BY EMMALY WIEDERHOLT; ILLUSTRATION BY LIZ BRENT
Marc Brew has worked internationally for more than 20 years as a director, choreographer, dancer and teacher with the Australian Ballet Company, PACT Ballet, Infinity Dance Theatre, CandoCo Dance Company and AXIS Dance Company. Marc was associate director of Scottish Dance Theatre and Ballet Cymru in Wales, and associate artist at Tramway Theatre in Glasgow. Since 2008, Marc has dedicated time to his own choreography with Marc Brew Company. Other choreographic commissions include Scottish Ballet, YDance, Touch Compass, Amy Seiwert’s Imagery, GDance, Greewnwich & Docklands International Festival, and City of London Festival. Marc is currently artistic director of AXIS Dance Company.
To learn more about the Discussing Disability in Dance Project, visit here!
Image description: Marc is drawn seated on the ground and facing left of the frame. One leg is outstretched and the other is bent at the knee crossing the outstretched leg. One arm is holding up his knee at the elbow. The other arm is extended in front of him with his palm toward his face. Marc is seated in a mesh of gray and blue with red streaks of energy zigzagging vertically around him.
How did you get into dance and what have been some highlights in your dance history?
I grew up in a small rural village called Jerilderie in New South Wales, Australia with a population of 900. Growing up, it was just my mother and myself. My mother’s best friend had a daughter who was my same age, and we were good friends. She started going to a jazz dance class. We had a teacher who would tour to different country towns, and she came through Jerilderie on Fridays. Of course, being the only boy, I was teased a lot, so I quit. My teacher and the other girls encouraged me to keep going, so I went back and continued to dance. I began making dance routines at lunchtime with the girls in the schoolyard, and my schoolteacher asked me to perform at morning assemblies.
When it was time to look at high schools, my mother, school teacher and dance teacher decided it was better for me to apply for arts schools in Melbourne and Sydney than to go to the local high school 30 kilometers away. I auditioned and was accepted with scholarships to both schools. I ended up choosing the school in Melbourne, as it was a bit closer to my home town (a four-hour drive).
It was a huge shift to move away from home at age 11. I was homesick, but I finally felt like I fit in. There were two other boys in my year. I started studying ballet and contemporary dance, jazz, character dance, Spanish, anatomy and academic studies. My interest in choreography was also nurtured; I was given opportunities to choreograph on other students.
Once I graduated, I studied for another three years at the Australian Ballet School where I also danced with the Australian Ballet Company. From there, I was offered a job with PACT Ballet in South Africa, where I met many great people and danced many great ballets.
One Saturday afternoon, three friends and I decided to go for a drive to a game reserve just out of Johannesburg. We were driving on the highway when a drunk driver drove down the wrong side of the road and hit our car head on at high speed. My three friends were killed, and I survived with massive internal injuries. A week later, I woke up with my mum and aunty at my side, and a doctor told me I was paralyzed from the neck down.
Once I got back to Australia and went through rehabilitation, I learned about my spinal cord injury and what it actually meant. I started getting mobility back, and was able to move my fingers and arms, but it stopped at my chest.
Many of my dance friends couldn’t bear to see me. I was their worst fear. I spent six months in rehab and then tried to figure out how to go back to the dance world. Even though I couldn’t point my feet, I still identified as a dancer.
It was a long process, but I had to change my own perception of what a dancer can be. I could still move and express with my body. That set me on the pathway to exploring possibilities and finding solutions. I had my first experience back in the dance world through teaching opportunities. I then started choreographing on theater companies. I eventually moved back to Melbourne and started applying for funding to support my own work.
However, it got to the point in Australia that I felt like a lone crusader. Nobody knew what to do with me, and I still wanted to dance. It just so happened that two friends of mine who had been in New York had taken class at American Ballet Theater, and saw a woman take the whole class using her wheelchair. That person was Kitty Lunn. They told her about me, and we started connecting.
Before I knew it, Kitty invited me to come out and work with her. In 1999, I travelled to New York City to meet a complete stranger. Kitty opened possibilities and showed me how to translate techniques onto my body. Until then, I hadn’t been exposed to anybody else with a disability. Being with Kitty helped me build confidence.
I studied with Kitty in 1999 and went back again in 2001 to choreograph on her company. After that, I travelled to the UK to study with Candoco Dance Company. There, I felt welcomed and at home. I joined the company in 2003 and danced with them until 2008.
I wanted more opportunities to choreograph, so I founded my own company, Marc Brew Company, and started getting commissions, including for dance companies that aren’t integrated.
In 2011, I received a commission from AXIS Dance Company in Oakland, California. Since then, I’ve worked with the company on and off, choreographing different works, touring with them, and rewriting their summer intensive curriculum. When the artistic director, Judith Smith, decided to retire, she asked me to become the artistic director. I took over the company in January 2017, and Judy officially retired in 2018.
How would you describe your current dance practice?
I do some stretching every morning, but I would love to be in class more. My focus now is on the six dancers in AXIS and what they need. The company rehearses five days a week. I try to be in the studio with them as often as I can, usually every day. It’s also important for me to teach the company. Especially working in integrated dance, there’s not one “way” to do a step.
It’s also important for me to have my own artistic opportunities as a dancer. I’m still doing projects with other companies. For example, I was recently in Seoul, South Korea doing a collaboration. From there, I went to Australia to work with a dance theater company.
