it was for me too. We were hired at the same time. He feels as strongly as I do about the diversity of a team being a positive reflection of a company’s mission. Despite differences in bodies, cultures or dance training we are able to move together. Dancing with a person using a wheelchair is different. But with conversation, any partnership is possible—it just takes practice. I’ve really gotten to know my fellow dancers and choreographers in this inclusive setting. It’s a two-way thing, opening up. I’m not saying disabled people have the best stories. Not at all. But people with different backgrounds—different race, different sexuality—have certain stories that they can tell or express through dance. It’s amazing when you can see where the stories intersect. That’s when you can find common ground.
TM: How was it switching from ballet training to contemporary dance?
LD: It was hard. I wasn’t ready to let go of the rigor of ballet—the routine of it all. But I don’t miss the exclusivity of it. In ballet, you get stuck in your own world. At least I did. Getting into AXIS and contemporary work, I started to find my own voice within the bigger world.
TM: When did you start branching out? Was it at AXIS? Or was it during LINES’ BFA?
LD: That’s a good question. I branched out during LINES BFA because it came before AXIS. I think in dance we are constantly making breakthroughs, gaining confidence and experiencing new styles as they come. I branched out the time I took ballet at eight years old. I branched out when I spent my first month away from home, on my own, to attend the Boston Ballet Summer Program. I grew from my experience attending Idyllwild Arts Academy in California. Each and every environment has exposed me to new things. I learn about dance, I learn about life. More recently, AXIS has helped me branch out in being comfortable in the body that I was born in.
TM: What do you like about living in San Francisco?
LD: I love hiking.
TM: Where do you hike?
LD: North of here is Mount Tamalpais. Point Reyes. Stinson beach. You can take a hike from Mount Tam all the way down to the beach. There’s Muir Woods. South, there’s Big Sur. One hike I went on the other day is in San Pedro. There’s a lot. That’s what I like about San Francisco. For the weekend, you can drive and be somewhere else.