Posted by: strugglesome | September 18, 2010

Gimmie Shelter: Brian Sanders’ JUNK’s Sanctuary

Maybe it’s just because of my addiction to BBC television, but when I think of monks I think about Brother Cadfael and 11th century Britain. A cowled and tonsured Derek Jacobi solves mysteries and observes political unrest as Empress Maud and King Steven vie for power, that’s the kind of monastery I’m comfortable with, and, frankly, the one I expect to see. Brian Sanders, it seems, doesn’t share my vision.

However, at the beginning of Sanctuary, Brian Sanders’ JUNK‘s offering for this year’s Philadelphia Live Arts Festival, I could have almost believed he did. A monk sits solitary in a vast space, illuminated by the light of a single candle (and, we must assume, the glory of the lord). Using an outrageously fluffy quill pen (our first clue that this may be, um, less then historically accurate), the monk inscribes weighty words on velum, sage wisdom by Men Without Hats and Cyndi Lauper (…that’s our second clue). His task attended to, our monk reveals himself to be a mohawked fire juggler, who creates spinning halos of light to circle his body. And so begins 50 minutes during which my mouth barely has a chance to close.

My first and only experience with Brian Sanders’ JUNK was last year’s awe-inspiring Urban Scuba. That show (a death-defying assault on the senses in the abandoned Gershwin Y pool), was thematically distinct, but in terms of props, talent, and sheer shock factor, Sanctuary doesn’t feel far off. A dazzling and impressive series of dances performed by a group of ten dancers (and not a weak link among them), this show feels like Cirque du Soliel set in a homosexual bondage club.Dancers roll all over each other, standing on each other’s shoulders, balancing on a large swinging arc, suspended by ropes and chains (and their own considerable strength). Sanders’ choreography plays with contact and collective movement, with repetition and force, his dancers are strong assured movers who send currents through the abandoned-seeming space (another large warehouse at 5th and Fairmount). While the entire performance is insanely impressive, only a few moments stand out as actually touching, as opposed to merely (merely!) astounding. A dance set in the thing rectangular pool that acts as a moat between the audience and the action features two dancers (whose names I would drop if I knew what they were). Meditative, playful, lit beautifully by designer Terry Smith, the two bodies move like Rodin sculptures brought to life, twisting into each other, as sinuous as snakes. This piece of the show is echoed later in a group movement set on top of a large rectangular block, and both moments give a sense of sensuality, contrasting with the far more blatant sexuality exhibited by the rest of the show.

Sanctuary deals with medieval imagery in a distinctly modern way, from a choral concert to monks at prayer, from physical cleansing to self flagellation. The key here seems to be ritual, the way religion saturates with repetition, the ritual nature of all holy tasks. But there is a good deal of playfulness here too, naughty monks sneaking into rooms together between prayers, Duran Duran and Wham! flooding through the speakers, and dances in boxes set up to resemble the display cases used by Dutch brothels to showcase their wares. If monasteries were set up to be places where penitent monks can hide from sin, this particular monastery seems to be a place for monks to actively seek it out (and we get to watch!). But to be fair, at least they are obeying the decree to “Love Thy Neighbor”.

A classic rule of theater is that when you introduce a gun in Act One it had better go off by the end of the play. Sanders seems to play by that rule, but with water. I sat far away from the splash zone, but even I felt the droplets. But considering how amazing this piece is from a physical and visual perspective, I don’t think anyone really minded. I don’t know how much more this piece is then cheeky jokes on the monastery system and really amazingly good dance, but maybe it doesn’t need to be anything else. After all, who has time to think when you are gasping?

This show, like all shows in the Philadelphia Live Arts/Fringe Festival, has finished it’s run. Learn more about Sanders’ work here, and join me in waiting to see what Brian Sanders’ JUNK does next. If I can catch my breath in time, I’m so there.

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