When you tell people you are a dancer, what are the most common reactions you receive?
When I became a wheelchair user, people saw my disability first. People have assumed I can’t speak, just because I’m in a wheelchair. Or, if someone is standing next to me, questions are directed to them, as if I can’t communicate. A lot of that is due to the unfamiliarity people have with disability. Having a sense of humor really helps. If someone stares, I stare back or ask if they are okay. I had to learn to be more assertive.
Some people are really brash and say, “What do you mean you dance? You’re wheelchair bound.” I’m not bound to my chair. I don’t sleep in my chair or use the toilet from my chair. I’ve had to become an educator, which gets tiring at times.
When I first would tell people I was a dancer, they had this look on their face of, “Oh, this poor guy thinks he’s a dancer.” Back then, you didn’t see disabled artists. There were physical barriers that prevented people in wheelchairs from even leaving their homes. Thankfully, there’s more visibility and awareness, but a lot of places don’t have that yet.
Especially in the UK, the arts councils have made a point to support artists with disabilities. There’s regular funding opportunities available for disabled artists, and not just in dance. Here in America, we need to find ways to have disability voices heard. In America, when we talk about inclusion, it’s focused on race and gender, but disability is left out.
What are some ways people discuss dance with regards to disability that you feel carry problematic implications or assumptions?
A lot of reviewers don’t know how to talk about dance and disability. They write about the things they see, like the wheelchairs or canes. There’s also the element of inspirational porn, “Isn’t it amazing?!” They forget the other dancers onstage who don’t have physical disabilities, so there becomes a disparity in the focus. It becomes about the disability, rather than the art, product and quality of the work.
There’s starting to be a shift. Organizations like Dance/NYC and Dance/USA are working on educating the dance world. Writers need to have time to learn about disability culture so they can be more informed. Right now, coverage is rooted in description, instead of the intentions driving the work.
With regards to press, what advice would you give to a reporter who is unfamiliar writing about dance artists with disabilities?
Any writer or reviewer needs to be educated. I would love to invite those who write about dance to come into our process and learn about the language we use. But I also recognize there’s not just one way. Language changes, and the correct words to use do change. But I think the most important thing is to just get immersed in the work.
Do you believe there are adequate training opportunities for dancers with disabilities?
No way! All of us in the field are trying to move that forward. Whether it’s a company or university, there are gatekeepers who won’t open the doors to dancers with disabilities. If they did, they would benefit from unique perspectives and voices. Institutions need to reflect the world we live in, which is very diverse.
I revised AXIS’ summer intensive curriculum three years ago. It is now comprised of three different modules. The first module is centered on improvisation and site-specific work, which is often the first way people with disabilities access dance. The next module focuses on choreography and performance. We look at how to translate dance techniques for people with disabilities, and the participants also work on learning repertoire and choreography in small groups. The last module is a three-day teacher training. We look at the barriers to access in the schools and programs teachers work within, developing tools and finding proactive ways they can make change and be more inclusive in their practice.
But more needs to be done. We’re starting to offer training at festivals and with other organizations and companies. Things are moving forward, but it’s not happening quickly. There are those gatekeepers who don’t want to change the way things have been done for so long, especially in traditional educational institutions.
AXIS also initiated this year our first ever choreo-lab for disabled choreographers. This is a big passion of mine, supporting the next generation of disabled choreographers and dance artists.
Would you like to see disability in dance assimilated into the mainstream?
That’s a tricky question. My own personal feeling is that there are benefits to something like a disability arts festival focused on solely supporting artists with disabilities. There’s something empowering about coming together to share and learn from each other, because it doesn’t happen that often. In the UK, the Unlimited Festival brings those artists together, and it’s really positive.
But there’s also the question of: Do we want to ghettoize dance artists with disabilities? I think it’s about where we place it. Disability dance should be on the main stages and in the major festivals. It should be part of the larger dance world, but it is a particular focus.
When I was in London, there was a conversation about if the general audiences of high profile venues wanted to see disability dance. I argue that, if anything, it’s a different perspective to art, and some audiences are hungry and excited for it.
What is your preferred term for the field?
Having lived in the UK and Australia, I very much resonate with the social model of disability where it’s not my disability that disables me; it’s the social attitudes and environment that I live in that disables me. If structures were made accessible, I’d be able to independently access them.
I think “physically integrated dance” is almost too specific a term. AXIS is not only physically integrated, but also integrated in terms of race and gender. I use the term “integrated dance,” but my hope is that one day it won’t be needed, that we can just be a dance company.
However, it’s also important for me to claim ownership of my disability. I used to write it out of my bio, but now I claim it: I am a disabled man. I am a gay man. There’s nothing to be ashamed of. It’s been empowering for me to be outward about those identities.
In your perspective, is the field improving with time?
I think it is. There’s more awareness. Here in the states, there are other disabled artists starting to get support, but it’s just beginning. The focus has been on traditional dance companies like AXIS that have been around for 30 years, but independent dancers and choreographers with disabilities also need support.
Marc Brew in For Now, I am…
Photo by Kristyna Kashvili
Image description: Marc sits on the floor starkly lit facing slightly diagonal to the front left and enmeshed in white fabric. His head is looking to the right to the other front diagonal. His expression is somber. The set is blue.
To learn more about the Discussing Disability in Dance Project, visit here!
To learn more about AXIS Dance Company, visit www.axisdance.org.