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It's no surprise that yet another Utah dancer is making his national debut tonight on the Fox channel's dance competition show "So You Think You Can Dance" (7 p.m., Fox/Channel 13). The show has featured an impressive list of dancers from the Beehive state over the years, most recently Lindsay Arnold and Witney Carson making it into the top 10, with Carson remaining in tonight's competition as one of the top five finalists.
But what makes the Wednesday, Sept. 5 guest appearance by Utah dancer Joel Brown unique is that he's paralyzed from his mid-chest down.
Brown grew up in Magna, and recently became a member of the Oakland, Calif.-based AXIS Dance Company, an ensemble of performers with and without disabilities. Tonight, he and fellow company member Sebastian Grub will perform a duet choreographed by Grub, a full-ability dancer. AXIS was founded in 1987, and champions the contemporary dance form of "physically integrated dance."
"We just returned from a tour of Russia," Brown said in a phone interview from the AXIS rehearsal studios in Oakland. "The audiences and media there loved us, and not because it's cute, but because we're doing awesome art."
Brown comes from a Mormon family of seven athletic and artistically talented children. Joel credits his oldest brother, Graham, with constantly refocusing him on dance. Graham received his degree from the University of Utah's Department of Modern Dance and is finishing his masters in dance at the University of Maryland. Graham's wife, Erin Lehua Brown, danced with Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company from 2006 to 2010.
Joel and Graham Brown have a close brotherly relationship. It includes coming to terms with the fact that Graham was driving the car in 1998, packed with siblings, returning from a fun day at Utah Lake, when the accident occurred that would change their lives forever.
Joel Brown, then 9 years old, had just auditioned and been accepted to Utah's Children's Dance Theater the month before. And although Joel says he was more interested in sports than dance, his spinal cord injury at the T2 level appeared to put an end to both. Joel studied vocal performance and jazz guitar at the University of Utah from 2008-2011. In 2011, he released his first music album, "In Retrospect," under Utah's Spy Hop Productions record label.
Throughout the years, Graham kept pushing Joel back towards dance. In 2004 when Joel was 14, Graham choreographed a duet for the brothers, "I've Had It Up To Here," for his college senior thesis. The piece explored Joel's "fascinating movement vocabulary," Graham Brown said, "and the intersection of our abilities' in motion together." It also confronts the accident through Graham's written text and Joel's original musical compositions.
Graham Brown already decided to revive and expand the piece, re-titling it "The Better Half," as part of his master's thesis, set for completion in spring 2013. So last summer, when Graham was in Utah teaching a summer dance workshop at Brigham Young University, the brothers seized their mutual time together in Utah to rehearse. But it was a showing of the piece a few months earlier that would impact Joel's life as a dancer in ways he'd never imagined.
"We hadn't done the piece since I was 14," Joel said. "But in 2011, Graham received a commission from the Dance Exchange and a grant from the Met Life foundation for us to perform the piece in Maryland in February 2012. A member of Friends of AXIS was in the audience and put me in contact with artistic director Judith Smith."
After two auditions, and some intensive rehearsal time with AXIS, Joel was asked to perform the duet he'll be performing tonight with Grub, for the Dizzy Feet Foundation. Dizzy Feet is a nonprofit co-founded in 2009 by Nigel Lythgoe, president executive producer of "American Idol," co-creator and executive producer, and judge on "So You Think You Can Dance." The foundation's mission is to increase access to quality dance and education in the United States through scholarships and developing programs in under-served communities.
AXIS performed on "SYTYCD" two years ago, and were invited back after the company performed "Narrowing," at the Dizzy Feet Foundation fundraiser.
"I'm trying not to think about it too much," Joel Brown said. "It is such an amazing opportunity to be on national television, on "SYTYCD," that I'm afraid if I think too much, it'll get in the way of my performance."
Joel said he hopes he and Graham will dance together again someday, saying "we have a lot more to do together a lot more to say."
On the AXIS of 'physically integrated dance'
Utah dancer Joel Brown, a University of Utah graduate and recent Spy Hop-produced musician who is paralyzed from the mid-chest down, will perform with Oakland's AXIS Dance Company on "So You Think You Can Dance," which airs Wednesday, Sept. 9 at 7 p.m. on Fox/Channel 13.