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Marc Brew dancing against all odds

A. Kurniawan Ulung
A. Kurniawan Ulung

The Jakarta Post

Jakarta | Wed, October 11, 2017 | 09:33 am
Marc Brew dancing against all odds

Universal language: Marc Brew dances with his students at Teater Jakarta in Taman Ismail Marzuki. (JP/A. Kurniawan Ulung)

Confined to a wheelchair, noted Australian dancer and choreographer Marc Brew performs all around the world to show that everyone can dance with or without a disability.

Before going back to the United States, dancer Marc Brew gave dance lessons to teenagers during a workshop on Sunday afternoon at Teater Jakarta in the Taman Ismail Marzuki cultural center in Jakarta.

A deaf interpreter accompanied him to help him communicate with some of his students with hearing and speech impairments. Like them, the artist also has a disability.

Clad in a brown sleeveless shirt and red socks, Brew taught them some dance moves. Following the rhythm of the music, he danced gracefully in his wheelchair, he twisted right, then left, then right. Brew is very thin and pale with blond hair and has long and lean arms.   

“Dance is for everybody. To disabled people, I want to expose them to possibilities. It is not only about how we can dance. It is about how we can work with each other to create interesting dances. So, disabilities can create possibilities,” the 40-year-old said.     

Prior to the workshop, he performed his solo piece, Remember When, during the Second Indonesian Ballet Gala at Teater Jakarta. Themed “An Inclusive Dance Event”, the gala was initiated by the Ballet Indonesia Foundation (Ballet ID), a non-profit organization of professional and aspiring dancers.

For Remember When, Brew was nominated for Outstanding Achievement in Performance at the prestigious Isadora Duncan Awards in 2014. His recent solo work, For Now, I am…, was listed in The Guardian’s Top 10 Dance Shows for 2016.

Other awards he has received include the Fringe Performance Award for Best Original Solo Work at the 2002 Melbourne Fringe Festival and the Shine on Award from Rotary International in 2003.   

Express yourself: Brew gives dance lessons to his students.Express yourself: Brew gives dance lessons to his students. (JP/A. Kurniawan Ulung)

Brew, who learned to dance at the Victorian College of the Arts Secondary School and the Australian Ballet School in Melbourne, has worked in the UK and internationally for the past 20 years as a dancer, choreographer, director, teacher and speaker.

Today, he is an artistic director of the Oakland-based AXIS Dance Company, the US’ most acclaimed ensemble of performers with and without disabilities.

“40 percent of my students are disabled and 60 percent are not,” he said.

Brew has lived with disability since he was 20.

On Oct. 11, 1997, he and his friends were involved in a car accident in South Africa, which left him paralyzed from the neck down.  

“I survived with a spinal injury, but my three friends were killed. We were in the wrong place at the wrong time,” he recalled.

For him, the accident was a nightmare because his career as a professional dancer had just begun to take off. He had signed a contract with the State Theater Ballet Company of South Africa.

His doctor told him that he was not expected to continue to dance because his spinal injury was so severe that he would never be able to even walk again.  

“I thought it was a lie. I told the doctor, ‘get me back to Australia. I will go through with rehabilitation and physiotherapy. I will recover and be myself again’,” he said.

After six months of rehabilitation, he managed to move his hands, shoulders and arms again. However, from his chest down he remains paralyzed to this today.

Marc BrewMarc Brew (JP/A. Kurniawan Ulung)

Believing that he was born to dance, Brew decided to dance again with his wheelchair in 1999, entering a ballet class at Infinity Dance Theater in New York, a dance company founded by Kitty Lunn, a dancer who broke her back after slipping and falling on ice in 1987 but who resumed dancing five years later.   

Most of his family members and friends did not support his decision, suggesting he do something else. However, he kept following his heart and he thanks God for having his mother’s blessing.

“My mother always knows that I am very determined and passionate about what I do. She sacrificed her life to come and live with me again to help me find my independence and support me to get back to the world again,” he said.

His mother, a single parent, means the world to Brew.

“She is my number one fan,” he said.

Brew started dancing in the small rural village of Jerilderie in New South Wales when he was 7. Shortly after that, he was bullied by his peers because they thought that dancing was effeminate and because he was the only boy who danced at that time.   

“It was hard to be isolated. Unlike other boys, who played sports, I wanted to be more artistic and express myself through my body,” he said. “They beat me up.”

Despite having such a harsh childhood experience, Brew grew up to be a man with a big heart. After the car crash in South Africa, some of his fellow dancers avoided him, but he managed to find true friends who believed in his ability to turn the tables. They helped him get back in the studio to explore what he could choreograph with his wheelchair.

“It was quite experimental at that time,” he said.  

During his years of training, he stopped looking at the mirrored walls. He learned to feel the sensation of dancing in a wheelchair rather than imagining himself as a dancer with a perfect body. 

“I focus on how it feels from the inside rather than how it looks from the outside,” he said.

Brew said he had met some aspiring Indonesian children with disabilities who wanted to be dancers. He hoped that they would not easily give up on their dream.   

“Now, I really enjoy teaching disabled people to show them that they also have possibilities and careers,” he said. “I do break all the boundaries and remove all the barriers.” 

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