Good things have a way of coming to an end, and such is the case with Marc Brew’s artistic leadership of AXIS Dance Company, the pioneering physically integrated company in Oakland, California. Five years after taking the helm from founding member Judith Smith, and leading the company into exciting new creative territory, Brew will return to Glasgow, his longtime home base. The incoming director is the choreographer and former AXIS dancer Nadia Adame.
Fittingly, Brew touches on themes of home and belonging in his farewell work, Roots Above Ground. Premiered live at San Francisco’s Z Space in October, Roots received a digital premiere in December via New York’s Joyce Theater Foundation. In a bittersweet denouement, Brew’s last piece for AXIS is arguably his best, and one of the finest works in the company repertoire.
Though filmed during the live shows in San Francisco, the digital Roots is a dance film rather than a performance capture. Establishing shots, closeups, and handheld camerawork play as big a role as designer Emma Kingsbury’s sand-strewn stage, billowy tunic costumes, and monolithic slate-table set pieces. Miles Lassi’s score of voiceovers, nature sounds, and melodic electronica melds with Walter Holden’s lighting and Jaco Strydom’s projections of meandering roots, blowing sands, rippling water, and twinkling stars.
Brew’s collaborative approach shows in contemporary choreography that is unified across the six-dancer ensemble yet infused with each artist’s individuality. Roots opens with the dancers introducing themselves and describing their appearance, identity, and pronouns, and what could be dull exposition turns out to be intriguing – rarely are dancers treated as more than conduits for a choreographer’s vision, and in Roots you engage with real people as well as with choreographic ideas.
The company has never danced better: Yuko Monden Juma’s brilliant articulation mirrors DeMarco Sleeper’s sinuous upper body in their compelling duet, and her voiceover about occupying a liminal space between America and her native Japan is literal without being on the nose. (The monologues are accompanied by supertitles and ASL signing by the dancers or by Antoine Hunter and Zahna Simon.) JanpiStar flicks a tiered skirt during their mesmerizing solo to Caribbean-inspired drumming, and the ever-daring Sonsherée Giles scales the long side of an upturned table. Erik Debono and Louisa Mann are blessed with soaring extensions as well as the ability to modulate and match Giles and Monden Juma in a suite of parallel duets.
In his own performance career, Brew pushes the envelope far more than he has in any of his previous works for AXIS; his personal solos can be viewed as striking works of postmodern art or as stories that are nonlinear yet also redolent of the blood, breath, sweat, and tears of human experience. He brought those elements more fully together in Roots, and the memory of it will linger long after his departure.