Past event

12 June 2024

Asilo Ciani


The historic Asilo Ciani in Lugano, which dates back to the end of the 19th century and has a 280-square metre patio topped by a pyramidal skylight that allows the space to be flooded with natural light, will be hosting the restitution of a residential workshop conducted by Marc Brew, a Scottish choreographer of Australian origin, one of the pioneers in the field of so-called Mixed Abilities.
Brew’s atelier emphasises accessibility as an aesthetic as well as an architectural principle: an opportunity to reflect on the cardinal principles guiding inclusive architecture across bodies, including interdisciplinary cooperation, safety and the removal of both physical and social barriers.
An internationally renowned disabled choreographer, Brew enjoys bringing people together to create a safe, brave space where people can “take risks”, let go, and be curious. The participants are invited to discover the beauty of difference through movement led exploration, improvisation and creative tasks.




Marc Brew

professional dancers from the workshop

The many faces of Marc Brew
by Katja Vaghi 

The Lugano Dance Project 2024 offers the opportunity for professional dancers with and without disabilities to work with internationally acclaimed disabled dancer and choreographer Marc Brew. I asked Marc Brew to talk about his experiences as a choreographer, dancer, teacher and as himself.

Marc Brew the choreographer

Warm up question: When you choreograph, does the movement come first or the story line?
It depends on the piece, but the majority of my work is abstract. There may be a theme or a concept that I am exploring and then I develop task-based movements and movement material from my body. For example, in the last few years I have been interested in renewable energy, particularly wind turbines. In Scotland, where I live, there is a whole lot of them. So I made a film called Renewable about wind turbines. Last year I also made a piece for the Hessisches Staatsballett which looked at solar, wind and water energy. For that work I looked at the movement of the waves, how the moon affects them, and we started to create movement material based on flow and waves. For my very first children’s production, The Race, the story came first as we worked on combining three of Aesop’s fables. I have a big dream, a wish, but I will tell you about it later. 

You have an expanded experience of movement possibilities that includes embodied memories of your past as a non-disabled dancer and your current abilities, including the use of the wheelchair. How do you help dancers to move beyond the idea of the ideal body, often present in many dance techniques, and explore new movement possibilities?
I have the embodiment of a classical and contemporary dancer. As my body changed, my center of gravity shifted and I had to retrain, not as a dancer — the dance was still in me — but in what I could do with my body and my chair. So I moved to New York City and worked with Infinity Dance Theater. In the beginning, I looked at how I could transpose classical ballet into my body, how I could translate the functionality of the exercises. I really had to think outside the box. How can I do the movement of a plié, the knee-bend, in ballet? I can use my arms and my torso to create a bend. And also how to use the chair to move through space. Dance was no longer about high extensions or turning out, but about being able to express myself through movement.
When I work with non-disabled dancers, I use multiple ways of giving information, universal design: I can demonstrate, use task-based work, or imagery. My disability has reinforced me to invest in my choreographic practice. Restrictions have become a strong theme in my work: how we can create new and interesting possibilities through restrictions. When dancers are confused, I say “let’s try it and see where it takes us, let’s find solutions” that we would not have discovered otherwise. The amount of time people have said to me “no, you cannot do that” I would not be where I am if I had listened to them.

The choice of venue is very important for the performers and the audience you are expecting. What do you consider to be the most important aspects of an accessible and inclusive space? Have you ever been asked for advice on how to make the space more universally accessible?
I have not been asked to be a consultant, but I am often asked for feedback. I hope that by venues having me and my company and the work that we do, they will want to make a change. Hopefully, by having us on their premises, they will learn to be more inclusive. Everyone’s understanding of accessibility is very different and often it is still a non-disabled person who looks at accessibility. I have an access rider that I give to venues. It is similar to a tech rider that you give the venue for your technical requirements but it contains your accessibility needs in the case of physical disabilities, neuro-divergence or learning difficulties. It gives the venue or the presenter or the people booking the knowledge to bring the person into the space.
Often venues have worked with patrons on audience’s accessibility, but not backstage. I have to work with them to find solutions. I have a responsibility for the next generation, so that venues move from temporary solutions to proper investment in backstage accessibility.

Marc Brew the performer

Warm up question: Do you prefer to work site-specific or in a theatre?
I love both. I have done a lot of outdoor work, site-specific work, promenade performance, working in different spaces, also in the theatre, and I love the variety and the difference of what they offer. With site-specific I love that it brings a different audience, people who come across you by chance. I love engaging with people up close. I use props and staging for the possibilities they bring. I enjoy solving problems and exploring an object to its full potential. One of my works, a piece called Nocturne, is made on two large beds on wheels and that are wheeled outdoors. They can come together to form one large bed. One reason I created on beds was that I felt safer and more protected on the bed than on the ground. Once, when I was in Rio de Janeiro working on another piece, I went down to the beach and had the idea to make a piece called (i)land on 6 tons of sand, with objects under the sand that looked like a shipwreck and a rope ladder you could climb up. It was about growing up on an isolated Island and then trying to find ways to escape. I enjoyed it, but physically it was really hard on my body. I did not realize how much intrinsic muscles you use to stabilize your body on sand. I will not be doing another piece on sand any time soon. I like to intrigue people by offering them weird situations they can come across, like beds outdoors or sand.

