November 19, 2016 at 11:25 am

When words fail, there’s always dance.

While movement can be an abstract medium, as obsequious as music in its resistance to being tied to clear, unambiguous messages, St. Paul-based TU Dance has a style that could be described as eloquent. Its 10-member troupe places a premium on grace, fluidity and a kind of urgent expressiveness. While much credit is due co-artistic directors Uri Sands and Toni Pierce-Sands, Friday evening’s TU Dance performance at St. Paul’s O’Shaughnessy felt like a successful collaboration, celebrating individuality and the rewards of collective creation.

There are three works on TU Dance’s fall program, but one sharp focus: How it feels to be black and American, whether confronting bias and hostility from police officers or just trying to establish relationships built around love and acceptance. With two premieres sandwiched around an 11-year-old piece by Uri Sands, it proved a powerful statement that clearly went where words could not.

At first, Francesca Harper’s “In Witnessing” seemed too word-dependent. After a recording of a heated confrontation between a cop and a presumably black motorist, Toni Pierce-Sands walked about with a microphone as dancers spoke short phrases from diced-up exchanges. Long are the silences and the periods when dancers are intent upon asserting their own individual gestures, but that made all the more exhilarating an extraordinary interweaving of tandems to part of a J.S. Bach “Brandenburg” Concerto.

Uri Sands’ 2005 piece, “Tearing,” hypnotized with its examination of three relationships. The celebration of a bond and the sadness of losing one came through strongly in each duet, touching when Adam McGaw expressed innocent confusion at Youthen Joseph’s body being drained of life and absorbing as Tara Cacciatore and Darwin Black established a physical familiarity with breathtakingly beautiful interaction.

But the work that most audience members will come away discussing is Sands’ latest, “Matter.” As a Martin Luther King speech marched on resiliently through landscapes of hip-hop, electronic dance music and jazz, the 10 dancers — clad in variations on the stars and stripes that appear drained of color by Carolyn Wong’s intriguing lighting design — formed a human chain disrupted by interludes that suggested arrest, incarceration and liberation. At its center is an intensely gripping solo by Alanna Morris-Van Tassel that exuded strength and palpable devastation.

“Matter” (like “Tearing”) ends not in triumph, but with a sense of clearly resolving to get up and go on. It inspires without pushing any convenient emotional buttons, and underlines that not only are we fortunate to have as gifted a choreographer as Sands in our midst, but that TU Dance is a company with a voice all its own.