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Brian Sanders' JUNK's "Snowball." (Photo courtesy Ted Lieverman)

Brian Sanders’  JUNK throws big Snowball


Last weekend, snow was falling on the kids and adults in Philly outside and inside the Harold Prince Theatre during intermission of choreographer Brian Sanders’ JUNK dance- theater family show Snowball: A Winter Wonderland Furrytail. JUNK has had huge adult fare over the years, but this is his first kid fantasy and he said was, in fact, very personal to him.

Sanders said at the show’s opening last week that it is important for him to build new audiences and be artistically connected to them. “The Nutcracker is totally accessible to kids and adults within the ballet aesthetic but rarely do contemporary dance troupes have repertoire that’s accessible to younger audiences. Something that is thrilling and exciting for them, not heady. It’s important that they are comfortable and it speaks to them.”

It may be geared for kids, but it is still pure Sanders and packed with his signature inventions and special effects. The heroine slingshots across the stage on bungee cord, battling the evil ice queen with smack downs that would impress on the movie screen with animated enhancement, yet is performed by JUNK in real time on stage.

As usual, Sanders is the first to try all of the eye-popping tricks. “I love testing things out. I’ve been working with bungee arts for many years. It’s a different gravity, because it goes in three directions. One ongoing joke has that the villain appears in higher and higher heals until she appears on her glitter-stilts, ready for battle. There is no over the top,” Sanders said.

“It’s been in the back of my mind for many years and the past couple of years I was working on vignettes, with I tried out at the Snowball parties and fundraisers we‘ve had. Last year, I had about 20 minutes of it done. So in then I had to come up with the rest of it in the last two months and I started to sweat. The company has been amazing,” he said.

The cast of 14 is about twice the size of JUNK’s regular roster of performers. It was also a scripted show and required dancer-actors. Sanders collaborated with Lee Ann Etzold, who wrote the dialogue and directed. “I was nervous this was different and new to me, this strong narrative in two acts, but it worked,” Sanders said.

The set, by Pedro da Silva, is also elaborate; a gritty urban row of tenements with a matrix of steps and scaffolding the dancers can scale, vault and vanish. Later the blight turns into the ice palace complete with a polished steel throne, made by sculptor John Howell IV that is rigged to be mounted and spin mid-air.

At the center is a sweet love story between Ann-Marie Gover and Tommy Schimmel. Gover is the heroine who protects the denizens of Grey Lane and the ruffian, with a huge heart, that needs rescuing and she’s the woman for it. Sanders said he had the pair in mind before he cast the show because of their skills and chemistry as dancers, acrobats and actors. As for the bungee shots ““I had to warm Ann-Marie up to that, she was kind of terrified, but after the first day when she got off of it she said “ok, this is kind of fun. Believe it or not, the parameters of bungee really defines what it can do and can’t do. You just have to get the stretch right and the resistance correct. “

Christine Morano plays the icy Julia Stone who has a castle full of minions and lords over them in chain-link leggings, stalker heels and big hair, Morano makes a lusty villain, but Sanders describes Morano as “complete opposite person than she plays, She’s a total sweetheart, so we had to coax her into being evil enough.”

There is a suggested love story between two young men who express their feeling in an aerial sash duet.
The show is packed with acrobatics and theatrical effects, but it is also one of the danciest shows Sanders has ever created. Along the way, there is period precision break dancing and street-hop, slow motion ensemble fights and dazzling dance aerials. The finale is a line-dance mash-up called, The Flakeout, to that 80s club hit contact high hit- You Can Dance.

“I used music from my four high school years. From 1982 to 86 and stayed within that specific timeframe. I wanted it to have a special connection to me. My fairytale as it were. A hero and heroine, and the certain glamour to the evil villain is my tribute to my visions dancing in my head- I didn’t have sugarplum fairies- I had drag queens,”

Snowball: A Winter Wonderland Furrytail has performances through December 15 at the Harold Prince Theatre in the Annenberg Center, 3680 Walnut St. Check http://www.AnnenbergCenter.org for show times or call 215-898-3900