This also answered my question about proximal space, the space around us that is often taken for granted until it is no longer so because of an impairment, and if you have noticed that your relationship with props and scenography has changed.

Marc Brew the teacher

How do you approach working with people you have just met and whose abilities and limits are not yet clear to you, as in the case of the workshop for the Lugano Dance Project?
Whenever I work with a group, whether it is a ballet company, a group of disabled artists or disabled people who want to explore movement for the first time, or an integrated or inclusive dance project that brings disabled and non-disabled dancers together, I always start in the same way. I have morning and end of day rituals. Every day we do a check-in circle. I ask a different question each day as a way to get to know them and I always ask about their well-being, their energy level, a sort of weather forecast on how they are feeling that day. They can share anything we need to know in order to work with together. So it could be physical, it could be accessibility, it could be emotional if it is impacting the energy level at which they are working. Then I have a clear idea where people are. My process is about getting to know them physically and the choices they make as artists. I do this by giving them different tasks and exercises to help me understand their movement. I will get them to explore their own bodies, their bones, muscles, tissues, structures, comfortable and uncomfortable shapes and form, also in response to different places and locations. They will also become familiar with the location and experience being present in that space. How does it feel? What energy comes from the space? How do you use the space? What are the different ways of using the space? If we have objects: how do you move with this object, what else does it become? How can it be used beyond its traditional use? From there the work grows.

Your pedagogical efforts are also directly involved in the training of teachers: Why should dancers, dance educators, dance institutions and dance educations seriously consider incorporating integrated dance into their practice or programme?
It is about inclusivity and representation. We all have different bodies. We live in a society and a world that are not perfect. It is about doing the right thing. It is about opening the door so that people can have access and information. 
I mean, when disabled people are brought into the dance world, it is more interesting because they are not all the same. Some choreographers may want to have unison, but unison can be done many ways. What is unison? Is it about looking exactly the same or is it about space, time and direction? We do different things, but we are on the same path, in the same direction, as a unit.
We need to have an open dialogue, we need to ask questions — I often say never assume — and then we can find out about the person and what their needs are and how they move. Then we can start to offer new possibilities or ways to challenge them in a safe way for improvement.
I have a responsibility as a disabled artist through my work to create change for the next generation and also to create opportunities for them to access dance and dance opportunities. Other dance organizations, companies and the world of dance education also have this responsibility.

I imagine that not all spaces are conducive to successful teaching. What role does the space in which you teach/rehearse play?
I want to create an environment that is accessible and inclusive so that people feel welcome. A lot of it is about looking at what the barriers are and finding solutions to those barriers and then giving people the space they need within a class. You have to be aware that traditional classes are not always the best structure. For example, people need space to share what their needs are. You need to have alternative ways of delivering information in class. Traditionally dance teachers just teach with their bodies and the dancers copy. I do that too, but as part of the multiple layers of the 'Marc-Brew principles' of inclusive teaching, which uses images, description, demonstration, music and sound to deliver the information, through accessible language. Often disabled people want to learn ballet or techniques like those of Martha Graham. I always look at the intention behind a movement and how to find it in the body. So if I am doing a demi-plié, a half knee bend, it is about finding that level of bend in the body.

Marc Brew as Marc Brew

What is your current endeavor and what do you wish for?
I said I would come back to it: I wish to make a ballet, a narrative ballet. I am putting it out there. 
The second wish is related to my teaching. I have just been teaching in an inclusive dance programme in Cork, Ireland. Everything I teach is about being more inclusive and opening up minds and bodies to the possibilities of exploring dance in different ways. I wish for people to find joy in dance. You do not have to strive to be a professional to enjoy dance and the benefits of dance for wellbeing. 
I also try to bring back the joy in the discipline of dance back. Dance is hard work and discipline but we often forget it can be fun and enjoyable. My job is my passion and I find hard when I meet people with a negative attitude and a narrow view of what dance can be. Through my work I try to change that. This change can come from individuals like me, but also from institutions. But they have to be invested in it.

Going beyond the notion of accessibility: if there was one architectural aspect in your personal life that you could change, what would that be?
As disabled people, we are naturally creative in finding solutions — we have to be everyday — especially when it comes to accessibility and architecture. If we were told there was no ramp, we would think of ways to create one or other ways to get or be where we need to be.
I am a parent now. It is my first time as a parent. I cannot lift like I used to. I cannot put my baby in the crib because cribs are not made with accessibility in mind. So I had to be creative: we put the crib on stilts and we cut the frame and put hinges on it so I could lift the frame. I had to think creatively about what my needs were and how I could meet them to have independence.