Dance International Glasgow performers get personal

Marc Brew in solo show 'For Now, I Am'. Picture: Contributed
Marc Brew in solo show 'For Now, I Am'. Picture: Contributed
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Looking in the mirror is part of everyday life for a dancer, but in 1997, the simple act of checking his own reflection became too painful for Australian-born dancer Marc Brew. The victim of a car accident, he went from being a classical ballet dancer at the start of a promising career to lying in a hospital bed paralysed from the chest down.

Looking in the mirror is part of everyday life for a dancer, but in 1997, the simple act of checking his own reflection became too painful for Australian-born dancer Marc Brew. The victim of a car accident, he went from being a classical ballet dancer at the start of a promising career to lying in a hospital bed paralysed from the chest down.

“When I first had the accident, I couldn’t bear to look in the mirror,” recalls Brew. “Because I wasn’t seeing the Marc in my head, standing up and doing things, I was sitting down in a wheelchair. And my body changed a lot after the accident; straight away I lost 20 kilos just from being bedridden.

“It took me a long while to look in the mirror and be comfortable with what I was seeing, and I often hid behind costumes and clothes.”

That very private journey of self-acceptance is about to become public property, when Brew takes to the stage during the inaugural Dance International Glasgow festival. For Now, I Am is an acutely personal solo exploring how he reconciled himself with his new way of living, moving and dancing.

“I’m nervous about putting it out there,” concedes Brew. “But I feel I’ve come a long way since 1997, and I’m now at a place in my life where I feel comfortable in my own skin, so I want to share that with an audience.”

Learning to love and accept the wheelchair user in the mirror was only part of Brew’s road to recovery. For this new solo piece, he also had to embrace sharing his almost naked body, and the muscle atrophy that results from paralysis, with complete strangers.

“It’s going to be really scary,” he says. “Some people may get it, some people may not. But I just hope the audience will be moved by it or reflect on their own life, or just be taken on a journey.”

Known for his eye for theatrical staging, Brew’s new work features an enormous piece of white fabric, which he describes as “an extension of me”. Working with the silk material helped shape his exploration of being broken and reborn – and also brought back a few memories.

“As soon as I brought the sheet into the rehearsal room and lay underneath it, it took me straight back to being in hospital for months,” says Brew. “The white room, everything really clinical, and me lying in bed. But it also reminded me of a morgue, because I had a lot of life-and-death situations after my accident.”

Eighteen years ago, Brew dreamt of moving from classical ballet into contemporary dance with companies such as Rambert or NDT, before becoming a choreographer. That middle section may not have happened, but the goal of running his own company and creating work has come to full fruition.

“The dancer was always within me,” says Brew. “It’s how I express myself. I just had to reevaluate my understanding of what a dancer is. I didn’t fit the classical ballet mould any more – so I had to make my own mould.

“Some people will see me and think, ‘He’s damaged goods, he’s broken’. But for me, I’m alive and complete in my body as it is now.”

Brew isn’t the only one baring his soul at Dance International Glasgow this year. Choreographer Natasha Gilmore has made large-scale works in the community in recent years (The River, A Conversation with Carmel), but for her new piece with Barrowland Ballet, she looked a little closer to home.

Married for ten years to a man born and brought up in Ivory Coast in Africa, Gilmore has experienced life from a different angle over the past decade. The way people speak to, or ignore, her husband; the snap judgements made about Gilmore and her two young bi-racial sons – all of this fed her desire to make Whiteout. Yet sitting alongside that was an equally strong desire not to share her story with the world.

“I really wanted to make this work, but there was also something quite uncomfortable and frightening about it,” says Gilmore. “I’m actually quite a private person and I don’t want my life on stage. So what I’ve done in order to cope with that is identify the core themes and common shared experiences.”

Starting with herself, friends and family, Gilmore opened up the conversation to the show’s cast and crew. She soon found that everyone had a story to tell.

Whiteout is about those awkward moments when you feel people are judging you for what you are, rather than who you are,” says Gilmore. “Moments that make your stomach churn – and that’s a very shared experience. It happens because you’re a woman, because of your faith or your sexuality.”

Gilmore has also drawn on perceptions of visibility – who is seen, who chooses not to be seen – for the piece. Again, this was born out of her experience of being a white woman in a bi-racial marriage, but also from the anecdotes of those feeding into the production.

“If I’m with my husband at an estate agent or a restaurant, people will quite often just talk to me, like he’s invisible,” says Gilmore. “I didn’t really notice it until my female friends said the opposite happens to them.

“And Luke Sutherland, who composed the music, told us about growing up in Orkney and when he first moved to Glasgow. Things were different to how they are now, and he sometimes chose to make himself invisible, in order to feel more comfortable and safe.”

Although there are serious issues at the heart of Whiteout, Gilmore has also highlighted the joy and humour that comes from learning about a different culture. She cites food, behavioural expectations, and tastes in music as just some of the “culture clashes” between her and her husband.

“I wanted to explore that on stage,” says Gilmore, “so we have a very playful party scene where some people are dancing to a song, and everyone else is thinking, ‘What the hell is that?’ It’s really a celebration of diversity.”

Sitting alongside Brew and Gilmore in the festival programme, is choreographer Aakash Odedra. His double-bill, Murmur (about growing up with dyslexia) and Inked (about his grandmother’s tattoos) also dig deep into personal material.

“My background is in Kathak [Indian classical dance], which makes me a storyteller,” says Odedra. “And I think sometimes the best stories to tell are the ones close to you. I made a conscious choice to make a piece about my relationship with dyslexia, and although Murmur is personal to me, the sensation of being lost or isolated is perhaps something many people have felt at times.”

As with Brew and Gilmore, working through such personal material has proved cathartic for Odedra. “Both Murmur and Inked had an immense feeling of release for me,” he says. “The death of my grandmother was a pivotal moment in my life; she made me who I am today and to lose the person closest to you is profound.

“Growing up with dyslexia I was always labelled – I could think and be intelligent, but not in the school-tested way. Dance is my way of expressing myself and I found that making these works allowed me to deal with my trauma, trials and tribulations.”

Dance International Glasgow, various venues, 24 April to 6 June. Barrowland Ballet: Whiteout, Tramway, Glasgow, 29-30 April; Marc Brew: For Now, I Am, Tramway, Glasgow, 26-27 May; Aakash Odedra Company, Tramway, Glasgow, 29-30 May. For more details, visit www.tramway.org/events/