Zombies and “Dancing Dead” Babies at Swarthmore College


By Gregory King, Visiting Assistant Professor of Dance, Swarthmore College for The Dance Journal

The Swarthmore Project was designed to support new works of dance and to help sustain the role of dance in community dialogue. The college offers its dance facilities to two Philadelphia choreographers and their dancers for two weeks each summer for the purpose of creating new material. In addition to studio spaces, the college offers an honorarium for each participant. In exchange, the choreographer and dancers return to Swarthmore, to present an informal performance, which is to include the summer’s work. Recent recipient Brian Sanders upheld his part of the contract when he returned to Swarthmore College on October 8, 2014 to present a suite version of Dancing Dead. Originally presented as a full-length work, Dancing Dead was performed as a site-specific work for the 2011 Philadelphia Fringe Festival.  The Swarthmore audience did not experience the full production but were welcoming of the edited version designed to fit into the Troy Dance Studio housed in the Lang Performing Arts Center.

Sanders’ JUNK (the name of his company) is known for their creativity and effective use of objects that successfully combines dance and physical theatre. He circumvents a classical vocabulary to include a raw amalgamation of gestures and a powerful display of his dancers acrobatic skills. An alumnus of The University of the Arts, Sanders stayed closed to home when looking for dancers.

Trained at Sanders’ alma mater and Point Park University, his six dancers sauntered through the space wearing shredded bits of clothing and ghoul inspired make up as they prepared their bodies for the impending performance. Their interaction gave life (no pun intended) to the island-like structure laid to replicate the morbid, sod filled sub-basement of the well received site-specific work performed for thousands over the past few years. As the audience strolled in, the dancers cricking their joints, stretching their hamstrings, attempting horizontal leaps and cartwheels that attracted their bodies to the floor with an urgency that sprayed discomfort over the awestruck viewers. A show in and of itself, their warm up played out like the previews before a feature film.

Jon Sherman, associate professor of dance performance at Swarthmore College, introduced Brian Sanders who spoke to the audience about his creative process and his slight obsession with “creating sentimental movement for dead people”.

He explained that we were about to see excerpts from a larger work and packaged it as “beautiful ugliness”

The dancers were background to his oration as they lay lifelessly on the padded floor awaiting their cue.

The speech ended and Sanders, who was also working sound that afternoon, started the music.

The dancers still bodies quietly came to life as they permeated the space with choreography designed to illuminate abstractly broken limbs and impassive faces.

With all six dancers slumped over in despondency, the movement in the first section had a weighted quality that brightened Sanders’ intention of allowing the dancers to embrace their relationship to the floor. This group section gave way to a duet that continued the broken, lifeless motif.

What followed was both bizarre and strange in the best possible way; four dancers dancing with puppets made to look like dead babies.

Though the puppets were attached to the limbs of the dancers, they were introduced to the space as their own distinct forms. They were partnered to deliver an air of tenderness, which completely juxtaposed the aggressive nature of being pulled as they basked in Sanders’ peculiar choreography.

The last section was the most physical as it highlighted the dancers capacity to hurl their bodies to the ground without the softness of a cushioned landing. Flips, falls and full contact with the floor are synonymous with the reputation earned by Brian Sanders and he did not disappoint.

I was impressed with the congenial community of male and female dancers and the absence of gender specific movement. Though formulaic and minimal in vocabulary, Sanders’ choreography focused on the narrative. The de-gendered aesthetics of Sanders movements succeeded in conveying his intent and made his choreography extremely accessible.

A quiet collocation of life and death, Sanders created a warped world of zombies and dead babies. He painted on the canvas of contrast and presented a show that allowed the dancers to come to life with the music of John Denver.

Though well received, I could not help but noticed the fact that Dancing Dead had its premiere in 2011. So why were we seeing a piece that had three years of mileage instead of the samplings of his workshop from the choreographic grant?

Did Sanders use the summer residency to rework sections from an already existing piece? Or was there an adjustment to the terms of the grant?

Questioning but not disappointed, the suite version of Dancing Dead provided an impact that peeked my interest in his larger work. Satisfied but not full, I was curious to see what the whole “shebang” of Sanders’ conceptual world of beauty and death had to offer.


About Gregory King

Gregory King received his MFA in Choreographic Practice and Theory from Southern Methodist University. In addition, he is certified in Elementary Labanotation. His dance training began in Washington DC at the Washington Ballet and later at American University. He went on to participate in the Horton Project in conjunction with the Library of Congress. His training continued at the prestigious institutions such as The Dance Theatre of Harlem and The Alvin Ailey School. Gregory has performed with The Washington Ballet, Rebecca Kelly Ballet, Erick Hawkins Dance Company, New York Theatre Ballet, Donald Byrd /The Group, The Metropolitan Opera Ballet, New York City Opera, and Disney’s The Lion King on Broadway.

His desire to integrate social activism into his choreography began with his graduate thesis, where he used the platform to push the conversation about homophobia and heterosexism. He is a lover of movement exploration and describes his aesthetic as a classical base with a theatrical flair.

He has taught at Boston Ballet, Boston Conservatory, Boston University, Bowdoin College, Dallas Black Dance Theatre and Texas Ballet Theatre. Additionally, he has served as a teaching artist in public schools in and around Dallas, as Resident Guest artist at Temple University and Assistant Professor of Dance at Dean College. Recently, Gregory received the Excellence in Teaching Award from the National Society of Leadership and Success. He is currently a Visiting Professor of Dance and Consortium on Faculty Diversity Fellow at Swarthmore College where he teaches Modern and continues to use his choreography as a means for social change.

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