Decomposition composition

Brian Sanders JUNK presents Dancing Dead IPX

3 minute read
Spirits — and zombies — soar at Sanders's immersive 'Dancing Dead IPX.' (Photo courtesy of Brian Sanders JUNK.)
Spirits — and zombies — soar at Sanders's immersive 'Dancing Dead IPX.' (Photo courtesy of Brian Sanders JUNK.)

Site and subject make a happy match in Brian Sanders JUNK’s Dancing Dead IPX, now running at South Philadelphia’s Shiloh Baptist Church. Decrepit architecture appeals to our sense of romance in a way that decrepit bodies do not. Ruined or abandoned spaces, especially those once reserved for exalted purposes, conjure nostalgia, mystery, awe. Aged or otherwise wasted bodies, by contrast, call to mind our finitude and fragility, and they are nowhere to be seen in Sanders’s latest.

Instead, he engages with the themes of grief and deterioration using his troupe of vigorous young dancers, letting the stunning 19th-century space take care of lending crepuscular ambiance. The difference between the robust health of the performers and the reliquary quality of their environment is just one of many eerie contrasts this diverting and inventive production offers. It is probably safe to say it would only ever occur to Sanders to pair airborne zombies with Barbra Streisand.

It's alive!

Dancing Dead IPX is a revival in more ways than one. Dancing Dead premiered at a different venue as part of the 2011 Philadelphia Fringe Festival. “IPX” stands for “Immersive Performance Experience,” and indeed, this version travels through various spaces in the church, beginning in a dining hall, where dancers emerge abruptly from the relaxed preshow audience — an inviting, inclusive introduction.

They open the performance by mounting long, communal tables where spectators are seated and undertaking an energetic sequence of complicated lifts, feats made all the more impressive by their close proximity to the audience. Tightly gripped hands bearing the weight of tense flesh deliver us firmly into the realm of the corporeal even as the sacred site pulls our attention toward the spiritual.

Next, the audience is shepherded into a larger space rigged with scaffolding and semi-transparent plastic sheeting arranged in a circular configuration. In the center of the room, a mad-scientist type cavorts with pieces of detritus (the namesake of Sanders’s company, JUNK). That our view of his strange doings is intentionally obstructed enhances the spooky sensation that the audience is spying on some sort of private rite.

The Shiloh Baptist Church proves a stunning backdrop for Sanders's pairing of decay with strength. (Photo courtesy of Brian Sanders JUNK.)
The Shiloh Baptist Church proves a stunning backdrop for Sanders's pairing of decay with strength. (Photo courtesy of Brian Sanders JUNK.)

The piece’s final and most elaborate segment takes place under the high, vaulted ceiling of Shiloh’s former Sunday-school room, leaving plenty of space for the dirt-smeared, zombified dancers to take to the air. Suspended above the audience by ropes or cantilevering themselves out from elevated platforms, the company’s aerial antics are truly death-defying.

Past lives

Real (and fragrant) turf covers the floor, but it wouldn’t do much to break a fall. Sanders cycles around the periphery of the space, functioning as a kind of cemetery caretaker, communing with a human skeleton and unearthing a live dancer from a mound of soil.

But despite the embarrassment of visual riches, Dancing Dead IPX’s soundtrack curiously becomes the real star. Sanders scored the piece with the finest pop schmaltz of the 1970s. This gives the audience an opportunity to consider the lyrics of songs like Linda Ronstadt’s ballad of unrequited love “Long, Long Time,” at greater length than is perhaps warranted, but this music will carry existing associations for most spectators and serves Sanders well. Some may find themselves recalling what they felt as teenagers spurned by a crush; some may be reminded of more enduring losses. As apparently silly as the prompts may be, the feelings that involuntarily come flooding back are real.

If the experience is a bit too artfully devised to succeed as camp, it pulls similar emotional levers. Dancing Dead IPX somehow manages to be jubilantly mournful. This may be what dance does best: celebrating the awesome power of the human body while simultaneously reveling in its ephemerality.

What, When, Where

Dancing Dead IPX. Choreographed by Brian Sanders. Brian Sanders JUNK. Through June 2, 2018, at the Shiloh Baptist Church, 2040 Christian Street, Philadelphia.

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