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.
- [Jim] 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
every abandoned idea can be revived and made new again.
- 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.
I knew and breathing new life
into it and looking at it from a different angle.
- [Jim] 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.
- 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.
- [Jim] Even with all his exuberant and mischievous
Schwab Vive, 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 in classical ballet focused his energy.
But when he was 10 years old
the innovative choreography of Bob Fosse dancing
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 child 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 over 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.
- 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.
- [Jim] One of Junks prized
dumpster diving treasures is the Urban Scuba series.
The (indistinct) is 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.
- It has a sort of I don't know if it's stigma,
dogma, one of the MA's.
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.
- [Jim] And so though his DS aren't Diying,
they are highly trained
and experienced in the disciplines of dance.
They are actors, gymnast, areolas, 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.
- We literally just invent a new vocabulary every year
for whatever ideas we have,
and study it and practice it.
And that becomes our vernaculars.
- [Jim] 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 of all been his stages and sets.
And to watch his mind at work can be spellbinding.
- 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 Potter Baret,
And it's a step that's been since time began.
So I 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 facilities
sides of Potter Baret even.
And so it's a, glass structure that are not, you know
an audience member is taken into a glass chamber
and then the Potter Baret 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.
- Its a great idea.
So I just say, "All right right love it."
- [Jim] 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,
"Skiing Of Heart" about love and loss,
"Second Sanctuary" a Halloween pop-up to exercise demons.
Most recently Sanders teamed up
with the Philadelphia orchestra to recreate
Rodion Shchedrin "Carmen Suite", a ballet based on themes
from the BSA opera, and though junk in the orchestra
worked together in 2019 for an area of interpretation
of surrogate per capias, 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 is 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 has never gret shooters.
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.
- 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 when I wanted to put together
and present and provide the most ideal
and completist 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.
- [Jim] 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.
I 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.
- 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 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.
- [Jim] But as long as there are
welders architects, physicists
and plenty of padding and rigging around to keep them safe
there are a few, his juncture is unable to accomplish.
And while Sanders had to give up performing
there are many things that he can still do today.
- 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 rather
and 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.
- Do you ever experience joy in sitting
in the audience and watching your own work.
- Overwhelming, overwhelming, and it's, wonderfully twisted
and combined with, gosh, I wish I should have.
Oh I, oh!
- [Jim] 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 stern, new ways of thinking.
But Sanders is not convinced
that everything he does is quite so novel.
- 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.
- Will it be to a point where you know
that you shouldn't be doing this anymore.
- Well, I would say, absolutely,
but I'm certainly going to bow out gracefully,
There's so many inspirational artists.
I know that I haven't.
So I don't think we have a choice again,
you know, there's part of me that has to do and asked to do
and it's probably gonna get ugly and messy.
Like old people get.
- Thinking about disgrace.
- Yes, absolutely.
- [Announcer] Articulate with Jim Cotter,
is made possible with generous funding
from the Neubauer Family foundation.