It’s not every choreographer who works closely with welders.
But Brian Sanders specializes in the highly imaginative and unexpected with his dance company, JUNK. Part of his magic includes aerial dance on a variety of structures designed for the piece.
Keeping the dancers safe means working with welders and architects, figuring out the physics, and using a lot of padding and rigging.
In April, his company performed racy aerial interludes as the Philadelphia Orchestra played Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. Last month, Sanders was rehearsing his dancers and also building a maze for his latest piece, Skein of Heart, a Philadelphia Fringe Festival show with a hair-metal aesthetic. The piece, opening Thursday in his South Philly studio and performance space at Shiloh Baptist Church, marks the 20th anniversary of Sanders’ first Fringe show.
“We’re not just, you know, buying stuff online,” Sanders said of the apparatuses involved. “We’re really designing new elements and new ideas.”
This is a change from his earlier work, where JUNK referred to using found objects. Now, Sanders said, JUNK is more about the aesthetic, such as dancing amid scaffolding in Skein of Heart, and finding new perspectives in old objects and ideas.
Skein of Heart is about “exorcising our demons inside of us, and the beautiful monster inside the ugly human. It’s our pain and our discomfort that creates our monsters," he said. "Dr. Frankenstein’s monster, you know, it was all about love and loss.”
These themes have been on Sanders’ mind since JUNK’s orchestra performance of Romeo and Juliet - the classic story of love and loss.
While developing this Fringe project, “I started working with hair-band music from the late ’70s and all of these tortured love ballads,” said Sanders, who cut his teeth dancing in another highly imaginative company, Momix. “And not just love ballads but rock ballads, and guitar solos that are really about broken-heart love.”
The title of the piece comes from an image Sanders had of “a skein of barbed wire, and the grizzliness of love ... the idea of trying to navigate all of that, and the the cryptic maze that love is.”
It’s a grungy piece — “that’s just the nature of the music” — and audience members will travel through the labyrinth, solve puzzles along the way, and watch segments of dance.
“They’re moving from choreographic vignette to adventure, and back and forth, and really exploring and finding their own love story inside the skein,” Sanders said.
On a recent visit to JUNK, dancers warmed up in the old second-story sanctuary and then swung from bars in the gymnasium-turned-maze. Two swung together on a chair designed for the show, their long, rock-star hair loose.
Sanders has seen a lot over his 20 years with Fringe. His first show was about 20 minutes long and performed in an Old City parking lot. He applied to participate by writing a single paragraph about his show.
“It was really just a thrill to be a part of it,” said Sanders, who has performed in most Fringes since then.
“I think my first budget was $1,000,” Sanders said. Now his Fringe shows can run from $15,000 or $50,000, depending on the scale of the performance.
As for Skein of Heart, “this one is petite,” he said, but staying true to “what the Fringe is about: trying something new and building new ideas.”
Part of the reason he’s kept it small is that he’ll soon be layering another show on top of Skein of Heart, his Halloween extravaganza, 2nd Sanctuary, also at the Shiloh Baptist space. With a budget of $500,000, 2nd Sanctuary will be a choose-your-own adventure that will include the maze, an escape room, a virtual-reality experience, a Zombie bar, and Dancing Dead, revived from previous years.
At 52, “still bouncing around,” and having fun, but recovering from a bicycle accident, Sanders won’t be dancing in Skein of Heart. But he hasn’t ruled out a later return.
He is no longer taking JUNK on tour, though, since most of his shows require a lot of equipment and specific space requirements.
Instead, he’s getting high-visibility work in Philadelphia and beyond.
Following this year’s Romeo and Juliet, Sanders is in talks with Yannick Nézet-Séguin about a future project. In 2016, he choreographed Chicken Bone Brain, for Pennsylvania Ballet.
Before he came up with Chicken Bone Brain, Sanders had proposed that Pennsylvania Ballet work with fire, which alarmed that company’s director, Angel Corella. Nonplussed, Sanders pivoted and transformed that idea to Momix, where it became the Fire Walker scene in the popular Opus Cactus.
There is lots of dirt in Dancing Dead, Sanders has done several shows about water, and he is always sending his dancers flying.
Fire, earth, water, air.
“I guess I love the elements.”
FRINGE FEST DANCE
Brian Sanders’ JUNK in “Skein of Heart”
Thursday through Sept. 21 at the JUNK performance space, 2nd floor, Shiloh Baptist Church, 2040 Christian St.