Through Diversity and Collaboration, TU Dance Continues to Defy Definition

Members of TU Dance company mid-performance // Photo by Brandon Stengel

Somewhere beyond the confines of ballet and other genres of dance resides contemporary dance—an artistic expression fluctuating between cadenced and arrhythmic motion, which ignores traditional boundaries and evades simple categorization. For the last 15 years, this universe of dance has been embodied—and expanded—by St. Paul, Minnesota-based company TU Dance.

TU Dance was founded in 2004 by wife-and-husband team and co-artistic directors Toni Pierce-Sands and Uri Sands. The company has traveled all over the U.S., performing original work inspired by myriad styles and cultures. Recently, TU Dance has gained recognition beyond the dance world thanks in part to the company’s collaborations with groups like the Minnesota Orchestra and Bon Iver, which have put TU Dance on the radar of fans of art from varying genres, both within Minnesota and around the world.

Toni Pierce-Sands, left, and Uri Sands, right, are the Artistic Directors of TU Dance // Photo via TU Dance Facebook

Uri Sands, left, and Toni Pierce-Sands, right, are the artistic directors of TU Dance // Photo by Ingrid Werthmann

But in speaking with Pierce-Sands, it’s clear that these cross-genre collaborations weren’t necessarily a part of the company’s plan. “When we started, this language of collaboration wasn’t something that came up when we thought about the organization,” Pierce-Sands says. “It was more about creating a space and place for young people of diverse nature to be able to train, and that the company itself was representative of our community.”

Back in 2004 when Toni and Uri decided to start TU Dance, they made a conscious effort to do so in a place where they could make a difference to the surrounding community. Despite Uri being from Miami and both of them having strong ties to New York, they decided to place TU Dance in the Twin Cities, where Pierce-Sands grew up.

“We have become such a diverse community [in the Twin Cities],” Pierce-Sands says. “But that was not radiated on stage in the dance community, so we started to think about how we can diversify and bring people to dance. There’s great support for artists here—for emerging artists, dance companies—so the support we found from the artistic platform and community was really strong.”

Over time, the School at TU Dance Center, which offers summer programs for children and pre-professional programs for older students, has helped the dance company reach young people within marginalized communities and expose them to the opportunities that come with dance. By bringing new faces to dance, the company is constantly imbued with new energy and fresh perspectives to push the limits of contemporary dance even further.

One of the TU Dance's Summer Intensive programs rehearsing a routine in studio // Photo via TU Dance Facebook

Students in one of TU Dance’s Summer Intensive programs rehearsing a routine // Photo by Jeffrey Stene

It was perhaps TU Dance’s philosophy that led Justin Vernon and his band, Bon Iver, to collaborate with the dance company. After seeing TU Dance perform in 2017, Vernon was intrigued by the idea of performing new music while pushing other performers into the foreground. Kate Nordstrum, who curates the Liquid Music program for the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra (SPCO), made the introduction and soon Bon Iver and TU Dance began working on a new piece titled “Come Through,” which they have since performed at venues like the Palace Theatre in St. Paul and Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles.

The aim of “Come Through” was to blend aural and visual elements in a seamless, coherent way. The initial rehearsals between the band and the dancers was like working toward an undefined goal, Pierce-Sands remembers, with Bon Iver performing songs that informed the dancers’ movements, and the dancing inspiring improvisation from the band. “It was fluid,” she says. “We were all creating the pieces to this puzzle separately, and we had no idea what the picture of the puzzle was until those pieces came together.”

“We were all creating the pieces to this puzzle separately, and we had no idea what the picture of the puzzle was until those pieces came together.”

– Toni Pierce-Sands

The diversity nurtured within and represented by TU Dance has innately kept the company very topical during this politically tumultuous time in the country, with some of those messages showing up in “Come Through.” In speaking with Twin Cities PBS earlier this year, Vernon said of the collaboration: “This project is about what’s wrong in America. Hate is ruling, insecurity is ruling, and people are out for themselves rather than for a greater good. And so we want it to be a wake-up call.”

Pierce-Sands explains that, depending on the piece, these kinds of topical or political narratives can show up literally or more abstractly, which invites the audience to engage with the performance by developing their own interpretations. For “Come Through,” in particular, she alludes to the notion that the creation and consumption of art can bring people together.

“I think the work is very gracious—difficult in some places—and it kind of ties us all in using our vocation of art. But it’s also reaching out to an audience,” she says. “For Justin to move himself back onto a platform to put dance forward as a way of messaging is pretty extraordinary.”

Working off one another in this way to create something unique and abstract is as “contemporary” as contemporary dance gets, Pierce-Sands says—if a definition of contemporary dance actually existed. “There are so many different perspectives on what contemporary dance is,” she explains. “For me to define it is a mistake, because at this time I think it’s being defined. It’s either being defined or it doesn’t want to be defined, which, to me, solidifies the sense of contemporary.”

This escape from categorization liberates contemporary dancers to create in a way that isn’t indebted to any particular style or set of rules; the choreography can exist without the immediate restrictions that often come with labels. When it comes to contemporary dance, Pierce-Sands says, labels and definition almost defeat the purpose altogether: “What defines a contemporary choreographer? Is it because they create work now or is it the language and style in which they’re creating? I don’t ever want that question to be answered.”

Several members of TU Dance // Photo by Michael Slobodian

This season kicks off with a performance at Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, which will include a retrospective work by Uri. Performances in the spring, taking place at the O’Shaughnessy at St. Catherine University, will include various pieces of work by other choreographers that have inspired them over the years.

“We’re celebrating our company, but we also want to celebrate the choreographers that we’ve loved and worked with in our past careers, who have given so much to the dance world.”

TU Dance begins its 15th season at 7:30pm on Saturday, October 27, at Ordway Center for the Performing Arts. Click here for tickets and more information.