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New Scots: Marc Brew, dancer and choreographer

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Ahead of the UK premiere of his new show an Accident / a Life, the Australian artist talks about his international career, making Scotland his home and returning to dancing after a life-altering car crash

My childhood was like the outback version of Billy Elliot. I grew up in Jerilderie, New South Wales, a town with just 900 people. I was the only boy in the village who danced and was teased a lot – you can imagine all the names I was called – but my mum and dance teachers were very supportive. After primary school, I went to an arts high school in Melbourne. Once the initial homesickness eased off, I felt a real sense of belonging. It was hard on me, but it must have been very hard on my mum to let me go, too.

I studied at the Australian Ballet School after high school and then went to South Africa to dance with the national ballet company, PACT. After just a year there, on the 11th October 1997, I was involved in a car crash. I was in a car with three others, heading to do a bush walk in a game reserve, when a drunk driver crashed into us, killing the others and leaving me with a spinal cord injury in my neck and massive internal injuries.

You can imagine how hard it was to be told I would never walk again, particularly as a dancer. It was two months until I was well enough to travel back to Australia on a stretcher and a further six months before I could go home as a wheelchair user. I hadn’t been around anyone with a disability in my career or upbringing, so this was a huge shift.

I had to relearn how my body works. Being a dancer definitely helped. If I wasn’t so in tune with my body or so curious about it, I might have given up, but something told me to keep going. I got back into the dance studio quite quickly and started exploring what I could do both in and out of a chair.

a man sits on the floor, leaning against a wheelchair and pointing up at something out of the frame
Research and development for ‘an Accident / a Life’ by Marc Brew and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. © Susan Hay
A man sits in a silver car with the driver seat door open. Another man stands beside the car, miming having his hands on the steering wheel.
Research and development for ‘an Accident / a Life’ by Marc Brew and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. © De Da Productions

A chance encounter showed me that dancing could still be my career. After the accident, two of my friends were taking classes with the American Ballet Theatre in New York, and one day a woman wheeled into the room in her chair and did a full ballet class. That woman was Kitty Lunn, a dancer and founder of Infinity Dance Theatre, a non-traditional dance company featuring dancers with and without disabilities. My friends jumped on her after class, asking all sorts of questions so they could share her answers with me. This was so important for me, as it showed me that it might be possible to keep dancing. After training from such a young age, I still identified as a dancer and I knew then that I had to find a new way to dance.

I realised that for me, dancing was about self expression, not having perfect feet or the perfect turnout. This set me on a path to reevaluate and reembark on my career. In 1999, a little over two years after the crash, I was taking classes in both New York City and London and had started making my own work as a choreographer and performing in those shows. Then, I was invited to join Candoco, an integrated dance company in London, in 2003.

I travelled the world dancing with Candoco until 2008. This was great, but I was missing the chance to make my own work, so from 2008 I decided to focus more on choreographic work and founded Marc Brew Company. My first trip to Scotland was to do a rural retreat for future leaders in dance. As a result of this, I had the opportunity to spend three months in Dundee shadowing Janet Smith, who was Artistic Director of Scottish Dance Theatre at the time. Shortly thereafter I left London to move to Dundee, where I was Associate Director at Scottish Dance Theatre from 2009-2011.

A man lies with his legs curled into his chest, a white sheet covering them and splayed out behind him. His chest is bare and he has a tattoo on his right upper arm.
‘For Now, I am…’ by Marc Brew. © Susan Hay 
a man sits on the floor. A white sheet covers his lower half and his upper half is bare. Behind him, the sheet is splayed out and lit with deep blue and green lights
‘For Now, I am…’ by Marc Brew. © Susan Hay

In 2017, I left the UK and moved to the USA. America’s leading physically integrated dance company, AXIS Dance Company, with whom I’d worked on a number of commissions previously, asked me to take over the reins when their founding director left. I was there for five years, but I knew that’s not where I wanted to lay down roots and my partner Matthew and I were doing long distance between the US and Scotland. So eventually, I moved back to Scotland and we set up home properly here.

I’m a country boy at heart and I just love the Scottish countryside. After Covid, we decided it was time to move out of the city and bought a little house in rural South Lanarkshire, where we now live with our little boy Jedediah, who is just over a year old.  We still have all the benefits of being near Glasgow and Edinburgh, but it’s lovely to be out where it’s more peaceful.

