Uri Sands readily admits that some of the works he choreographs for his company, TU Dance, are “eye candy.”
The little bonbon “(Happy),” for instance, set to electronic music by the British duo Underworld, is a loose, rhythmic quartet filled with bobbing heads, bouncy spins and swinging arms. The anthem dance, “…Isms,” set to music by 1970s Detroit rock/soul band Rare Earth, sends all the dancers careening through space in a showy, aerobic mélange of propulsive leaps, lifts, runs and turns.
“I think those works are necessary,” says Sands, who co-founded TU Dance in 2005 with his wife, Toni Pierce-Sands. “I believe that a lot of work in the arts, not just in dance, can become so insular and self-absorbed that we forget there’s a huge component of our work that’s about acknowledging the audience. If people are taking the plunge to try a new dance concert, it’s unfair if we don’t try to keep them captivated, or maybe even entertained during the process.”
Eye candy, Sands says, also serves as a portal to richer, more challenging works including his masterwork to date: the devastatingly beautiful “Veneers.” It’s a brilliantly anachronistic amalgam of militant, religious, political and everyday gestures woven into poignant and startling vignettes.
Two new works
This weekend, TU Dance premieres two new works by Sands: “…And Let Go,” a duet co-commissioned by New York’s Complexions Dance Company; and the full-company work “Beverly,” set to the R&B and funk music by Frankie Beverly and his 1970s group, Maze. “It’s an edgy, urban work about the rhythm of life,” Sands explains. “It’s also one of my eye candy works.”
The concert also includes Pierce-Sands’ gorgeous solo by Ron K. Brown, “Clear as Tear Water.” But the rest of the work is Uri Sands’: ensemble piece “The 6 Beginnings,” an excerpt from “My Apologies” performed by Pierce-Sands and guest artist Nathan Trice, and “Shapes & Gaits,” which Uri Sands originally choreographed for North Carolina Dance Theater. Stunningly prolific, Sands also has choreographed for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre in New York, the company in which he and Pierce-Sands met as performers.
It’s a punishing amount of work. But necessary, he says. “I imagine when I can’t do it anymore, I won’t. Right now, it’s survival. We need to sustain the company.” A 501[c]3 nonprofit with an annual budget of around $178,000, TU Dance receives about 30 percent of its financial support from foundations and grants, says board member Leif Anderson.
The Jerome Foundation has given project grants (about $12,000 per project). During the past two years of major growth, the McKnight Foundation gave the company $30,000 annually. Smaller grants have come from the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council and the Minnesota State Arts Board. Ticket sales (most shows have sold out), individual gifts and Sands’ choreographic commissions are other sources of revenue.
While TU Dance has 10 dancers, including Pierce-Sands and Sands, the couple wants to grow the company to 16 dancers: 12 salaried professionals and four apprentices. With this large ensemble, TU Dance can produce a kinetic sweep and scope across stage space to rival that of large national ballet and contemporary dance companies. And it’s that sort of large-scale power that fuels a masterwork like “Veneers.”
Making a masterwork
Set to music by Arvo Part and the Kronos Quartet, “Veneers” is a disturbing requiem for the personas we adopt. The dancers wear black, gladiatorial-style skirts as they march in phalanxes and figures around the stage, sometimes while preening on tiptoes. They hold their noses, stand rigidly at attention, slap themselves, point accusing fingers, violently shake their arms and open their mouths in silent screams.
In a duet with Mohn, Sands is muscularly cursive next to her slender rippling limbs. In the midst of their uneasy negotiations, the duo push, pull and intersect until they’re folded in one smooth entity — only to become a desperate tangle of limbs as they struggle to separate again.
The work concludes with a regiment of dancers marching slowly upstage as they methodically beat their backs with bouquets of roses, petals cascading to the floor with every penalizing gesture. In the midst of this self-flagellating order is Berit Ahlgren in a single point of havoc, a desperate flurry of fractured gestures, until she finally collapses with her head in her hands. Shimmering through this performance of singular intelligence, rigorous originality and artistic integrity is the sublime: a terrifying, eye-opening beauty.
Clips from TU Dance are in this order: “Lady,” starring
Uri Sands and Toni Pierce-Sands, and “For You” and
Veneers,” both featuring the company’s dancers.
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Last winter, Sands had just returned from New York, where he’d created “Existence Without Form” for the Alvin Ailey company — a process of overwhelming tension, excitement and agendas — when he walked into a rehearsal and saw his own dancers “looking at me with completely open faces, just so ready and willing,” he recalls. He couldn’t reconcile the two experiences. “What I’d just experienced in New York was so different from what was going on in this room,” he recalls. “I wondered how I could live between these two worlds, or states of being. I wanted to find out what it takes to get from there to here.”
He separated his dancers into groups and assigned them tasks. One group came up with gestures common to opera; another group, gestures from the TV show “American Idol.” Then Sands started putting everything together, telling his dancers, “Let’s build a mask. So the movement vocabulary became about constructing that mask. After that, choreographing the rest of the work came more easily to me, because I just started to take one piece off at a time. Each subsequent section was about one thing less.”
“Veneers” is actually based on about 26 gestures and movement motifs that appear throughout the work. The duet with Sands and Mohn uses 10 motifs informed by the group. “I put everyone in a circle. I took Eva’s hand. And we formed a shape,” Sands explains. “Then I asked everyone in the circle, one at a time, ‘Where do we go from here? What’s the next place you see us?’ “
The company, in other words, offered multiple perspectives on the characters, which Sands later edited into a final version that “morphed in a major way from the starting point,” he adds. The duet, on repeated viewings, also reads differently each time. Does it depict lovers? Father and daughter? Mentor and student? Regardless of character labels, the duet captures the universal — and heartbreaking — experience of intimacy (not sexual, but rather emotional), then rejection.
Conversely, Sands worked alone with Ahlgren on her solo. He gave her six gestures and told her not to break from them. “I had a heavy hand on her, in the sense that I usually have more patience,” he says. Every time she fell out of a gesture, she became more frustrated and accelerated her dancing — exactly what Sands wanted. He also instructed Ahlgren to “perform as if someone had just left her and she was screaming, and the further away that person got the louder her voice would become.”
The rest of the scene, he explains, was inspired by fashion magazines filled with the scents from perfume strips, images of red lips and the desires of women to poke sharp objects into their eyes in the pursuit of beauty. At the center of this religious/military iconography of masochism is Ahlgren, breaking down on-stage in her silent physical scream, “which is sad, but beautiful,” Sands says.
‘One step on a staircase’
Within his fast-growing body of work, “Veneers” is Sands’ most artistically rigorous and emotional dance to date. Whether simple fact or mere opinion, the choreographer isn’t ready to make a judgment. “Some of my works I just despise,” he says with a cringe. “I think, ‘Oh Uri! What were you doing, dude?’ But ‘Veneers’ is not one of them.”
“I’m not detached from any of my dances because they do come from me. But to me, it’s all part of a process,” he explains. “Each dance is one step on a staircase. Maybe one of those steps turns a bit and puts me in a slightly new direction as opposed to being on a landing or plateau. But it’s too soon to tell what kind of step ‘Veneers’ is. I really like it. But there has to be more.”
Camille LeFevre writes about dance for an array of regional and national publications, including Minnpost.