Modern dance audiences should learn how to roar. Until then, companies must collaborate with indie rock stars if they want to take bows with fans on their feet screaming.
Minnesota’s TU Dance made its Kennedy Center debut March 25, and the reception was raucous. Onstage with the 10 dancers, on a platform lofted far about the marley, was Grammy-winner Justin Vernon and his band, collectively known as Bon Iver. The dancers and musicians had just performed “Come Through,” a somewhat chaotic combination of live music, video projections and choreography.
The message of “Come Through”—muddled though it was by three cryptic mediums—was although our world is imperiled by racism, fallible humans and climate change, we must persevere! Hardly a groundbreaking takeaway, yet the collaboration was unprecedented. The whole concept sounds very Brooklyn—an indie-rock star collaborating with modern dancers—but “Come Through” is entirely a product of the America’s Upper Midwest. The “TU” in TU Dance stands for Toni Pierce-Sands and Uri Sands, artistic directors of this impressive part-time company from St. Paul. Some 20 years ago, the couple left New York and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater for Minnesota, where they founded a school and quietly nurtured talent in the Twin Cities, particularly dancers of color. When the Wisconsin-born Vernon looked for collaborators, he didn’t bother with the New York boroughs, he simply looked across the St. Croix River.
“Come Through” was commissioned by Liquid Music, an outreach arm of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra dedicated to performances that flow freely between genres. “Come Through” premiered in St. Paul a year ago, was reprised at the Hollywood Bowl last summer and will finally debut in Brooklyn in December, with a trip to Houston planned for February 2020. As the Kennedy Center’s crazy-happy sold-out Concert Hall crowd proved, this is a show that can draw enthusiastic audiences without purveying schlock, and that’s a welcome development for modern dance.
The last time I saw a crowd like this I was on vacation in Hawaii, and seeing Complexions Contemporary Dance hyper-extend to a David Bowie Bowie medley called “Stardust.” “Come Through” through is far superior to “Stardust” and other jukebox ballets that draw fans of a band, but I wish it were a more cohesive piece of art. The project needed an editor, a director, a dramaturge: Anyone who could step back and tell all involved this show was beautiful mess that could be better. That job, alas, now falls to critics.
During “Come Through’s” most worthwhile segments, Sands’ choreography connected to Vernon’s lyrics, and the projections faded into an abstract pattern, providing an evocative, non-distracting backdrop. At worst, microphones warped Vernon’s trademark vocals so he sounded like he was singing into an echo chamber, and the projections (by visual artist Aaron Anderson) morphed into a pretentious crapstorm. Butterfly cocoons! Clips from the Disney cartoon version of “Cinderella”! Forest fires! Time-release videos of swelling mushrooms! Sometimes all four of those things at once, plus giant swirling PowerPoint text that said, “No Text.”
(I’m not kidding.)
If “Come Through” had been a Dadist exercise in abstract silliness, Vernon’s here, there and everywhere approach might have worked. But sections of this over-stimulating three-medium circus were intended to convey serious meaning, and it was challenging to connect the dots between lyrics, movement and the cinematic backdrop.
As if taking the stage at a club, 10 dancers and five musicians entered the concert hall together. And party like clubgoers they did, to fast thumping music that seemed a far cry from Bon Iver’s usual mellow, semi-electronic grooves. The dancers kept up well, but with “Lazarus,” the Rennie Harris commission that came to the Kennedy Center in February, Alvin Ailey set a new high standard for hip-hop. TU Dance couldn’t deliver the same level of rhythmic synchronicity and heel-toe-cross quick steps, but what they had going for them were sinewy limbs, rollicking shoulders and try-anything enthusiasm.
Audiences weren’t privy to the setlist, but a number called “1867” featured a deep female voice describing the horror of America’s Jim Crow laws, put in place to erode freedoms slave received after emancipation. The voice was that of actor Viola Davis, recorded at the 2017 Women’s March in Washington. Black Americans certainly face a host of obstacles today, among them high poverty rates and police brutality. Jim Crow laws seemed like an anachronistic injustice for “Come Through” to reference, but as a white male creating a sonic backdrop for a mostly black dance company, Vernon may have been playing it safe. The point (probably) was to include racial injustice in “Come Through’s” amorphous list of problem facing humankind.
Also on that list: Global warming (deer fleeing forest fires?) and the prospect of nuclear war (all the blooming mushrooms?). And of course, since the days of Adam and Eve, earthlings have been plagued by bad romance.
“A Song For You” featured two veiled dancers moving in unison, one behind another. Vernon’s lyrics indicated he was rehashing a relationship gone wrong; he was apologizing, and the message seemed to be this couple was going through the motions without really connecting.
Randall Riley and Taylor Collier—the tallest male and most petite female, respectively—performed “A Song For You,” and the number felt sharp, moving and clear. TU employ a spectrum of body types, and use every dancer well. Many companies might reject Christian Warner for his petite frame and inability to partner a female dancer taller than say, 5’1.” Sands makes him a star. In “SDAIH,’ the just-before-climax number, he danced a long, writhing solo that included the signature movement of “Come Through:” a corkscrew spin performed on a bent supporting leg, with one arm arced above his head. “The Boitano,” as they call the position in figure skating.
As the layered guitars, synths and a solo sax hit a crescendo, Warner launched himself across the stage and into the arms of the much taller Riley.
The Kennedy Center crowd gasped loudly and collectively. If these indie rock fans hadn’t realized before that this show was about more than new Bon Iver tunes, now they knew. Also, with that collect gasp, they realized modern dance was cool.
(And if they liked that one jump in “Come Through,” they should see all the leaps-into-arms in Paul Taylor’s “Esplanade.”)
The climatic musical numbers were formerly called “I Can Hear Crying,” but cryptically retitled “Naaem 1” and “Naaem 2.”
“I can hear, I can hear crying,” Vernon lamented, over and over, picking up the pace each time. The music changed time signatures frequently all night—How the dancers kept track of the counts is a testimony to their superhuman skills. At the finale’s peak, all 10 dancers jived onstage, and performed that Boitano turn together, like an X-Men posse come to save the world with their powerful synchronicity.
Meanwhile behind them, roses bloomed and butterflies hatched from cocoons, as if “Come Through” had somehow morphed into a live promotion for the Discovery Channel.
Hope springs eternal. So does my prayer that for their next collaboration, these TU dancers will get the cohesive, egoless project they deserve, and still receive the same ecstatic standing ovation.