Saturday night’s performance by TU Dance at the Ordway in St. Paul showcased the company’s classical styling mixed with an edgy modern urban aesthetic. One goal of TU’s choreographers and dancers is to create original dance works that raise audience awareness of significant cultural issues and take on important social themes. TU Dance achieved this goal with two out of the four dance pieces presented at the Ordway.
TU’s roster includes dancers from the Midwest, the East Coast, the UK, and the Caribbean; however, the ensemble’s artistic directors, Toni Pierce-Sands and Uri Sands, founded it in St. Paul. This latest performance was, in essence, a homecoming after TU’s just-completed a national tour. It was obvious that friends and family were in the audience providing support and showing pride.
The best work of the evening was the first, Footprints, which premiered in 2015. It featured the dancers as a society running from itself while at the same time people are exploring their individuality. The dancers move across the stage, energy high and flowing, and also form clusters in which each executes highly kinetic sequences without being overly emotive. This is reminiscent of Twyla Tharp and Trish Brown, with the classical stylings of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre (with whom several company members have previously danced.) “Footprints” was performed to a collage of pop beats and electronic ambience that integrated seamlessly with the dance movement.
“Where the Light Shines Through” was heralded at the beginning of the show as an original dance work commissioned specifically by the Ordway and the Rosemary and David Good Family Foundation. Ronald K. Brown was the guest choreographer who premiered the new work. This work used traditional music recorded by Conjunto Folklorico Nacional de Cuba and other world music artists. However, it came across as mere background gaving the dancers nothing edgy with which to work as they tried to create a relationship between movement and music. Despite the choreographer’s intentions, the dance piece lacked the dynamism and focus needed to marry the dance to the music and unearth the potential imagery.
Signs was a moody work with sad, romantic songs and sincere but overdone emotion. Dancing to the selection of juxtaposed songs, the dancers presented a story of lovers done wrong. The narrative led the smooth, intense movements and melancholy emotion, but the work lacked the edge of an innovative dance piece.
Matter was the most innovative and provocative work of the evening. The performance brought kinetic frenzy together with thought-provoking stillness. It represented TU Dance’s response to the emotional, personal, and political issues raised by the ongoing shootings of unarmed black men by the police and vigilantes. This was not a work crafted in isolation: St. Paul’s experience with the issue includes a recent hate crime trial. The work opens with the soundtrack of a speech by Malcolm X. The crackling recording may be from 1965, but its words pour revolutionary fervor into the movement of the dancers.
Against all expectations, the choreographer employs what could be called anti-movement sequences aimed to get the audience to stop and think. At the beginning, the dancers slowly interlock arms and grasp each other’s hands, while standing in a line on stage. At different times through-out the piece, dancers become motionless on stage. Eventually, frenetic movement takes over and the entire stage fills with a panorama of images of abuse by the criminal justice system: suspects herded in cuffs, victims of police beatings rolling on the ground (much like Rodney King), and dancers flinging arms like police with their batons. The visceral feeling of authoritarian violence is matched by a deep empathy for the experience of African-Americans.
The work ends with another example of radical anti-movement. The frantic images of street violence dissipates, leaving a dancer standing silently mid-stage. She notices another dancer enter downstage left. The first dancer casually walks over, takes the other by the hand and they both exit – leaving the audience to stop and think for another moment.
Overall, the four dance works made for a very interesting evening of theatre. Individually and in clusters, in pairs and in small groupings the dancers of TU Dance performed highly original movement work. This especially reflects well upon the unique artistic sensibilities of the founders Toni Pierce-Sands and Uri Sandsand, and their St. Paul community.