Work in Progress / Fierce and Tender

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Front to back, Tanya Ewell, Deborah Reilly, Matt Bowman.

Cleveland’s own Dancing Wheels Company will be working in conjunction with Dance / USA as the national service organization holds its annual conference in Cleveland this June. During the conference, Dancing Wheels will produce a concert and gala at the Allen Theatre for which Dancing Wheels has commissioned three dances. We watched rehearsals for one of those dances on 12/13/2018. The dance was far from complete, but we were intrigued and impressed so we set up a phone interview with choreographer Marc Brew to learn more.

Cleveland Concert Dance: We know it’s early in the creative process, but we found a lot to like in the rehearsal for your new dance for Dancing Wheels. Fluid shapes engaged our eyes and both the wheelchair and standup dancers displayed surprising abilities. When we looked at your website, MarcBrew.com, we found that your mission statement – “fuses a fierce physicality with tender expression”—described what we saw to a T. We’re on board with what we’ve seen so far, so go ahead and tell us and our readers about your intent and your process.

Marc Brew: It’s always interesting and yet nerve-wracking when you start to work with a new group of dancers. You only have a short period of time and you have to work intensely. Also, for me to get the most out of the dancers and in order for me to do my best work, I need to spend quite a bit of time just getting to know them, getting to know how they move, watching them and throwing new ideas at them whether it’s a choreographic task or giving them some material. They’re all very open, which I was really grateful for, and very eager, very hungry, wanting to be challenged, wanting to go to new places. And that was the best environment for me to work. So I spent the first week just getting to know them and the second week developing material and putting material together. By then we really seemed to be going on a journey together and I was asking, “What are the ways we go on a journey on our own.”

CCD: What do you mean by “getting to know each other as people”? Is this verbal chit-chat or going back and forth with dance activities?

MB: The first thing I’d do each morning, I’d check in with them by asking a simple question like, “What’s your favorite ice cream flavor? What was a highlight from the weekend? What are you grateful for?” So I’d just probe to spark something about their personality and their thinking because I do try to bring that out through the work so that (the audience) can get to know them as people. And then of course I would go into more physical explorations so I can get to know them as movers and the choices they make and how I can interrupt that and go to different places that are maybe unexpected. As dancers we build this familiarity with things that our body likes and how we like to move but how can we go not with our first option but maybe with our second or third? So I like to interrupt one’s process.

CCD: Speaking of interruptions, we’re really glad we asked you about that because you gave us a very concrete idea of how you worked to get to know the Dancing Wheels dancers. But please go ahead. You were speaking of a journey.

MB: I started considering how we go on journeys in life, how we’re born into this life on our own and then, when it’s our time, we usually end on our own as well. But through our journey we have different experiences and we interact and cross paths with people. So that’s the over arcing theme, journey.

CCD: Do you have a title for the piece?

MB: No. I’m playing around with some ideas but I haven’t fully decided yet.

CCD: What music are you using?

MB: The artist is Olafur Arnalds and it’s from his album Re:member. The 3 tracks we use are Undir, Ekki Hugsa, and Nyepi.

CCD: Thanks. That gives us an idea of the dance you’re working on for the gala on June 14. Now, can we explore your biography? We see that you trained as a professional dancer at the Victorian College of the Arts Secondary School and the Australian Ballet School, both in Melbourne. Very strong training for a career as a professional dancer. At what point in your life did you become disabled?

MB: In 1997, when I was 20, I was in a car accident. I was living in South Africa, working for a company called PACT Ballet in Pretoria. One afternoon after class three friends and I jumped into a car and headed to a game reserve on the outskirts of town where we planned to go bush walking. On the freeway a drunk driver hit our car. My three friends were killed and I had massive internal injuries as well as a spinal cord injury so I pretty much woke up in hospital a week later to be told by a doctor that I would never walk again.

CCD: We find it very interesting that despite that catastrophic accident you were able to follow through on your career plan. You still perform. You’re still choreographing.

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Marc Brew at the Dancing Wheels studios.

