By Prithvi Tikhe
BU News Service
Every Friday, teachers and students watched seven-year-old Marc Brew perform ballet at the dance school in Jerilderie, New South Wales. He was different – the only boy who danced in the rural village of 900 people.
Brew was trained as a contemporary and ballet dancer at the Victorian College of the Arts Secondary School and The Australian Ballet School. He is still a unique dancer. He just no longer dances with his feet.
In 1997, Brew was injured in a head-on car collision while dancing with PACT Ballet in South Africa. It left him paralyzed from the chest down.
“I remember thinking as an arrogant 20-year-old, ‘This can’t be happening to me, I’m Marc Brew; I’m a dancer’,” said Brew, 40, who is the artistic director and choreographer at Axis Dance Company, which is devoted to the “creation, and performance of contemporary dance that is developed through the collaboration of dancers with and without physical disabilities.”
A 2016 review in The Guardian of Brew’s solo For Now, I am… said “the work opens to a bright white stillness – the light of a near-death experience, the clinical severity of a hospital ward.” It described Brew lying beneath a sheet of silk, emerging slowly into movement, his arms tracing shapes in the space and his fingers tapping small precise rhythms while his upper body twisted against the floor.
During the Axis Dance Company residency at Boston University, Brew, wearing a scarf, cabbie cap and bracelets on both his wrists, said he always felt comfortable performing on stage and expressed his emotions through his movement, through dance. However, he realized he would never regain use of his legs when he sat on the wheelchair for the first time after the accident.
“I remember thinking, ‘If this is the situation I am in, then I’m going to make the most of this and do what I can do’,” he said sitting upright in his wheelchair, lifting his lanky legs and crossing them over.
At the Boston University Dance Theatre, a space designed for dance performances, classes and special events, dancers with and without disabilities attentively waited for Brew to express his ideas. The dancers watched Brew create movements with his upper body – his arms stretched, swaying back and forth high above his head. Once the dancers got a sense of Brew’s own moves, they developed the material and made it their own. Brew then looked at how to structure the material into a solo, duet or group work.
Brew said for the past 20 years he’s focused on getting strong and healing to the best of his ability. He realized he needed to surround himself with what was important to his life, his family – his mother, aunt and fellow dancers. He said the dancer mindset helped him with the rigorous regime, stamina and dedication required to get as strong as possible.
Before developing wheelchair skills, he underwent four months of physiotherapy at the spinal cord rehabilitation center where he learned to swim and got his driver’s license with hand controls.
“I started to find that I could do things, but I had to do them differently,” Brew said.
However, he said some of his dancer friends saw him differently. Brew was their worst nightmare and the reality of becoming paralyzed was just too much to bear. Rather than visiting him, they opted to stay away.
Brew said his friends also told him there was no way he could dance again because he couldn’t stand up or punch his feet like a traditional dancer.
But Brew knew he still wanted to dance. He changed his perception that had been embedded in his training: a dancer had to strive for a perfect body, physicality, strength, durability and flexibility. To him, dance meant expressing himself through movement and that’s what he loved about it when he first started.
“There was no reason, because I was a wheelchair user or paralyzed from the chest down, that I couldn’t express myself,” said Brew. “I could still move, only differently.”
A year-and-a-half after the accident, Brew was back to dancing and teaching. He retrained with Kitty Lunn and Madame Peff Modelski at Steps on Broadway in New York where he explored new and interesting ways of moving and dance.
Once Brew got back into class as a dancer, he started with ballet. He would translate the movements into his upper body and use his arms to do the leg work as well as the arm movements. He stopped looking in the mirror. He did not see himself as disabled, so he had to take a step back and understand the sensations as a person sitting in a wheelchair rather than replicate somebody standing up.
While teaching, Brew uses his chair and arms to demonstrate motions. But, he’s also learned how to describe what he intends to teach.
“Marc is a very free spirit,” said Lani Dickinson, a dancer of the Axis Dance Company who was born without a left arm. “When he makes a mistake, he wants to fix it and is very forgiving when we make a mistake.”
As a choreographer, he said he seeks to challenge and be challenged. Through disability integrated dance Brew incorporates disciplines of art such as music and dance with people of varied backgrounds, race, identity and sexuality. He draws inspiration from life to create new work. The dancers make his ideas a reality.
“The exciting thing about Marc was he, being a disabled dancer, who is a trained non-disabled dancer, really understood both sides of our coin,” said Judith Smith, founder and director of Axis Dance Company.
Smith recollected the incident when she and Brew were travelling in the Bay Area Rapid Transit and a woman commented they were such a cute couple.
“The woman assumed we were together because we were both in wheelchairs,” said Smith. “I said, ‘We’re gay!’”
Smith and Brew always laugh about the moment. Smith said she really loves Brew’s candor and sense of humor.
Brew said he regrets that the accident ever happened, but it has made him who he is today. He wants to keep moving forward and will always take his past with him.
The accident changed Brew’s perception of life.
“As soon as I sat in my wheelchair I was perceived differently,” said Brew. “When I see people I never assume anything, I only see the human.”