Labyrinth of love

Philly Fringe 2019: Brian Sanders’ JUNK presents ‘Skein of Heart’

2 minute read
Wrestling desires: Briannon Holstein and Thomas Welsh-Huggins. (Photo by Steve Sarafian.)
Wrestling desires: Briannon Holstein and Thomas Welsh-Huggins. (Photo by Steve Sarafian.)

“Labyrinth” is often synonymous with “maze,” but the labyrinth of Greek myth is far more complex. Built by Daedalus to contain a monster, it had elaborate branching patterns. More familiar is the one-way-in, one-way-out design of labyrinths like the Chartres Cathedral’s. Skein of Heart, an immersive, movement-based interdisciplinary performance from Brian Sanders’ JUNK, suggests that love is like both kinds of labyrinth: sometimes a beautiful trap, sometimes an elaborate journey, and always irresistible.

Daredevil strength and grace

Skein of Heart weaves together conflicting emotions, themes, and dynamics related to matters of the heart. It draws upon JUNK’s signature combination of dance with physical theater and company strengths including aerial movement, sensual irreverence, and dancers’ daredevil strength and grace. Skein of Heart is a fitting follow-up to the thwarted passion of JUNK’s Romeo and Juliet, a partnership with the Philadelphia Orchestra last spring, and its erotic duets in the 2018 Come Together Dance Festival.

Cage and crucifixion

To enter Skein of Heart, you must make preparations and take precautions: put on your hard hat, carry a flashlight, and enter a dark, confusing space without a stage or seats or a map. Inside, Katie Cohen, Briannon Holstein, and Thomas Welsh-Huggins strike sexy poses in a giant jungle-gym of a maze.

Holstein and Welsh-Huggins performed a dance of wrestling desires in a square reminiscent of an MMA cage. Holstein stood on her partner’s chest, and then Welsh-Huggins lifted her onto the metal rails in an image of crucifixion. The section ended with a striking, sort-of tango as the duo held each other while stepping forward and backward across their cage’s slim bars.

Through this labyrinth

Next, Holstein climbed onto an overhead platform that concealed a treadmill. It began to speed up as she strode in place, hair flying, bathed in soft neon light, a reverential tribute to Stevie Nicks’s “Stand Back” music video (1983). Holstein broke into a run, racing to keep up, not getting anywhere, yet maintaining her cool. Her impassive expression, a testament to Holstein’s perfect control, banished signs of strain. It also evoked other performances: Nicks’s as a female rocker, the performance of femininity in heteronormative relationships, and the immense effort required to conceal that performance. Another section further complicates gender norms as Welsh-Huggins watched Cohen and Holstein constantly shift positions on a metal contraption that looked part sex swing, part torture device.

JUNK’s use of classic rock aesthetics unifies Skein of Heart and lightens what could have been a ponderous, melancholy, or self-indulgent exploration of the architecture of romantic love. It’s fun to see Def Leppard, Black Sabbath, and the Scorpions songs used this way, and Cohen and Holstein, wearing retro cutoffs and shirred tube tops, channel Tawny Kitaen’s ’80s hair-tossing glory.

You will be unsure how to get through this labyrinth, an experience resembling the fumbling way most of us move through life and love. Skein of Heart keeps beating and you follow along as you can, the flickering strobe lights transforming movement into snapshots of feeling.

What, When, Where

Skein of Heart. By Brian Sanders’ JUNK. Through September 21, 2019, at 2040 Christian Street, Philadelphia. (215) 413-1318 or

Audiences must walk and climb stairs. The performance includes strobe lighting, fog, and music.

Sign up for our newsletter

All of the week's new articles, all in one place. Sign up for the free weekly BSR newsletters, and don't miss a conversation.

Join the Conversation