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 ©