Family Portraits: Brian Sanders

Create: to cause to come into being, as something unique that would not naturally evolve or that is not made by ordinary processes.

That pretty much sums up the work of Brian Sanders, the innovative dancer and choreographer who will present his newest show, “Sanctuary,” at the Live Arts Festival, which starts Sept. 3 here in our fair city. One of my favorite artists, I have seen Sanders swinging through a cavernous garage, scaling a giant scaffold beneath the Ben Franklin bridge and dancing with a toilet. The man has a way with staging. PGN interrupted his set building and costume sewing to learn a little about him and his creative process.

PGN: Tell me about growing up. BS: I have two older brothers, one younger sister and two younger half-sisters.

PGN: I have one older brother and that was enough for me … BS: Yeah, having two older brothers was tough. They were always a little bit older, a little bit wiser, a little bit stronger. It probably didn’t seem competitive to them but, to me, I was always vying to be able to do the things that they could. I’m still competitive with them today. I definitely got along better with my younger sister; we’re still very close.

PGN: Where did you grow up? BS: I was born in the Princeton, N.J., area and spent most of my formative years there, moving around. My parents divorced when I was 7 and it was very contentious, so I bounced back and forth between the two. We were used as pawns and it got ugly, we were in the middle of a tug of war — sometimes literally — and it was pretty unpleasant.

PGN: What’s a good childhood memory? BS: Wow, it’s hard to think of one. So many bad ones jump forth. Isn’t it a shame that those are the ones that stick with you? I guess fishing with my brothers at Stony Brook Creek from this great swinging bridge in the back woods of Princeton.

PGN: Favorite toy? BS: I used to have a little 45 case that I would carry around. No turntable, just the case — it was a little treasure chest for my things. I still have an affinity for cases today: I like old and unique ones. There’s one right next to you that I use as my sewing kit. [It’s an old leather case with large straps.] It’s amazing, it has so much character, I’ve even used it in one of my dance pieces.

PGN: Who was a favorite teacher/class? BS: In school, I wanted to sing though I didn’t know whether I could or not … still don’t. But I decided to join the chorus and the teacher was really fun to work with. Sadly, she was shot to death at gunpoint in the parking lot of the school. It was crazy. I later went to the High School for Creative and Performing Arts here in Philadelphia and got into dance. My favorite class was ballet.

PGN: How did you get into dance? BS: Seeing Broadway shows like Bob Fosse’s “Dancin’” and Pilobolus with my mother. They were magical.

PGN: What was the reaction when you said that you wanted to be a dancer? BS: They were supportive of it, then I went through a rebellious stage and got kicked out of high school. I was told if I wanted to continue with dance, I would have to get to and pay for classes myself so I gave it up for a while. I was living with my dad and, at 16, I’d become a burned-out teenager.

PGN: What was your craziest stunt? BS: When I was 20, I was in Hollywood partying and trying to be famous and I found out that I had HIV. At the time the prognosis was not good and it was a real wake-up call for me. I decided to refocus and go back to college. I got back into dancing again.

PGN: Where did you go to school? BS: I went to the University of the Arts back here in Philly. Which is kind of funny, because it’s associated with the High School for Creative and Performing Arts, the school I was expelled from. I was kicked out for smoking pot and stealing. When I went back, I really applied myself and excelled — and now I teach there.

PGN: What did you steal? BS: An intercom system. At the time, I didn’t think of it so much as stealing as being creative. I confused that sort of thing a lot. After getting back on solid ground with the dancing, I had another wild spurt and danced all over the world with Momix, having a glamorous and zany time until I started feeling that I needed to get back to myself. That life can really take over and send you in the wrong direction. It took a great effort to get back to reality, so to speak. I’ve now been clean and sober for 14 years. I almost feel like I started anew. I’ve always had an abundance of creativity and passion for dance and now I’ve been able to focus on it.

PGN: What’s a favorite event? BS: I choreographed a piece in Milan, Italy, and ended up staying there for six months. I just loved the country and the people I worked with there.

PGN: When did you start your own company? BS: I’ve had several starts: Right after college, I started my first company and did my first show at the Trocadero on Arch Street. I used a lot of peers from college, a number of whom have gone on to be successful dancers and choreographers on their own. After that is when I toured with Momix and I came back and worked a few years with Archetype, which was reestablished as Junk in 1997.

PGN: How would you describe modern dance to someone unfamiliar with the art? BS: I don’t know, my work is modern-based, but it also has classical elements as well as athletics and gymnastics — I’m all over the board. I love everything, that’s the problem. I can’t commit! In this show, there’s a lot of aerial work with giant props. I like a kind of corporeal eroticism but not in an excessive way, more in an incidental way. I think dance is so much about the beauty of the human body and I like to play with that.

PGN: I did a kids’ show and we had to come up with games for five shows a week. After a while, I’d look at saltshakers and think, maybe this could be used for a game. You use a lot of unique staging: Do you find yourself doing the same for inspiration? BS: Definitely, every moment is a resource. I’m very visually stimulated by other art: It could be a window display or a science exhibit or a painting. There was a contemporary exhibit at the art museum with a giant table full of potatoes with electrodes running through the potatoes. It was an amazing image.

PGN: One thing I like about your work is that you have a bit of a twisted brain and a sense of humor, a combination I enjoy. BS: [Laughs.] It’s funny: I don’t know how twisted I am sometimes until I see people’s reactions. I think it’s normal. In this new piece, we’re walking around with cinderblocks on our heads and it seemed like a perfectly reasonable thing to do until my dancers said, “Oh my God, you want us to do what?” and I realized other people don’t usually see a cinder block and think, I’ll put that on my head!

