Adapt; ability

  • by Jim Provenzano
  • Tuesday October 4, 2011
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In a large, airy dance studio with a lofty ceiling, Mark Brew experiments with a few dancers on ways to stand on, jump off and even wheel around a wooden table. His new work, Full of Words, commissioned as part of AXIS Dance Company's home season, premieres this weekend at Oakland's Malonga Casquelourd Center.

Set with two couples and solitary man, Full of Words explores how the interpretation of words and greetings limits and expands personal interaction, particularly between people who use wheelchairs and those who don't.

"We've got three different sets; straight away that brings you to your living room," said Brew. "I wanted to see how they could explore different uses with their chairs, oh, and a bathtub. It's going to be a challenge."

Challenge is nothing new for AXIS Dance Company, the premiere physically integrated performance ensemble. Between commissioned and company work, AXIS has performed about 75-80 pieces that bring disabled and non-disabled artists together.

"We do a lot of work collaboratively," said Artistic Director Judith Smith. "My favorite thing is to find a choreographer and suggest a composer, and they really click."

Previous commissioned choreographers include Bill T. Jones, Stephen Petronio, Joe Goode, and Victoria Marks. Along with a new work by Brew, company member Sebastian Grub's Narrowing and New York-based David Dorfman's Light Shelter will be performed this week.

Getting Brew, a dancer and choreographer before and after the car accident that left him paralyzed from the waist down, took years of planning, but Smith persisted.

"Most don't have both sides of the coin as Mark does," said Smith. "Others can bring in a whole new palette to paint with, in a sense. We get really good work from people because they're able to think differently, and apply it to different ways of moving. Rather than being a limitation, it opens up a whole world that wouldn't exist. Even though we've been at this for 25 years, I feel like we're still at the tip of the iceberg."

AXIS Dance Company's Sonsheree Giles and Rodney Bell in Joe Goode's "the beauty that was mine, through the middle, without stopping," choreographed by Joe Goode. (Photo: Trib LaPrade)

Trained as a professional ballet dancer, the Australian-born Brew, who now lives in London, danced all over the world in several companies, most recently CandoCo Dance Company, a collective of disabled and non-disabled performers. Along with his recent appointment as Associate Director of the Scottish Dance Theatre, he's created new works for dozens of dance companies around the world. Along with his own company based in London, the choreographer is in high demand for commissioned works.

While his earlier training and performance in the more traditional ballet, including the Australian Ballet Company, may have focused on the abstract, Brew says his own work has become more personable.

"That training and discipline, including abstracting shapes for ballet, is a part of my work," he said. "But I think about humanity, who we are as people. That really had to adjust and change according to my circumstances. Being in dance, accepting who you are, in your new body. It did make me more interested in how we connect to each other as people. With all my work, I do try to build this human connection. Just by having two people onstage, they have a relationship. So I explore that, the connection between us, the physical conversation."

Asked about gender and implied gay or lesbian themes in his work, Brew said that he works with it, and around it. The pairings between different dancers inspire different movement.

"Just having two women together brings about a different dynamic. I said to them, 'It's not that you're gay,' but it does bring a different quality to them. Two strong women together has a different dynamic, and I like that. It's been an interesting exploration for them all. We interact with the process. When an audience sees people, not just dancers, they can relate to them more."

The June 30 episode of the Fox show So You Think You Can Dance brought the company a burst of fame and a three-minute audience of 13 million viewers. Company members Sonsheree Giles and Rodney Bell performed a section of an intimate duet choreographed by Alex Ketley.

Rodney Bell joined AXIS in 2007 after years as a co-founder of New Zealand's Touch Compass Dance Company, as well as a decade playing wheelchair basketball. Of the highly edited version of their performance, Bell said, "You gain something and lose something at the same time. The interesting layer is the ripple effect and exposure it gave to our company, and for physically integrated dance."

As cool as the pair seem about their TV appearance, they're both aware of its impact.

Giles explained. "A friend said, 'You have the potential to change the landscape of dance.' Using such a mainstream cultural venue was worth it."

Developing a work for AXIS even has variations between dancers' wheelchairs, be they motorized or manual.

"It's also specific to the person and what they need," said Brew. "These days, we've come so far from the generic hospital chair." Brew's own chair is custom-made to fit his leg length and his preferences for movement. Along with any dancer's occasional body injuries, chair malfunctions can occur.

"Oh, yeah. I've had spokes come off, flat tires," he said, admitting that he's not mechanically skilled. "But a smart lad always has a few spare parts in his bag."

Of his globe-trekking artistic career, Brew said the greatest challenge is access. Although the UK has similar regulations as the Americans with Disabilities Act, not all facilities have been fully changed.

"Since the 1990s when I was there, there've been tremendous changes," said Brew. "There are also more people creating work, and even the older theatres are making reasonable adjustments. We have to be adaptable. The point is to get the work out there."

AXIS Dance performs at the Malonga Casquelourd Center, 1428 Alice St. at 14th St., Oakland, Oct. 7 & 8 at 8 p.m.; October 9 at 3 p.m. $12-$24. Call (800) 836-3006.