If you've been a regular at the annual Live Arts Festival/Philly Fringe or Shut Up and Dance performances, you probably have been mesmerized by dancers hanging from fences, flipping their bodies in the air like trapeze artists, cocooned in plastic beneath the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, or costumed like liquid robots. This inventive choreography, in such pieces as The Gate, Flushdance, AdShock, Sanctuary, Urban Scuba, and Patio Plastico, is all the work of Brian Sanders, spectacle-creator, repurposer of found objects, and dance-hijinks master.
In the last two decades, Sanders, 44, has become one of Philadelphia's most enduring and beloved dance-makers. His prolific, daring, and mischievously fun-loving work has endeared him to audiences far and wide, and to the local dance community. Dancers with gymnastic backgrounds or aspirations vie to work with him; other companies commission his choreography; critics fight to review his pieces.
Now, Sanders and his company, JUNK, in typical disregard of convention, are presenting an "18¾ Anniversary Season" through Sunday at the Arts Bank, featuring a work from each of their 18 years since 1992.
Sanders' unflagging ebullience belies the fact that he has been living with the knowledge that he is HIV positive since 1988. His first years after the diagnosis were less than lighthearted, as he sorted through all that it meant.
As a boy growing up in Princeton, he had studied gymnastics with his two brothers, and later ballet and modern dance, continuing his studies at what is now the University of the Arts. After his diagnosis, he left school to travel for a while, but eventually returned and earned a bachelor of fine arts degree; he now is a faculty member there.
In 1992, the 25-year-old Sanders formed Archetype Dance Company (later renamed JUNK, for its extraordinary ability to find inspiration in debris and discards) and within two years had presented two warmly reviewed concerts. In one of them, he mocked drawing his own blood with a yard-long syringe, using typically exaggerated props in a witty commentary on the daily trials of living with the virus.
Interviewed at the Arts Bank during a break in a recent JUNK rehearsal, he said he has psychologically and artistically worked through the impact of the disease, and "my main health issue now is getting older, dealing with things like high cholesterol and arthritis."
He lives with his partner, dancer John Luna, in South Philadelphia, where they are rehabbing a house they've stripped down to the studs. They are self-taught handymen, he says: "Everything we've done we've learned from the web. It's digital DIY."
Any trampolines, trapezes, or other contraptions left over from his shows in the house? "No, nothing like that," he says. "I'm trying to be very, um, traditional."
On the other hand, he adds, pointing to the six doors his dancers have just used in dangerous-looking stunts, "those are just cheap Home Depot doors, but I may use one of them in the house. We do sneak in a kind of little mascot from some shows - a cinderblock for a plant stand or doorstop, stuff like that."
Both for work and for recreation, he listens to music constantly, and for fun he is an avid and formidable Scrabble player - challenge him on Facebook if you dare. "I'm a bad speller," he says, "but Scrabble is very creative. You have to know a lot of little words."
Sanders says the retrospective show will be highlighted by a post-performance gala Saturday night. It will feature cocktails, entertainment, a silent auction, and appropriate "haute cuisine junk food," he laughs, "like sliders on a stick."
That's the perfect image for a company whose dancers precariously slither and slide around scaffolding, ladders, and poles, and otherwise ingeniously repurpose all sorts of street detritus. In one work, designer Pedro Silva turned a wrecked car on its roof. In another, trash bags became extremely convincing sharks.
There was Flushdance, in which Sanders dunked his head in a toilet, flipping the spray from his hair on the audience while dancing to "What a Feeling." There was the slip 'n' slide, tire-tube tutus, bungees, and AstroTurf from his Fellini-esque Patio Plastico.
But his work isn't just fun and games; there is always meaning and often mystery in it. Sanders was a member of Moses Pendleton's masterly dance/theater troupe Momix in the 1990s, and Pendleton still programs Underwater Study #5, created for him by Sanders during that period. The illusion of a breast-stroking swimmer equals David Parson's strobe-light feat, Caught, in its stage trickery.
Companies like Momix and STREB, and before them Alwin Nikolais, Sanders says, "use inanimate objects, and it can be dehumanizing." For his part, Sanders creates beautiful, moving, and ironic works, always painting them with emotion.
Of the anniversary weekend, he says, "The show opens with my first piece about being HIV positive, Tainted, and moves forward in time to the present." It will include a preview of Dancing Dead, premiering at the 2011 Live Arts Festival.
Also on the program is The Grid, a work of protean properties first danced by Sanders and later by Michael Patterson and by Luna, who will perform it this weekend. Its focus is a flat, iron lattice made up of 16 twelve-inch squares, suspended by one corner. Each dancer I've seen perform this piece has brought his own interpretation to it, yet within a very precise choreography. They evoked images of heroic or mythic figures ranging from Atlas to Spiderman, and even suggested religious images of the Crucifixion and the Pieta.
Sanders says he goes back to his youthful play for inspiration, "kind of like Jung digging in his garden to get back to his essential being." He titled his first public presentation at the Trocadero in 1992 Still Birth Debut.