A Moving Iconoclast
With his iconoclastic dance company JUNK, Brian Sanders makes provocative work that often pushes at the edges of his audiences’ comfort zones.
Brian Sanders is a celebrated dancer and choreographer and the artistic director of physical dance troupe JUNK.
Sanders grew up in Princeton, NJ. He founded JUNK as Archetype Dance Company in 1992, the year he graduated from University of the Arts in Philadelphia. He renamed his company Brian Sanders’ JUNK in 1997, a reference to his habit of incorporating found objects into his dance pieces. JUNK has produced work for the Philadelphia Fringe Festival for over twenty years and collaborated with the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the National Constitution Center, among other major cultural institutions. The company’s Urban Scuba series toured throughout the United States and internationally.
Outside JUNK, Sanders has choreographed for Eleone Dance Theatre, Koresh Dance Company, Pennsylvania Ballet, and other companies. In the 1990s, he performed and collaborated with revered choreographer Moses Pendleton of MOMIX. In 2006, Sanders’s show NOGRAVITY was performed as part of the Paralympic Winter Games in Turin.
To step into choreographer Brian Sanders’ world is to step into the world of junk. A fantastical place of found objects, where every used and discarded thing and every abandoned idea can be revived and made new again.
Brian Sanders: I find a richer experience in going back and saying, hey, you know, even just with some simple dance move, I could live for just reinventing that anew and breathing new life into it and looking at it from a different angle.
When something simmers in Brian Sanders’ creatively chaotic mind, what can emerge are works that are breathtakingly dangerous and hauntingly beautiful. But Brian Sanders lives in a place of high risk for falls and failures. For him, both body and brain must go through heart-stopping, mind-boggling gymnastics to make such extraordinary work.
Sanders: And it’s always halfway through, why am I doing this? Why am I here? Is this really worth it? It’s overwhelming every time. And I keep saying, “It’s gotta get easier.” It never is.
Even with all his exuberant and mischievous joie de vivre, Sanders is deeply connected to the cycle of life, death, and renewal. He is a man whose own life and body have been broken, mended, and reinvented time and again. Born in 1966, Sanders grew up in Princeton, New Jersey in a house with five siblings. He was the reckless rambunctious one. Gymnastics and classical ballet focused his energy, but when he was 10 years old the innovative choreography of Bob Fosse’s Dancin’ and Moses Pendleton’s Pilobolus captured Sanders imagination and never really let it go. After graduating from The University of The Arts in Philadelphia, Sanders began working for his childhood idol, Moses Pendleton. Pendleton had just launched the dance company Momix, and for Sanders, to dance and choreograph for the legendary director was a dream come true. But the dream was shattered by a nightmare. Sanders’ friends were dying, and it seemed likely that he might too. It was the 1980s and HIV/AIDS was rampaging. He tested positive for the deadly virus, but as a young man in his early twenties, he was unable to face this fact. And so, because he was asymptomatic, he kept dancing and for the next 10 years traveled the world with Momix. In 1992, he was ready to go it alone, so he returned to Philadelphia to start his own company. Brian Sanders’ JUNK.
Sanders: One of the first productions I put together as a whole show was filled with found objects. And it was garment racks and trash cans and stuff. It was cool stuff. I don’t think it was trash necessarily, but it was cool stuff that I had come by and found. And someone else had, discarded it and felt it used up or no good anymore or something like that. And I was able to kind of, breathe some sort of new perspective into all these objects. And so as much as I’m neither here nor there about found object art, I don’t like it to be my motto, I really feel like I’m much more about the idea of not discovering anything new.
One of JUNK’s prized dumpster-diving treasures is the Urban Scuba series. Billed and bragged as bringing new life to the city’s best debris, the shows are quintessentially Sanders: sensual, erotic aerial dance; comedic, often absurd physical feats; and trailblazing, acrobatic dance fusions. Working with Brian Sanders means decoding his brain. It starts with cracking his vernacular, which redefines the very language of dance. He doesn’t call his performers dancers or his work dance, although he will sometimes say the d-word.
Sanders: It has a sort of, I don’t know if it’s stigma, dogma, one of the -mas. And, in that I think a lot of people balk at it. I think I’ve discovered it, of recent, and I might change my mind in the future. That’s my disclaimer. But for now I’m realizing that what I do most importantly with my work is I tell a story, within an entire concert. The entirety of it is much more important to me than each of the little individual gems strung together. So inside of that, I feel like I’m defeating a lot of the people that I could reach by using the d-word because I think that they immediately associate the d-word with the concert form and are not as interested.
And so though his d’s aren’t d-ing, they are highly trained and experienced in the disciplines of dance. They are actors, gymnast, aerialists, athletes and artists of the highest caliber, not to mention that they’re also Brian Sanders’ artistic voice, his collaborators, and his most excellent code breakers.
Sanders: We literally just invent a new vocabulary every year for whatever ideas we have, and study it and practice it. And that becomes our vernacular.
