Fringe Fest fave, Brian Sander’s JUNK, gets competitive with ‘Luster’

Luster JUNK
“Luster” will run through Sept. 17 as part of the 2022 Philadelphia Fringe Festival.
Steve Belkowitz

Before Nick Stuccio’s Philadelphia Fringe Festival existed, Philadelphia dancer-choreographer Brian Sanders was making oddball moves into re-branding what he did to be untraditional and more amorphously movement-based, performative and conceptual with his floating-membership troupe, JUNK, and its smartly physicalized showcases.

“Dance and movement theater is always preeminent in my mind,” says Stuccio, a one-time dancer before he became the Fringe Fest’s creator and CEO. “And Brian, along with other Philadelphia choreographers, have forever been at the forefront of changing the language of choreography and movement. That’s a big part of why dance stays an essential part of every Fringe Fest.”

Hughe Dillon

Fringe Fest’s 2022 iteration is no different, as the Sanders and his JUNK ensemble continue its 30th anniversary season with a competitive reality-television parody – and audience interactive treat – “Luster,” playing out at the Concourse Dance Bar space at 1635 Market St. until Sept. 17. Within the parameters of “Luster,” five competing teams offer a behind-the-scenes peek into the making of a competitive streaming show that’s half-“The Amazing Race”, half-“Hunger Games,” while posing the question: “Where do the lines of reality and imagination end, and what roles are blurred between audience and athlete?”

“JUNK has evolved since its start as my first experiences with dance was Broadway, so I had those traditions to work through,” says Sanders. “When concert dance came along in college, it was modern and jazzier. That’s what choreography was to me for a long time. I had similar versions of that when I founded the company in 1992, but I wanted to make it grungier and hipper, beyond the blue hairs – and I mean that in an affectionate way. I wanted to be over-the-top and always surprising.”

Hughe Dillon

Certainly, Sanders and JUNK have been doing that ever since their first work at the now-closed Trocadero, works that structurally and contextually were free of the usual confines, theoretically and physically. Brian has based much of his work, since his start, on the locations they were built into and performed. With that, JUNK pieces are like installations, existing in out-of-the-norm spaces such as old churches, abandoned gym swimming pools and unused warehouses – making Sanders’ ideas at one with the Fringe’s anytime-anywhere initial aesthetics.

“The ‘where’ of it all evolved, as we evolved,” says Sanders. “It wasn’t just tights and lights anymore. We could be naked or rolling around in padding or dancing across scaffolding.”

Then there is “Luster.”

Performed in a dance club as a mock (or real, you be the judge) televised battle royale with a lot of water in which to slip-and-slide, new school movement artists, faux team members and JUNK people William Brazdzionis, and Katherine Corbett – along with Sanders, mostly directing from the wings – are rehearsing seven-hour days in which to learn the art of competition, breakdancing, roller-skating and voguing.

“My first reaction to hearing and seeing what Brian wanted was that it would be off-the-rails because the shock factor involved in most reality television competition is so high,” says Corbett. “It’s probably going to get weird… an eccentric, eclectic experience.”

Brazdzionis compared the reality competitive experience of “Luster” to RuPaul’s Drag Race, “only cooler,” he says. “It’s filled with wilder-than-normal situations exploded even more so, like a scooter dance in high heels.” (Yes, Sanders also includes high heel racing as part of his work-outs)

“The reality show world is intriguing to me because, when done right, they can be horrible and mind-blowing at the same time,” says Sanders about his desire to explore and exploit the mock medium. “It is so amazing and so wrong at the same time. Part of my art, when it comes to ‘Luster,’ is trying to digest that dichotomy. That is happening too in the Instagram/TikTok world, where there is all of this hard work being put into 30 seconds of a personal ‘wow’ factor. It is impressive as its own thing, but if you take it out of context, and explode it, this sort of reality is its own raw art form.”