PGN: If you could do a pas de deux with anyone, who would you choose? BS: Charlie Chaplin. Or maybe Lucille Ball.

PGN: You and Charlie Chaplin would be awesome. What was the best thing about coming out and what was the scariest? BS: It’s funny you should ask: This piece is a little bit about the experience of going into a gay bar for the first time. It was the first place I went to where I felt like I was among people who were the same as me. I’d never been immersed in gay culture before, so it was a euphoric feeling that I had found a safe place, a sanctuary, a place where I could be myself. It was an amazing part of coming out. The hard part was my parents and myself. I wrestled a lot as to whether it was right for me, if it was true. Part of my fear was of not having a family, which at the time was not so much an option, and the difficulties of wanting to be accepted by society.

PGN: I think it’s interesting to hear that someone so rebellious was afraid to be different. You generally think of people in the arts as being flamboyant and fearless. There are probably a lot of kids who will read this who might identify with your struggle.

BS: I came out and celebrated for a while and then thought, my God, this is really hard, and went backward. I was thrown by a lot of the reactions from society. Even just walking down the street and hearing someone yell “faggot.” They probably did that to any male walking alone, but for an 18-year-old boy just coming out, it really hurt. I didn’t know if I wanted to live like that.

PGN: I understand that you’re very open about your HIV status. BS: Yes, I’ve been HIV-positive for a number of years.

PGN: I was told that you’re a great role model because of having HIV and yet being strong and “healthy,” still doing strenuous dancing, but my thought is that it’s a Catch-22, because you don’t want young men to think, Oh, I don’t need to be safe, look at him, he’s doing great! BS: It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever dealt with in my life. Beyond the physical, it’s the most twisted, difficult psychological journey I’ve ever faced. The physical effects have been minimal, mostly from the long-term HIV and the side effects from the meds I have to take. Like lipodystrophy, which is when the drugs move the fat around in your face and body. Some people lose weight in their faces, some have the fat repositioned. If that’s what you’re looking to bring on, be aware. Part of my living with HIV was denial. Thinking I had 10 years to live, which was the prognosis, I spent the first seven waiting for the end. Then when I survived that long and nothing happened, I had a big celebration and partied for three years. Fortunately, I’m still here. I’m very lucky. But it’s terrifying.

PGN: My father was diagnosed with post-polio syndrome and we got great Christmas presents for a few years until he realized that it wasn’t going to be fatal for him. It’s now been 30 years and he’s still kicking. BS: My father was very supportive, he was the one who encouraged me to get tested to see if I was HIV-positive and then really bestowed as much comfort as he could because we thought I wasn’t going to be around for long. He’s still very supportive today: He’s my No. 1 fan.

PGN: Any pets? BS: My partner John wants a cat and I want a dog, but we’ve made a promise that we won’t get anything until we finish remodeling the upstairs of our house.

PGN: What’s John like? BS: John’s a big sweetheart … He puts up with me! This is the first serious functional relationship I’ve had, and it’s nice. It’s been about three years, and we recently turned to each other and said, “You know, I really still like you and want to be with you.” He’s one of the dancers in the company.

PGN: If you could change anything about yourself, what would it be? BS: Don’t get me wrong, I love every little part of me, but at 5-foot-4, I might want to be a little taller. I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with my height. It’s been a squat 43 years.

PGN: What do you do outside of dance? BS: Anything creative or with my hands. We’re remodeling the house right now and I like working with the tools. I also enjoy physical activities like jogging, Rollerblading, biking, skiing, horseback riding, etc., though I was never into team sports. I just started learning to snowboard, which is fun, but hurts when you’re a 43-year-old beginner.

PGN: A crazy dancing incident? BS: Thank goodness, with all the wild stunts that we do, we haven’t had any major incidents. But I have a dancer who always seems to have these comedic errors. One time she was wearing stilts and she fell. It was horrible and she got hurt, but it was funny at the same time. I was trying to help her and she was stumbling all around trying to get her balance. When someone falls in stilts, it’s not glamorous and it’s not quick: It kind of happens in slow motion. You’re running after them as they slowly plummet. And she’s a squealer too, so whenever she got in trouble she would make noise. She was squealing and squawking as she bounded across the stage.

PGN: And what can we expect from “Sanctuary”? BS: It’s going to be fun. Originally, I wanted it to be an all-male piece …

PGN: Boo! Half the fun of AdShock was the women in skintight clothing being doused in water! BS: [Laughs.] I understand totally, but I was coming from a personal place with my first coming-out experience, then I thought about a tribe of gay monks, but I thought that wasn’t very representational. So now it’s a mish mash of everything: girls with girls, girls with boys, boys with boys and girls — everything. It’s a little bit about that sense of finding commonality, that feeling of safety in a tribe, feeling that you belong. I found that there was great similarity between the monastery and the desire to dedicate yourself to a particular passion. The idea was that the little nightclub that I went to was where I worshipped, where I got on the dance floor and felt sanctified. I put my arms in the air for divinity called Madonna and Cher. There is a very analogous feel.

PGN: Well, as a lesbian, I thank you for including hot women in the show … BS: My pleasure. In the end, it’s what gives the show balance. I’m so physical that I do a lot of strength-bound work and I fear that some of the women struggle with the physicality of the pieces, but they bring a part to the creative process that I could never achieve without them.

PGN: Watching the shows, you would never know: The women seem just as adept as the men. It’s very cohesive. BS: Absolutely, and it brings in that virtuosity I was speaking about, so that it’s not just brawn beefcake. I think sometimes the guys would like to see a show with all chin-ups! But in the end, it’s all about the balance.

To suggest a community member for “Family Portraits,” write to: Family Portraits, 505 S. Fourth St., Philadelphia, PA 19147 or [email protected].