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Choreographer Brian Sanders turns pandemic lockdown into a live-action video game

“You’re using props, solving puzzles, and that kind of thing,” Sanders said of "Dragonbutter," which is set to original music by Philadelphia composer Daniel Bacon.

JUNK dancer Jess Adams hangs from the ceiling in Brian Sanders' new piece, "Dragonbutter."
JUNK dancer Jess Adams hangs from the ceiling in Brian Sanders' new piece, "Dragonbutter."Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

During the height of the pandemic, choreographer Brian Sanders had shows canceled and unexpected chunks of time on his hands. He spent much of it playing video games.

But all the gaming gave way to productive work: a new show for his company, JUNK, called Dragonbutter.

“So much of my year-and-a-half was spent on the sofa with these, what I consider to be, magnificent works of art,” Sanders said of the games. “I think they’re just spectacular. And they create these little immersive worlds. I was like, ‘I want to be able to create these live. I have a great time with them on my couch alone, but how can I do this with patrons in an experience?’ "

He thought of his 2019 Halloween extravaganza, 2nd Sanctuary, which included a virtual reality tour, a walk through a labyrinth, and an escape room.

He wanted to go even further with those ideas.

“You’re using props, solving puzzles, and that kind of thing,” he said of Dragonbutter, which is set to original music by Philadelphia composer Daniel Bacon.

2nd Sanctuary was set in a church — and ultimately left him looking for another home. “The program was just too scandalous for them,” he said. “[The church leaders said] we were desecrating a sacred ground.”

Instead, Sanders decided JUNK would take up temporary residence wherever the company wanted to put on a show. This time it has an 8,000-square-foot section of a Spring Garden Street warehouse. Soon to be torn down to make way for condos, the space is divided into many small rooms that once housed offices, storage rooms, and closets.

“The way that they were laid out and connected had this very ‘labyrinthical’ feel,” Sanders said. “Hence, this is a complete inspiration and an homage to video games that are literally labyrinths that we kind of wander through.”

The company moved into the warehouse a few months before the pandemic and Sanders wound up spending long stretches there by himself — a perfect set up for his imagination to run wild.

“I was alone a lot of the time in there, and then I eventually I got brave enough to bring in one performer. I said, ‘Hey, will you come? I’m going nuts, I need to work on stuff.’ We didn’t do any partnering, you know, we were across the room from each other with our aerosol cans of disinfectant trying to make it work.”

The result was a solo at the 2020 Fringe.

For Dragonbutter, he expanded to four performers. To keep it safe, audiences are capped at 12 people.

During a mini-dress rehearsal last week, a dancer dressed as a lab assistant (Mauri Walton) met audience members outside the building to go meet a professor (Kyle Yackoski). But we learned that an emergency had come up, and it would change everything.

So the adventure began.

The professor, it turned out, was a mad scientist, working in a building that had not been open since the ’80s.

“There’s scientists, sort of trying to unlock everything,” Sanders said. “And they discovered this gene splicing that’s been going on, but it’s also splicing fashion genes from the ’80s. So Jordache is spliced with Sasson. And, at the same time, the DNA from all kinds of lizards and newts are spliced together as well.”

Something the professor was working on had gone horribly wrong and it was our job to figure it out.

“I don’t know about in real life if I have a good sense of direction or not,” Sanders said. “But I know that in video games, I’m horrible. So one of the first things you do when you get into the experience … is you get a map. And of course, a bunch of the areas are locked and you haven’t unlocked them yet. And I don’t know where you’re going. But that’s part of it.”

We visited a classroom with worksheets filled with clues, walked through a room where mysterious ooze was pulled out of the walls and a large reptile (Jess Adams) climbed down from the ceiling.

We sat in chairs in a sand-filled room, where a dancer (Adams) hung from the ceiling and sloshed through a river of water in the middle of the room.

And we watched another dancer (Desirée Navall) spin through an apparatus made of hoops.

The goal was to make it past the mysterious dragonbutter — a cross between a dragon and a butterfly — and make it out alive.

The July performances, which are recommended for ages 13 and up, are beta tests for the Fringe Festival, taking place in September and October, where it may be expanded.

So, what’s the intention behind Dragonbutter?

“I always crack myself up because I always make a piece and I never know what it’s about,” Sanders said. “And then I look, I look back, and I get what it’s about, and I go, ‘Oh, that’s about me over the last year and a half being stuck in this giant space.’

“I was literally in this 1980s warehouse saying, ‘What can I do with this space by myself creating this sort of mad scientist, a sort of tinkerer who wants to create and figure out how to fly.”


Brian Sanders’ JUNK in “Dragonbutter”

July 9-25, 200 Spring Garden St., Suite C

Tickets: $50