Dancing autobiography: Accident / a Life with Marc Brew

Words by Gabriel Levine Brislin.

At the height of the covid pandemic, with the possibility of in-person performances a distant uncertainty, Marc Brew and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui spoke over Zoom with the aim of developing a new work together. They ended up sharing a wealth of personal stories, getting to know each other’s backgrounds and influences intimately before they could meet in a studio to start working on any kind of movement. An Accident / a Life, the result of these distanced conversations, premiered at the Holland Dance Festival in February and is travelling to Glasgow’s Tramway for its UK premiere this March. A solo performance in the vein of Brew’s earlier works Remember When and For Now I Am…, an Accident / a Life draws on the Australian dancer, director and choreographer’s personal history, revisiting the car crash that led to a severe spinal cord injury and left him with permanent mobility issues.

Previous autobiographical works have seen Brew devising his own choreography, but for this performance he was keen to collaborate with an external director who might reveal new, unexpected possibilities in his own movement. Brew had known that he had wanted to work with Cherkaoui, a prolific and highly influential choreographer with a range of international accolades under his belt, for many years, and the combination of their experiences led him down routes that he had never considered approaching on his own.

We spoke to Marc Brew about an Accident / a Life, working with Larbi Cherkaoui, and the unique advantages of autobiography in dance.

Gabriel: Marc, your 2015 performance For Now I Am reflected your experience of waking up in hospital after the car crash that led to your disability. That piece focused on the gradual, frustrating rediscovery of movement and the following journey towards acceptance. This new work appears to deal more directly with the accident itself, and features a car from the event as the central visual motif.

How do you now look back on works like For Now I Am in light of the experiences you had devising an Accident / a Life? Did prolonged reflection on the accident lead you to reconsider any of your previous autobiographical performances from a new perspective?

Marc: Remember When, For Now, I am… and an Accident / a Life make up the trilogy of solo works I have made around my life changing due to the circumstances of the accident.

Remember When looked at my past and what I felt I had lost, For Now, I am… was about rediscovering my body and claiming ownership of my body and discovering that through difference there is beauty.

I never thought I would ever make a work with the actual car crash being the starting point but it also looks at life thereafter and the journey one goes on to live a life through change. I honestly never thought anyone would find my story interesting and I didn’t feel my story worthy but Larbi guided and supported me with care to make this work together and to give it the space and time that it needed. I am very grateful for all my team who have helped us realise the vision and bring this work to the stage.  

Gabriel: For an Accident / a Life, Larbi stepped in as a choreographer and director, marking the first time that the two of you have collaborated. The resulting performance seems intensely personal and intimate despite this relatively new working relationship. How did it feel to invite another perspective to develop a dramatised depiction of your own life?

Marc: It was very organic and I felt a real synergy with Larbi straight away. We started by Zoom calls (during Covid) and began by sharing stories of our lives and discovered many similarities in experiences.

Larbi then started interviewing me as a creative tool to learn the text and gestures as the way I would naturally tell my story, which was actually quite hard. These interviews led to building the script for the show and we would experiment together to develop movement language. As time went on my story of the accident became more of the focus and when we came together in person for our first research and development in December 2021 our starting point was the accident and with a car.

Images by Filip Van Roe.

It was great to have another choreographer/director to collaborate with and straight away I knew I wanted to work with Larbi. Having been a fan of his previous works and seeing him perform on stage, I knew he had a great way to deliver a story and I was excited by what our collaboration would bring. I feel very honoured and grateful to have this opportunity to co-create an Accident / a Life with Sidi Larbi. 

Gabriel: Both you and Larbi are interested in the ways movement and dance can communicate personal experiences and tell specific stories. What is it that makes dance a unique medium for autobiography? Do you feel that dance allows for different expressions of autobiographical themes compared to mediums that rely more heavily on text or image?

Marc: I could never have imagined this work could be what it has become. I believe we have created a new piece of art and storytelling through the multiple layers of dance, storytelling, sound, music, live camera feed, visual media projected onto LED screens, captions, audio description and, of course, a car.

Dance expresses and communicates with the body with emotion and we all have a body which is why I feel dance has such a strong connection with people and in telling stories. It doesn’t always have to be literal. We can play with how we deliver a story and its meaning.

The UK premiere of an Accident / a Life is at Tramway, Glasgow, on Friday 22nd of March, 7:30PM, with another performance happening on Saturday 23rd. It will then travel to Switzerland for the Steps Dance Festival in early May, and will return to the UK for performances at the Norwich Theatre Royal on the 24th and 25th of May.