by Lewis J Whittington for The Dance Journal
In April 2019, conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin led the Philadelphia Orchestra musicians in Serge Prokofiev’s searing ballet score for Romeo & Juliet, while the dancer-acrobats from Brian Sanders’ JUNK flew over them in Verizon Hall. Sanders’ thrilling scenes de actione mesmerized the audience with aerial sword fights, acrobatic bawdiness, and romantic lovers’ trysts on the scaffolding 65- feet over the stage.
The production was a rousing success. The Orchestra commissioned Sanders to follow-up with an even more ambitious project slated for December 2020- a surreal fantasia inspired by Tchaikovsky’s ballet score mash-up of Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, and The Nutcracker. Of course, the production was canceled because of the pandemic.
The orchestra went virtual with their Digital Stage series last fall. Concerts are recorded in a now Covid-safe but empty Verizon Hall, with an expanded stage for distancing and musicians in masks.
With the Tchaikovsky project on hold, Sanders and Nézet-Séguin conceived a more manageable production for broadcasts for home audiences. An adaptation of Georges Bizet’s opera score Carmen by Russian composer Rodion Shchedrin as a Suite for a reduced orchestra.
In a Zoom interview earlier this month, Sanders talked about his concept of a Carmen, having mined the original novella for themes that resonated dramatically with the events of the last year.
Brian Sanders and his dog Dave are in his JUNK studio on a cold February morning. Having recently finished the filming of Carmen, he was back working on set pieces for the delayed Tchaikovsky project, now rescheduled for next year.
“Actually, I’m was still working on my fairies, swans, and other characters for the Tchaikovsky trilogy and writing my own fairy tale,” Sanders said. “Everything was on hold, and then in September, the orchestra made the call, and everything was refocused on Carmen.”
Sanders specializes in transforming the most unlikely rooms and buildings into fully immersive environments for his productions. Verizon Hall has proved a challenge for theatrical collaborations, with no stage frame or flies. These were all limitations Sanders overcame for Romeo & Juliet. Now, Verizon Hall has been retooled due to Covid safety measures, presenting new challenges for Sanders and the dancers.
Sanders stated all of these changes had to be factored into his conception of the dance-theater elements, deciding what would be possible at this time. A bunch of things went into it.” Sanders said, “We had to figure out how to stage something that is small, fully orchestral, yet theatrically exciting, and safe?
Even though Shchedrin’s Carmen Suite orchestration doesn’t include the woodwinds or brass, the required musicians “still took a sprawling amount of space,” according to Sanders. The stage is now extended halfway into the concert hall for everyone to be safely distanced and dancers moving around them.
Lights! Camera! Suspend!
“This isn’t really what I do,” Sanders admitted. “I’ve always been reluctant to put my work on video because it doesn’t translate. My stuff is immersive, and you can’t smell the hay on film,” referencing his 2018 production American Standard that took place in a trapeze outfitted barn set.
Sanders recalls the first time he was able to go to a rehearsal. “Hearing the orchestra in the space, being near the music, I completely changed the entire direction of what I wanted to do. I thought maybe I would be filming the company separate from the orchestra and scenes going back and forth from the orchestra and the dancers. But I realized I wanted this 45-minute film to enfold the two into a cohesive story.”
Sanders felt like he was “walking into a new medium” and wanted to work “with a 360-degree aesthetic on film.” He brought in Nick Schwasman as a film assistant for the production to “learn more about telling a story with a lens.”
“Lighting the performance would be completely different on film. There was a lot of detail I wasn’t used to. I had storyboards for each shot,” Sanders admitted with a laugh. “I didn’t know how or if…it was going to turn out.”
The initial discussion with the videographers presented him with even more doubts. “The first thing the filmmakers said to me was ‘tell us where the dance starts and where it ends.” I said, “no, that kind of filming is not what we’re going to do at all.” Further explaining that what he had in mind was not a conventional dance-film shoot. Sanders was so specific that they were completely on board with his concept for the film.
Another snag occurred when after the final tech rehearsal and before the first shoot, there was a Covid scare, and the production had to be canceled for a full month. A new team had to be brought in led by Alexey Alexandrov, owner of the music video production company, REC.TODAY.
The production team had planned to cut the finished film, but Sanders intimated with a laugh that “I wouldn’t let go of not being in on the editing. I made it clear to them that this was not to be a dance on film in a conventional sense.” Sanders explained that he didn’t want “the cinematography to become the choreography.”
Music & masques
Sanders called maestro Yannick “a master storyteller.” He went on to explain that “when I started studying this incredibly moving music, I ignored the Carmen opera scenario, and went back to the novella, to see what inspired Bizet.”
“The music has its own context. The emotion of the story comes through so well—the idea of unattainable love and that intensity. I made my own bizarre dance movie version of the novella. In the novella, the story of Carmen was considered scandalous material about race and gypsies and unattainable love.”
Sanders’ acrobatic choreography is a precise dance vocabulary, not just meant to astound. Carmen’s score has traditional Spanish music, and there is authentic Basque region folk dance built into the movement.
“With the orchestra in facemasks for safety, I thought we would be doing that too, but I didn’t really want to. So I built all of the masks. I created character period masques with designer JoAnne Jacobs…. that are first on the mannequins, and then when you see the dancers, we’re not reminded of Covid.” And in the original novella, Sanders explains a mask is actually a plot point in the original story.”
Sanders created a backstage costume area as part of the story, filled with these mannequins, with very traditional images and expectations of Carmen…. then these mannequins come to life because I could easier conceive aerials and dancers floating around.”
The choreographer noted that his cast of seasoned JUNK dancer-acrobats and newer members of the troupe were ready for anything during the shoot. “I wish I could be like them. They are much more graceful than I am.”
Kelly Trevlyn performs the title role as Carmen opposite Joe Rivera as José, Teddy Fatscher as ‘Lucas, the Picador, and Avi Wolf Borouchoff as ‘Garcia the One-Eyed.’ The ensemble cast includes Jess Adams, Julia Higdon, Laura Jenkins, and Desirée Navall.
Carmen premieres March 4-11 on the Philadelphia Orchestra Digital Stage. For tickets and information visit http://www.philorch.org