Upping the Barre

Upping the Barre


Carina Ho, Julie Crothers, and Lani Dickinson of AXIS in Oaklandish clothing.

Marc Brew promises more swagger for AXIS.

It’s hard to find a minus sign at AXIS Dance Company.

Especially as Oakland’s inclusive dance company for dancers with and without physical disabilities multiplies its capabilities in 2017 by dividing its leadership between Judith Smith, its founding artistic director and now executive director, and the company’s second artistic director, Australian choreographer/dancer Marc Brew. Plans for newly commissioned works, bumped-up training and educational outreach, and a stronger local, national, and international presence make everything additive. The company continues to disconnect and cut ties related to social stigma about dance and people with physical disabilities. The latest moves abandon any idea that the 30-year-old organization will operate with “we’ve-always-done-it-this-way” energy.

“We are different people, so obviously he will bring a different vision to the repertory,” said Smith. Smith, having never experienced dance as a person without a physical disability and not a choreographer, said Brew would push the dancers to excel in unprecedented ways. Brew was training at the Australian Ballet School when a car accident changed his life and placed him permanently in a wheelchair. As an internationally recognized choreographer, Brew is known for work that tests physical and expressive boundaries. “The balance of in-house and commissioned works by outside choreographers, composers, and other collaborating artists will be exciting,” said Smith. “The reason I brought Marc in is that I feel he can up the barre that I’ve set.”

Although she used “barre,” the ballet term for the bar dancers use while training, there’s no joke in AXIS’ top-notch reputation and growing prominence. In addition to recognition as pioneers for physically integrated dance, there are strong critical reviews, international tours, invitations to perform and participate in panels and workshops at national conferences, collaborative projects with higher academia research institutions, and more. Brew will be a boon: In addition to choreography for his Glasgow’s Marc Brew Company, he has work in the repertoire of the Scottish Ballet, Ballet Cymru, Candoco Dance Company (U.K.), Touch Compass (N.Z.), Amy Seiwert’s Imagery (U.S.A.), and others.

Brew is stoked about AXIS’ future, but said his eagerness is equaled by appreciation for the company’s history. “For me, Judy is history, background, knowledge—a wonderful resource. She’ll be focusing on advocacy and moving forward in terms of social change relating to perceptions about disability.” Meanwhile, Brew will focus on choreography and commissioning works that raise the company’s profile. “My influence will come from the collaborators I choose who’ll push us to uncomfortable places that I’m not afraid of. I’m raising the quality of the production elements, offering more rigor to our training, and encapsulating more access for audiences.”

The last initiative has Brew and the dancers appearing at more community events—a hoped-for Warriors gig was nixed only due to rules about wheelchairs on the basketball court, but Brew said he’s hoping for appearances at A’s baseball or Sharks hockey games. Conversations with media partners, corporate work partnerships, meetings with Oakland city officials and stakeholders, he said, are ongoing to bring the company more visibility and establish clear and stronger connections to the company’s roots in Oakland. Additionally, increased visits to local schools will achieve his goal to “get at those young minds that are really going to create change.”

If AXIS is to serve not just the dance community but also a larger all-abilities population engaging in any activity, Brew said the company must go on a once-a-month social interaction diet. “A museum free night, a county fair, a college arts festival, any connection we can make to share the work. That’s part of the mandate.”

Board president Jeanie Bunker said Brew’s international experience and exceptional teaching skills are integral in leading the next generation of dancers and choreographers to the highest quality of dance artistry. Bunker expects collaborations that will be “creative, innovative, and rule-breaking” and noted an interest in “top talent [doing] cutting-edge work” motivated the board to select Brew as Smith’s successor.

Bay Area audiences will get a chance to see the action for themselves, when Brew’s first new piece, Radical Impact (the working title), premieres in late October. The work is a collaboration with Oakland’s JooWan Kim’s Hip Hop Orchestra Ensemble Mik Nawooj.

“It speaks volumes about who I am and that I’m here. We’re looking at how we identify. It will be live music. It’s about each one of us, the process of identifying challenges, and what we need to do to break through,” Brew said. The 30th anniversary program includes a restaging of San Francisco choreographer Amy Seiwert’s The Reflective Surface, with an original composition by Darren Johnston.

What won’t change about AXIS under Brew’s artistic leadership is the desire to be bold. “I think I should always be questioning and pushing,” said Brew. “I should not be afraid to take risks, to go with my gut feeling, even though it’s an organization that’s been established and wonderfully run for 30 years.”