Wow: All this for a local dance company. As we gazed, wide-eyed and stunned, at the nearly full house for TU Dance’s 10th anniversary concert in the Ordway Center last Saturday night, I asked my companions: Why, really, do you think TU Dance is so popular?
Accessibility, openness, technique, humanity, authenticity were among the reasons. The Knight Foundation has noticed, to the tune of $500,000, “to support the diversification of the dance community in St. Paul by expanding TU Dance’s capacity to cultivate donors and increase programming.”
We also agreed: It really does start at the top. Co-founders and co-artistic directors Toni Pierce-Sands and Uri Sands are beloved for legitimate reasons, among them the above-mentioned list of descriptors. After this weekend’s anniversary concert, a performance unlike any the company has previously put forth (and that alone says a lot of this tremendously accomplished group), let’s add one more. TU Dance is also aspirational, a rare quality; what’s more, the company is realizing its aspirations.
Meaning: the summer dance project Sands and Pierce-Sands started in 2003-2004 at the University of Minnesota—Space-TU-Embrace—has in one fast-paced decade grown to include a thriving dance school in St. Paul next to the Central Corridor’s soon-to-open Green Line light rail, in addition to a company that can fill nearly 1,900 seats with appreciative fans of smart, approachable dance. Simply put, those accomplishments are thrilling.
In a nod to their origin story, Pierce-Sands and Sands (former dancers with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater) opened the 10th anniversary show with the balletic “Twin Cities” duet from Alvin Ailey’s 1970 work The River. Performed by Sands and guest artist Laurel Keen, the piece overflowed with grace and was greeted, at its conclusion, with a roar from the audience.
The program also included the ever-popular Lady. Choreographed by Sands, the work was performed with impeccable technique and narrative nuance. With its delightful storytelling, rich depths of rhythm, (once again) tremendous sense of authenticity, and a Toni-Uri duet that plumbed the nuances of a relationship with real feeling, the work felt as fresh and relevant as it did during its 2003 debut.
One, which Sands originally created for Common Thread Contemporary Dance Company in honor of Henrietta Lacks and the HeLa cell, was a tantalizing mystery. (Lacks was an African-American tobacco farmer whose cancerous cells were taken without her permission in 1951 and used for such groundbreaking medical advancements as the polio vaccine and in-vitro fertilization.) Wearing gray dresses reminiscent of Martha Graham’s shrouds, the eight women dancers pulsated with robotic movements, opened their hips against the floor in Graham-like poses and, while painfully stooped over, extended quaking arms and tremulous hands. They could have been clones, or hard-working cells clustering and separating, or supplicants gesturing and genuflecting to the powers that be, until basking in a shower of silver confetti.
With the world premiere of Sands’ new work, Hikari, the company and its choreographer entered new artistic territory. Commissioned by the Ordway, the bold, breathtaking work was inspired by Hawaiian wood-block artist Hiroki Morinoue, whom Sands visited as he was creating the choreography.
The set consists of 14 of Morinoue’s gorgeous, floor-to-flyspace, semi-sheer, black-and-white fabric panels. Together, they establish an environment of biomorphic forms, grids and patterns that could be a forest, a solar system, or a painter’s canvas on which the company plays out the choreography’s abstract narrative. Wearing snappy white jackets and pants, and black socks, the dancers careen about the stage as if insects, or dabs and slashes of paint, or regiments of corporate drones. Alanna Morris-Van Tassel is the most fantastical of these creatures, writhing and beckoning from behind the scrims. At times, the dancers shed their jackets, now clad in crop tops or t-shirts that free their torsos and limbs. Enacting an embedded drama only they’re privy to and fascinating to observe, the performers of TU Dance animate Sands’ vision in a work that would be at home on any major stage in the world. Hikari catapults the choreographer and the company into a brave new world of dance and art making at once aspirational and achieved.
Camille LeFevre is a dance critic, arts journalist, and the editor of The Line, an online publication about the creative economy of the Twin Cities.