Review: TU Dance presents strong works new to Minneapolis

TU Dance’s fall concert offered fluid works with themes of light, pain, strength and renewal. 

By Sheila Regan Special to the Star Tribune OCTOBER 21, 2019 — 6:04PM

TU Dance’s performance at the O’Shaughnessy this past weekend wasn’t quite as flashy as the company’s collaboration with Bon Iver, which has kept the company busy touring around the country since the 2018. It also wasn’t as sublime as its spring performance of works by Alvin Ailey and Jawole Willa Jo Zollar. But the concert did offer a couple of strong works never before seen in Minneapolis.

“Something Amber,” originally commissioned by Alonzo King Lines Ballet Training Program, began the program and was the highlight of the night. It began in darkness to the sound of strings playing a long, sustained note. As the lights gradually lit the ensemble, the dancers moved like seaweed. Their arms floated above them, their bodies fluidly rising and falling.

Lush and alive, the work, which was presented by TU for the first time, had a sensorial quality, while Vladimir Martynov’s gorgeous neoclassical music provided the ghostly score.

The second piece in the program, “Clear as Tear Water,” originally was created by Ronald K. Brown for TU Co-Artistic Director Toni Pierce-Sands, who danced in its premiere in 2005. It’s a juicy solo, and Taylor Collier performed the piece with fortitude. There were flashes of traumatic history in the work: a slave with her arms tied behind her back, for instance. In another moment, a woman hunched over in backbreaking labor. We also see the central character exude power and strength, buoyed by those that came before her. There was a sense of renewal, even rebirth, particularly in its final moments, when Collier was doused with a stream of water, baptized in water and light.

“Salve,” commissioned for Ballet Memphis in 2017, featured a church pew as a central set piece and began with the dancers one by one prostrating themselves on the floor. Eventually, they discovered healing in the space. It’s set to Gavin Bryars’ “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet,” which loops a recording of an unknown homeless man singing with increasing harmonies of strings and brass.

The work was moving, even if you wanted to cry mercy to make the song stop repeating over and over by the end. There was an odd choice in costumes — the women’s diaphanous, light-colored dresses were paired with black socks, which was a rather strange look.

The program concluded with the company premiere of “Tracks,” originally commissioned by Alvin Ailey II in 2018. With glitter and shimmying shoulders, the piece paired revelry with gravitas.

Photo by Michael Slobodian ©

Review: TU Dance re-creates the past well, but the present feels more exciting

By ROB HUBBARD | Special to the Pioneer Press

PUBLISHED: May 4, 2019 at 1:32 am | UPDATED: May 4, 2019 at 3:53 pm

Now and then, TU Dance presents a program of dance from now and then. The St. Paul-based company will feel about as up-to-the-minute as one could hope, and then will pay tribute to the past, breathing life into something created in another era.

Such is the case with the troupe’s 15th anniversary program at the O’Shaughnessy on the campus of St. Catherine University. Beginning with a graceful, high-energy Ronald K. Brown piece that the company premiered at the Ordway two years ago, then delivering a work by intrepid theatrical adventurers Urban Bush Women, TU Dance finished the evening very much honoring the past with a pair of pieces by American dance giant Alvin Ailey.

While all were worthwhile experiences, Friday’s performance felt most powerful when the choreography was at its freshest. The Brown work was bursting with energy, launching the performance with a surge of electricity before Urban Bush Women veteran Jawole Willa Jo Zollar joined the troupe for a more intense and emotionally complex creation.

The Ailey dances were expertly delivered, but they seemed a bit too much like museum pieces to me, faithful re-creations tightly wrapped in nostalgia. While the O’Shaughnessy crowd surely loved Ailey’s 1974 work, “Night Creature” — rewarding it with a standing ovation — it was so immersed in “then” that I found myself longing for the urgency of “now” found on the program’s first half.

It’s understandable if the audience contained enough regulars at TU Dance performances that Brown’s “Where the Light Shines Through” felt a little too fresh. After all, the company just brought it to the stage for the first time in 2017. However, I was taken with its combination of cooperation and forthrightly asserted individuality. Bearing a Crayola box full of boldly colored costumes by Keiko Voltaire, the seven dancers threw their bodies about with admirable abandon, elements of traditional African dance emerging and sliding into unexpected synchronization. It felt like a slice of TU Dance at the peak of its powers.