Inventing new venues by re-imagining spaces has also become a common Sanders’ strategy. An underground swimming pool, an abandoned power station, the basement of a warehouse have all been his stages and sets. And to watch his mind at work can be spellbinding.
Sanders: If I’m challenged with it right now, right now I’m pushing, I’m going, “Oh, how do I remake, you know, a little vignette of the pas de bourrée, anew?” And it’s a step that’s been since time began. So, right away, I’m like, well maybe it’s not a dance piece but it’s more of a visual installation where we get to see all the different facets, sides of pas de bourrée even. And so it’s a, glass structure that, an audience member is taken into a glass chamber and then the pas de bourrée is performed on top of them. And so they can see what the actual foot work is and the marks on the glass that it makes or something like that. I’m just, this is me going off, this is how I create.
AJC: That’s a great idea.
Sanders: Okay. So I just say, “All right.”
As his reputation has grown and the Sanders’ has matured, JUNK has evolved to include works that are not only about used objects, but also about commonplace ideas. Funny Bone was about the stupid things that make him laugh, Skein of Heart about love and loss, Second Sanctuary a Halloween pop-up to exorcise demons. Most recently Sanders teamed up with the Philadelphia Orchestra to recreate Rodion Shchedrin’s Carmen Suite, a ballet based on themes from the Bizet opera. And though JUNK and the orchestra had worked together in 2019 for an aerial interpretation of Sergei Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet, this was new territory for all. Participants were required to be socially distanced and wear masks. In the original novella, a mask is actually a plot point in the story. So Sanders incorporated character period masks as part of the costumes.
As Brian Sanders has aged, he has found peace with living with HIV. Lifesaving drugs developed in the early nineties ensured that he could expect to live a full, healthy lifespan. And today he is part of a support group, for people who have survived 30 years or more with HIV. In 2016, Sanders revisited the HIV epidemic of the 1980s through the lens of JUNK. He created Carried Away, a semi-autobiographical account of gay culture during that time. True to form, the show was provocative, beautiful, absurd, and risque. Nudity and sexual content are often part of a Sanders’ show, but it is never gratuitous. And as one critic says, Sanders has the artistic goods and humor to back it up. Unsurprisingly, reactions from the audience are often mixed, but when Sanders hears from unhappy patrons, he’s philosophical about it.
Sanders: I’ve evolved. Definitely. And I used to be fairly concerned with what people were taking away from my work. Then I realized at one point that there was little to no control I had over what people were actually taking away from my work. And the best thing I could be do was to be true to my own kind of imagery and ideas and what I wanted to put together and present, and provide the most ideal and completest experience of that I could, and then from there, it’s really out of my hands and it’s really in the eyes of the beholder. Yeah.
In his late forties, Brian Sanders faced another life altering change. As a dancing choreographer, he had always lived inside a fit, young, athletic body. He reveled in executing the acrobatic stunts, jumps, and movement he required of his performers, and never asked them to do anything that he would not ask of himself. But after enduring three years of pain, Sanders was forced to consult a doctor. He landed in surgery and came out with a hip replacement. He thought the procedure would amount to just a tune-up. Instead, it would end his career as an active performer.
Sanders: Remorse and loss. And yeah, it was really, I became very depressed actually. And it’s been a slow climb, and it’s not been back, it’s been like next door. So I had to kind of move in next door. So I’m kind of happy not to do it anymore. I’ve gotten to that point where I do miss it, but I’m just like it’s better off done by others at this point.
But as long as there are welders, architects, physicists, and plenty of padding and rigging around to keep them safe, there are few feats his JUNK troupe is unable to accomplish. And while Sanders had to give up performing, there are many things that he can still do today.
Sanders: Where I used to feel like it was a place of suffering a little bit, I think as young artists do, you know, suffering, struggling artists, but now it’s really become like a joyful kind of, I’ve accepted it, where I am, and not that it’s gonna be a struggle, but that there’s a beauty and a joy inside of this lifestyle.
AJC: Do you ever experience joy in sitting in the audience and watching your own work?
Sanders: Overwhelming, overwhelming, and it’s, wonderfully twisted and combined with, gosh, I wish I should have. Oh I, oh! Oh yeah.
Brian Sanders’ work is globally influenced and culturally diverse in a technologically advancing world. When audiences see his shows, they are seeing performances that challenge conventions and stir new ways of thinking. But Sanders is not convinced that everything he does is quite so novel.
Sanders: Even with the idea of junk and that I believe that there is nothing new and all we’re really doing is re-exploring and rediscovering the past in a way. It doesn’t get any more traditional than that. It doesn’t get any more classical than that. I mean…
AJC: Will there be a point where you know that you shouldn’t be doing this anymore?
Sanders: Well, I would say, absolutely, I’m certainly going to bow out gracefully, but that… There’s so many inspirational artists I know that haven’t. So I don’t think we have a choice again, you know, there’s part of me that has to do and had to do, and it’s probably gonna get ugly and messy. Like old people get.
AJC: You’re going to bow out disgracefully.
Sanders: Yes, absolutely.