Able-Minded: An Interview with Marc Brew

By Emmaly Wiederholt

October 1, 2011, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

We are lucky to have a dance company like AXIS in our midst: extensive community outreach programs, a group of strong, eclectic dancers, high-caliber repertoire and commissioned work from gifted choreographers, a July feature on So You Think You Can Dance, and this fall AXIS delivers yet another gift to Bay Area dance audiences by commissioning choreographer Marc Brew to create a new work. Based in the UK, Brew originally hails from Australia and has danced with the Australian Ballet and Pact Ballet in South Africa. Following a car accident in 1997 that left him in a wheelchair, Brew’s passion for dance and movement was reinvested in the contemporary realm. Brew performed with Infinity Dance Theater and CandoCo Dance Company before devoting himself to his choreography. He currently serves as associate director of Scottish Dance Theatre and artistic director of his own Marc Brew Company, as well as fulfilling a host of independent commissions. He joins AXIS this fall to create Full of Words, a piece that aims to generate movement from the game ‘you say a word, I say a word and together we will make a sentence.’ I got in touch with Brew to learn more about him and what’s in store for his upcoming commission.

Emmaly Wiederholt: Can you talk about your voyage from ballet to contemporary work? Was it the necessity of finding yourself in a wheelchair?

Marc Brew: I trained both in ballet and contemporary dance at the Victorian College of the Arts Secondary School and then at the Australian Ballet School before beginning my career as a classical ballet dancer with the Australian Ballet and later Pact Ballet in South Africa. Contemporary dance, I was told, was my forte, but classical ballet was a good challenge. I enjoyed it and wanted to get the classics out of my system before focusing more on contemporary dance. My goal at the time was to dance for the likes of NDT and Rambert.

Since my accident I think contemporary dance and improvisation have lent more possibilities for a disabled dancer. But when I started retraining in dance I began back in a ballet class. Initially I couldn’t even look at myself in the mirror. That began my journey of adapting already established techniques to integrated dance, which I think having trained in various styles of dance as a non-disabled dancer helped and still helps to this day.

EW: How did your understanding of dance change with your accident?

MB: My whole perception and body image of dance and what a dancer is (or is meant to be) changed. To move forward and find a career in my art form as a disabled dancer and choreographer I first had to reconsider what dance meant to me; it is a means of expression through movement.

EW: Since you work with both able-bodied and disabled dancers, what is your choreographic process like from the vantage point of your wheelchair?

MB: The same for both. Whether I am choreographing a work on an integrated company, non-disabled company, youth company, or for a group of elders, my working process is the same. I have my theme, idea, image or starting point and begin from there to develop tasks around the idea to offer to the dancers to interpret. I also create movement material on my own body, both upper-body gestural phrases and material using the wheelchair and floor work. This is not to ask the dancers to pretend they are disabled but for them to get a sense of my personal movement vocabulary which we then use as a starting point for the dancers to develop the material and make their own. I then look at how to structure the material into solo, duet or group work.

Using a wheelchair has made no difference to me apart from improving my skills with direction, explaining my intention, and giving clear demonstration using images, quality and description. For the dancers, I believe I offer them the opportunity to not only use their bodies but their minds. I like to challenge them to go beyond their comfort zone and what they feel is familiar to them. If it feels uncomfortable and awkward then they’re on the right path and it’s my job to work with the dancer to embody this new way of moving and make it strong.

EW: So you aim to challenge dancers out of their comfort zones. Do you seek to do the same with audiences? What do you generally hope your audience comes away with?

MB: I want my audience to be able to connect with my work but most importantly to have an experience. Whether that is to be challenged, to appreciate the physicality of the dancers, or to be moved emotionally, each audience member interprets the work or reads it differently and the good thing to remember is that there is no wrong way–it is each person’s own experience and interpretation of the work.

I feel that sometimes audience members feel they need to get it, to understand it, to know the story of contemporary dance, but often the work can be very abstract and not literal and it is therefore up to the audience how they interpret the work. In post-performance talks when I have an audience member ask me what the work was about I will turn the question around and ask them what they thought it was about. How did it make you feel? What themes, ideas, or images stood out for you? I find that if they trust their own instinct they “got it.”

EW: Your commissioned piece on AXIS is entitled Full of Words and will involve the game ‘you say a word, I say a word and we will make a sentence.’ Why words? What about words are you interested in exploring in conjunction with dance and AXIS?

MB: I want to use this game of ‘you say a word, I say a word and we make a sentence’ to build characters for the dancers to explore who they are and the type of relationships they will build. What is the dynamic between these two people and what words do they use to describe themselves and their relationship? The words will also become a part of a pallet that we will use to improvise with to find the movement language, style and quality.

I am also very interested in the conversation between people without using words and the physicalization of the conversation using movement as a universal language.

EW: Do you have a concept of how the piece will develop? Do you use improvisation in your process? How do you plan on approaching this piece?

MB: I’ll be looking at 3 types of relationships in everyday settings (dining table, bathroom and lounge room) and how the environment and relationships affect each other and what the similarities/differences are between the 3 relationships. I am interested in the moments shared between people in the everyday and mundane, as well as the unusual.

As I mentioned above I will be using impetus-like words, improvisation and tasks that I give to the dancers, as well as movement material I teach them.

I always start the work with getting to know the dancers and who they are as people, what interests them and what challenges them. I like to play games, improvise and dance with them so we can begin to collaborate together to create a work we are all proud of and call our own.

EW: AXIS has commissioned many reputable choreographers over the years, and has amassed a large repertoire. How does dance contribute to the larger evolution of contemporary dance when it’s made for and set on integrated dance companies like AXIS?

MB: I strongly believe that diversity in the arts and particularly in contemporary dance is key to the growth of the dance sector. It enables new possibilities and ways of working that make someone have to think outside of the square box of what is considered “appropriate” for dance, and challenges audiences’ perceptions of contemporary dance. Companies such as AXIS Dance Company who are an integrated dance company producing high quality professional work move the art form forward.

Full of Words will premier in AXIS’ 2011 Home Season Performances, Oct 7th-8th at 8pm and Oct 9th at 2pm, at the Malonga Casquelourd Center in Oakland at 14th and Alice St. See for more information.

This article appeared in the October 2011 issue of In Dance.

Emmaly Wiederholt is the founder and editor of Stance on Dance. She danced in the Bay Area for six years before pursuing her MA in Arts Journalism. She currently lives in Santa Fe, NM.