The rest of the evening was made up of company premieres, starting with Zollar’s 2004 “Walking With Pearl … Africa Diaries.” Employing less music, more silence, the movement punctuated by the sound of breathing, it was a disarmingly intimate experience. Even more so because driving the mood were excerpts from the diaries of dancer Pearl Primus, read by Zollar from a chair at the stage’s edge. The text is a love letter to “Mother Africa,” evoking sweet mangoes and sunsets, tears and trauma, the words inspiring, each dancer sharing something quite individual and arresting while the soundtrack surged with an orchestra of kalimbas or the hypnotic sound of a kora, an African harp.

After intermission, it was all Ailey, starting with “Witness,” a solo work delivered expertly by Taylor Collier on opening night. Clad in a white gown, she danced before a choir loft full of cathedral candles while traditional gospel music filled the hall. Created in 1986, it was America’s most famous African-American choreographer returning to one of his favorite themes, the church of his childhood. As the soundtrack morphed into explosive improvisation on a saxophone, the dancing laid bare where the sacred meets the sexual in a very interesting performance.

But it also felt tightly tied to the past, as did “Night Creature,” which, despite being from 1974, is very much about the mid-20th-century twilight of big band swing as a cultural phenomenon. Spearheaded by the magnetic Alexis Staley and adorned in the eye-catching costumes of Barbara Forbes — with nods to both the ’50s and ’70s — it’s a hybrid of classical ballet and jazz dance that surely must have seemed iconoclastic when it premiered on TV.

While TU Dance’s founders and co-artistic directors, Toni Pierce-Sands and Uri Sands, surely wanted to pay homage to Ailey — in whose company they’d both once performed — I came away feeling as if the Brown and Zollar pieces were a greater tribute to the legendary dance artist’s spirit than the attempts to reconstruct his creations. On a program that seemed increasingly backward looking, I was reminded that TU Dance’s greatest asset is its heartfelt immediacy. 

Photo by Michael Slobodian ©

Review: TU Dance re-creates the past well, but the present feels more exciting

Community West African Dance Class with Kenna-Camara Cottman, Thursdays 7:30-9:00pm

Join Ms. Kenna every Thursday from 7:30-9:00pm for a multigenerational West African dance class at TU Dance Center. This class is open to anyone in the community.
No pre-registration required.

Cost: $14 per class, $120/10-class card; payable at TU Dance Center by cash, check or card.

For more information, contact TU Dance Center at education@tudance.org or 612-440-9028.

Dancing Your Story Workshop Culminating Event, November 4

Please join us for the Dancing Your Story Workshop Culminating Event on Monday, November 4 at Rondo Community Library. Workshop participants will share what they have explored and created in the dance and writing workshop over the last eight weeks. This event is free and open to the public.

November 4, 3:30-4:30pm

Rondo Community Library, Multipurpose Room
461 Dale St N, St. Paul, MN 55103

Please contact Kaitin Kelly Benedict at kaitin.kbenedict@tudance.org or (651) 505-3264 with questions.

This activity is supported by a Seeding Vitality Arts MN grant from Aroha Philanthropies.

Master Class with Artistic Director Toni Pierce-Sands, October 19

THIS MASTER CLASS HAS BEEN CANCELLED.

Join The O’Shaughnessy at St. Catherine University and TU Dance for a Horton-based modern master class with Artistic Director Toni Pierce-Sands. This class is for intermediate/advanced level college students and will be held at The O’Shaughnessy.

Saturday, October 19 | 1:30-3:00pm

The O’Shaughnessy at St. Catherine University

2004 Randolph Ave., St. Paul, MN 55105

Cost: $10.00, payable online. Online pre-registration is required by October 16. Registrants will receive a code for a $5.00 ticket to the TU Dance fall concert at The O’Shaughnessy, October 18-20.

Student Name & Email Address:

This class may be cancelled if the minimum registrant number is not reached.

Photo by Michael Slobodian.

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