Brian Sanders has always found beauty in abandoned objects.
For years, he’s reimagined neglected clutter and spaces into full-fledged theatrical spectacles.
In the Philadelphia luminary’s latest opus, Sanders has casted a haunting dreamscape from his mind throughout an abandoned 19th-century Victorian church secluded at 2040 Christian St.
Evoking a “multi-experience Halloween attraction,” “2nd Sanctuary,” the brainchild of Brian Sanders’ JUNK, a local troupe blending dance with physical theater, opened its doors to the public last week after nearly three years of preparation.
From aerial acrobatics to virtual reality, the paranormal extravaganza, which runs through Nov. 3, takes audiences on a stimulating escapade spanning rooms, artistic mediums and spiritual worlds as Sanders attempts to illustrate the allure of death.
“I wanted to broaden it to the idea of beautiful decay,” Sanders said. “So, while it is about death, it’s about – sometimes, in this twisted way, the beautiful pain of death when we experience loss and how that can be beautiful, because we know the reason we’re feeling so much loss is because of how much love we lose.”
In Sanders’ eyes, conveying this particular concept could not merely be executed through conventional theater on a proscenium stage.
This vision demanded Sanders to artistically explore new territory, breaking away from his conventional choreography and into the world of digitally simulated experiences.
The transition, Sanders says, was more challenging than he anticipated.
“It’s just completely contrapuntal to everything I knew as a creative director, and so I had to relearn so much inside of this new venue,” he said. “It turns out that transposing my work in that way – just moving it over into virtual reality – was really dull for me, and I didn’t end up doing that at all…I created new material that I thought resonated more and just had its own world inside of virtual reality.”
Collaborating with Drexel University, Sanders and his creative team crafted a 45-minute virtual reality experience – one of the several attractions comprising “2nd Sanctuary.”
As participants dress in hazardous suits, they immerse in the Phantom Portal Virtual Reality, passing through a few locations throughout the church, including fictional phone booths and spas.
Whether transporting audiences to familiar Philadelphia sites or taking them up-close-and-personal to dancers, Sanders and his team shot various footage for the virtual reality portion for almost two months. The objective, he says, was focusing people in a singular direction within a 360 degree-perspective.
“The whole thing has been quite an adventure for me, because VR seems like it’s a no-brainer fit with what it is that I do,” Sanders said. “But, once I started getting into it, it was really challenging for me to find my theater voice inside of a virtual reality. I think I succeeded a little bit with giving people the same adventure and feeling of being inside a universe that’s a little bit of a beautiful but twisted place. And, that’s really part of what it is that I do. I give people a little bit of a different angle on reality.”
Though Sanders entered unchartered waters surrounding virtual reality, other elements of “2nd Sanctuary” felt incredibly familiar.
As a child growing up in the 1970s, Sanders fell in love with every music genre the decade had to offer, including punk, funk, disco and rock.
Fusing yet another layer into the experience, each of the various attractions, which encompass the Dancing Dead live performance, the Zoltan’s Zarkade Escape Room and the Labyrinth of the Stone Cold Heart, are set to the soundtracks of classic 1970s sounds.
“When you’re 10 years old, music is a new-found love,” Sanders said. “It was all so wonderful and magical for me, and so I’ve been going back and culling through all of some of the really fantastic music and genres of that time.”
Along with the music, “2nd Sanctuary” also felt familiar for Sanders because much of the project involved returning to his artist roots, specifically his realm of repurposing junk.
In this case, the revisioning involved transforming an idle and inactive religious space, including filling the crumbling church gymnasium with abandoned scaffolding.
The scaffolding concoction eventually turned into a multi-sensory maze.
“Finding something that was thought of as old, used up, unwanted, discarded and giving it a little bit of creativity and a new perspective and finding something beautiful inside of it and finding a new story inside of it,” Sanders said. “That’s kind of become my adventure as an artist…This gymnasium – and how can I look at this from a new angle and breathe new life into it and find a new story inside of it?”
Finding that new story involves facing the inevitability of death.
For Sanders, who’s wonderstruck by the Day of the Dead, this fate feels especially prevalent every October, as he strives to see the “beautiful vernal” decay. In bringing “2nd Sanctuary” to life, he wanted audiences to naturally unearth an analogy with their own lives and their our own death.
Generating a medley of mediums, he hopes, will entice a range of participants as they ponder their own mortality.
“All of 2nd Sanctuary is really about the rite of fall and exercising our monsters within…Each of the stories are really connected through that idea of both the music and the history of what brought this all about,” Sanders said. “But, I wanted it to be accessible from many different points.”
For more information, visit: www.briansandersjunk.com/.