The arts community in Scotland is more accessible than it is elsewhere. It’s so much easier to build friendships with other artists and make connections within key organisations. Rather than feeling like we’re in competition, there’s a real sense of collective support and I love being part of that community. I also feel I can be more myself here than when I was in London. There, I felt out of place and was told I was too direct and outspoken – I needed to be a bit more “British”, I suppose, and not wear my heart on my sleeve.

Scotland has affected my work in lots of way. In a practical sense, I have been given space to make work by organisations such as The Work Room and Dance Base which also offer residencies and other opportunities. I’ve also worked with a lot of Scottish artists. In fact, I always encourage Scottish people to apply when I’m recruiting dance artists, because for a long time, people felt they had to leave to train or work. Happily, that’s changing now, with the Scottish School of Contemporary Dance in Dundee and the Royal Conservatoire’s new contemporary ballet training programme.

A man in a white vest and white trousers leans back in a wheelchair. He is shot from below
‘Remember When’ by Marc Brew. © Andrea Testoni
A man in a white vest and white trousers leans back over the wheels of a wheelchair, his arms stretched upwards
‘Remember When’ by Marc Brew. © Andrea Testoni

I never thought I’d make a piece about the crash, but my latest piece an Accident / a Life talks about that day and its repercussions. It traces my path to regaining my independence and my career and shows how I’ve navigated life and taken ownership of my body and identity as a disabled man and as a gay man.

An Accident / a Life is part of a trilogy of solo works. I wanted to collaborated with another choreographer and director on this, and the Belgian dancer and choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, who I greatly admire, agreed. He’s worked with so many amazing people – including Madonna! – and is an incredible storyteller who is also fascinated by anatomy and how bodies move. He interviewed me a number of times about the accident and built a script from what I said. Initially I thought he’d be in it, but after some more research and development, we realised it would just be me on stage performing. In July 2023, we did a week at Cumbernauld Theatre and three weeks in Tramway, and it all really started to come together from there.

I’ve felt really cared for whilst making this piece. I’m not doing or sharing anything I’m not comfortable with and the collaboration with Larbi has been really supportive. He’s great on the narrative development and dramaturgical side and has really helped me get my humour and personality into it too (there’s even a little lipsync moment). I’m also happy that the piece doesn’t get stuck in tragedy – it really becomes a story of resilience and rebirth.

A man in a dark green tracksuit and yellow beanie crouches on the floor in a low lunge, one arm stretched upwards and behind him. A car with its headlights on is behind him
‘an Accident / a Life’ by Marc Brew and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. © Filip Van Roe
A stage with two LED screens showing a bush scene. Between the screens, a car hangs upside down and below the car is a man lying in a bed, covered by a sheet
‘an Accident / a Life’ by Marc Brew and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. © Filip Van Roe
a man looks through a car windscreen. the interior of the car is lit by a red light
‘an Accident / a Life’ by Marc Brew and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. © Susan Hay

If I had to label my work, I’d say that primarily, I’m an artist, since that can encompass so many things. Expanding on that, I’d say I am a dancer, a choreographer, a director and a collaborator, who feels most at home in the medium of dance. I love the human interaction inherent in collaboration and work best when collaborating; the potential of what might happen when working with a diverse cast of individuals is so exciting. I try to work with new people all the time so I can help ensure that new, distinct voices are being heard.

My lifestyle picks

Food Glasgow is amazing for restaurants; you’re spoiled for choice here. Two that really stand out to me, however, are Stereo and Mono. I’m not vegan, but I love that there are more places that cater to a vegan diet now. Plus, the bar and dining space at Stereo is accessible.

Drink I haven’t been out for a long time since having my son. That being said, I used to love a good pub every now and again and if I was feeling a bit fancier, I loved a visit to Citizen M for a cocktail with friends.

Favourite Scottish Destinations I love the Scottish islands, especially Mull, Arran and Harris. Harris in particular is amazing – I didn’t know it was possible to have golden sand like that in Scotland!

We often do trips around the Highlands, getting out and about and exploring the nature. Where I grew up is so flat, dry and brown, so Scotland’s greenery and historic castles are something of a revelation for me. One place that stands out is Drumnadrochit, on the shores of Loch Ness. I stayed off the beaten track in a little cabin and loved visiting the local pub.

AN ACCIDENT / A LIFE IS A MARC BREW COMPANY AND EASTMAN CO-PRODUCTION IN ASSOCIATION WITH THE NATIONAL THEATRE OF SCOTLAND. IT WILL BE PERFORMED AT TRAMWAY IN GLASGOW ON 22ND-23RD MARCH

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