Happydance trails in JUNK’s….strand…

by Lewis J Whittington for The Dance Journal

Choreographer Brian Sanders’ often constructs special apparatus for his troupe JUNK to perform their special brand of dance-acrobatics on, that have captivated audiences.  Sanders more or less grounds his dancers to natural terrain in the aptly titled ….strand…  It is a 50-minute journey through the Forgotten Bottom trail of the Grays Ferry Crescent on the lush banks of the Schuylkill River with overgrown foliage up against bridge girders and electric towers looming.  The concept might look less daring, but it is just as physically challenging for the troupe.

The dancers appear in various scenes that play out simultaneously and the audience members choose the ‘tour’ they want to go on. There’s ‘Nuclear Romance’ (with scooters) Medieval Revelry (beer & costumes encouraged), Future Fancy (wined & dined by waiters) or Rugged Primal Tour which I picked because my doublet is in the shop for repairs.

As the scenes play out in different areas, the dancers- Regan Jackson, Julia Higdon, Teddy Fatscher, William Robinson, Chelsea Prunty and Kelly Trevlyn- sprint to the various scenes de action.  For audience members, it is catch as catch in terms of piecing together what is going on, and ultimately it doesn’t really matter, this is a happening.

Teddy Fatscher and Julia Higdon make a most spectacular entrance, first glimpsed way off in the distance on a raft crossing the Schuylkill River.  Hidgon is supine on a raft as Fatscher paddles them to a slippery landing spot under an observation bridge.   Both are dressed skimpy loin cloths and Fatscher carries her up a steep bank and hoists her on his head. It may sound simple, but as he walks and circles, with Higdon completely limp, you see how precarious a balancing act it is.  He slinks her around his body and they unfurl on a stone slab on the bank and he manipulates her limbs. She is lifeless and he eventually leaves her there.  The natural sounds of the environs, a branch rattles, birds chirp, yet almost complete silence permeates the arresting scene, leaving us to contemplate the scenario or not.  Echoing faintly in the distance is a steel-guitar blues number.

Meanwhile, there is movement in the distance above as Sanders is as animated as old cartoon character as he squirrels around 50 ft. above precipice on the overhang of the trail’s industrial bridge.

Higdon joins up with William Robinson, who is spectrally dressed in an indigo body glove, and they perform an acrobatic duet on a stone slab with a backdrop of bank bloom, in sculpted bodyscapes that freeze in beautiful cleaved acrobatic position and morph in slow motion.

Further down the path Fatscher sneaks up on Chelsea Prunty, dressed in everyday garb and smoking a cigarette on a park bench.  After a few introductory vaults they stroll away hand in hand.   They end up down the road a piece horsing around on a dilapidated wood stage with Kelly Trevlyn. The two women scale and dangle from the proscenium frame and do a little two-stepping on the roof. Then Fatscher jumps in and they are all switching off for a sloppy lindy-hop with some flips, dives and dips.   A figure in a hazmat suit jogs down the trail pushing an oil tank on a hand-truck that Prunty rides like a mechanical bull. This absurd scene, with a giant electrical tower looming behind them looks right out of a 50s sci-fi movie.

Moments later, Robinson and Fatscher tear up a path to a clearing with trapeze ropes stretched between two trees like gymnast parallel bars. The ropes are moored to have bounce so the dancers can not only execute handstands and leg flare acrobatics, yogic twists and feral dismounts.

In the finale, the different ‘tours’ come together for the finale on the greenest knoll and all of the separate stories converge…sort of, anyway, it was just as much fun not trying to be literal about any storyline.

Sanders sprawled out on a park bench, mocking the goings on, and at one point catching Higdon in a gazelle leap that flattens him. Sanders has some special effects for the finale, as the dancers emerge through the mist, in a goofy but very beautiful effect that seemed timed to catch the light at sunset. Also popping up was Regan Jackson, clad in mylar Olympiad shorts, who had not appeared so far if you were with the Rugged Tour.

Considering what JUNK dancers are used to performing on (or vaulting off),  seems like it would be easy to dance around in a field ala Isadora. But as Dmitri Shostakovich’s waltz macabre fills the air, Sanders choreographs a buoyant finale packed with lifts, leaps, barrel rolls and most impressive were the double tours from a static position, which can’t be a cakewalk, on ground that doesn’t have any bounce.

Designing the music to fade in and out on cue along the long trail was reportedly difficult, but seemed to come off perfectly and as usual, Sanders sound and music designs are transporting.   …strand… is being performed through the entire Fringe Festival in whatever conditions nature brings.

About Lewis J. Whittington

Lewis Whittington is an arts journalist based in Philadelphia. He started writing professionally in the early 90s as a media consultant for an AIDS organizations and then as a theater and dance reviewer for the Philadelphia Gay News. Mr. Whittington has covered dance, theater, opera and classical music for the Philadelphia Inquirer and City Paper.

Mr. Whittington’s arts profiles, features, and stories have appeared in The Advocate, Dance International, Playbill, American Theatre, American Record Guide, The Harvard Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide, EdgeMedia, and Philadelphia Dance Journal. Mr. Whittington has received two NEA awards for journalistic excellence.

In addition to interviews with choreographers, dancers, and artistic directors from every discipline, he has interviewed such music luminaries from Ned Rorem to Eartha Kitt. He has written extensively on gay culture and politics and is most proud of his interviews with such gay rights pioneers as Frank Kameny and Barbara Gittings.

Mr. Whittington has participated on the poetry series Voice in Philadelphia and has written two (unpublished) books of poetry. He is currently finishing Beloved Infidels, a play about the murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh. His editorials on GLBTQ activism, marriage equality, gay culture and social issues have appeared in Philadelphia Inquirer, City Paper, and The Advocate.

View All Posts