MB: Hmm. Yeah, obviously I was in denial at first, then angry and all of that. I didn’t think this could happen to me. I was a dancer. My body is my form of expression. After I was safe to travel again I was transferred back to Australia and started going through rehabilitation. My health was improving and I started getting some hand function back but I didn’t get any leg function back so I was pretty much paralyzed from the chest down. At first I was saying, “Oh, I’m a dancer. It’s fine. Get me to the gym, get me swimming. I’m used to putting in the effort.” But my paralysis wasn’t improving and that’s when I said, “Oh, shit,” and started really thinking about what it meant to be a dancer. My perception had been shaped by my traditional, formal training. A dancer goes on two legs, with beautiful extensions, turn out, beautiful feet. Now I don’t have any of that. What do I have? What I do still have is that need and I still felt like I was a dancer on the inside and I still felt like I wanted to express myself but I started to change my perception about what it was to be a dancer and how to dance. I realized that I was still able to express myself through movement, just not the way I used to. And really that’s where being a choreographer helped me, because I was like, “Wow, this actually creates possibilities I never thought of.” (Laughs.) I can use the floor in different ways. I can use this wheelchair in different ways. I can use other partners in different ways. So that really took me down the path as a choreographer, exploring new and interesting possibilities, how restrictions can create different possibilities and how problems make us look at what solutions there are.

CCD: We realize it can’t be easy for you to go back over all that, but it helps us and, probably, anyone who’s listening to get past our own anger and denial and find creative solutions to the problems and limitations that inevitably arise. So, thanks.

We gather from your biography that you choreograph not only for integrated dance companies but non-integrated dance companies as well. Is that right?

MB: Yeah, definitely. I choreographed for Scottish Ballet, Scottish Dance Theatre, Amy Seiwert’s Imagery Company here in the Bay Area and for other integrated companies as well. I suppose that’s one of the benefits of my experience being on both sides. I have a knowledge of traditional dance training and terminology and I have this other new wealth of knowledge from exploring possibilities and that enables me to challenge both disabled and non-disabled dancers. I don’t just work bodies. I work minds.

CCD: And this is not to mention your work as artistic director and associate artistic director of a number of dance companies both integrated and non-integrated, including your current position as Artistic Director of AXIS Dance Company.

How did you become a choreographer?

MB: Ever since I was a kid that urge of wanting to dance was innate in me. I just started creating dances or movement or putting acrobatic tricks together. I would make up things in my front yard and then get my friends, the majority of them girls because the boys would tease me, and choreograph on them, not that I knew that what I was doing was called choreography. I grew up in the 80’s so I danced and choreographed to the great 80’s pop music – Janet Jackson, Michael Jackson, Paula Abdul, Madonna. Also, I grew up watching Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire films, which I loved. I originally thought I would be a backup dancer for – you know – a big star, but then when I started getting more formal training in classical ballet, jazz dance, and contemporary my world opened. When I left my home town (Jerilderie, New South Wales, current population about 1,000) and moved to Melbourne and started art school I was very fortunate to have teachers who saw something in me and gave me opportunities to choreograph. Then when we got further along in high school we did do dance composition classes…

CCD: But, as you say, you were already on a choreographic track.

MB: Yeah, from an early age I definitely loved to choreograph and (laughs) direct other people.

CCD: Okay. Last question. You’ve traveled the world in a wheelchair. What city does the best job of accommodating people in wheelchairs? How does Cleveland do at accommodating people in wheelchairs? What one thing could Cleveland do better in that regard?

MB: Yes, I have traveled the world and have gone from one extreme where there’s no wheelchair access whatsoever to places like the Bay Area where I live now which is very good, actually. I think that’s because of the Independent Living* movement which started in Berkeley. There’s a lot of awareness here. In Cleveland it was cold and snowing so that was difficult but Cleveland was pretty flat so I enjoyed being able to push around. One thing I’ve gotten used to in the Bay Area is push pads to open doors, but I didn’t see any shops in Cleveland where they had them. So Cleveland could do better with that for people who have wheelchairs.

CCD: That sounds doable.

Dance / USA annual conference is in Cleveland 6/12– 6/15/2019. Dancing Wheels’ Gala is at the Allen Theatre on Friday 6/14/2019. Learn more about Dancing Wheels at their website, dancingwheels.org/.

Elsa Johnson and Victor Lucas

*Brew refers to the Berkeley Center for Independent Living. (https://www.independentliving.org/docs3/zukas.html) (https://www.kqed.org/news/11626245/meet-the-berkeley-man-who-helped-lead-the-disability-rights-movement)

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