Shake, Rattle and Rise

Sands and Pierce-Sands have an unusually expressive partnership
Ingrid Werthman Photography

A bouncy house mix from DJ John J pours from the sound system in a rehearsal studio at the University of Minnesota's Barbara Barker Center for Dance one June evening. Before long, dancers--skilled in ballet, modern, jazz, and West African dance--literally meet one another in midair, pause long enough to twirl around with ballroom flair, and then coolly display some fancy hip-hop footwork, alone and in sets of twos and threes. It's like observing a club dance floor from above during the height of an ecstatic midnight set; everyone shows off his or her style, all fierce, fabulous, and lost in the moment. And that's just the first work in a concert to be performed by TU Dance at the Southern Theater over the next two weekends.

Toni Pierce-Sands and Uri Sands, both veterans of New York's legendary Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and now based in the Twin Cities, have forged careers out of their considerable talent to generate moments of athleticism, grace, and excellence that requires no hyperbole. Sands choreographs while Pierce-Sands serves as muse and coach; together they enjoy a rewarding creative and life partnership. This is not always easy, as the pair admits during a recent interview. "It's challenging when you have two individuals who are extremely passionate about what they believe in," says Sands. "When you agree, the energy you create is incredible, but when you disagree, there are just as many sparks because of the passion. But we always understand that we want the same thing. We do our individual homework, then check in and decide to go one way or another." Pierce-Sands agrees, observing, "We're both leaders; it's our nature."

One of the ways TU Dance leads is through the growth of a troupe that embodies the many aesthetic and cultural perspectives in the Twin Cities that are not always reflected in local dance performances. Pierce-Sands, who grew up in Minnesota, then left for New York at age 18, recalls her early feelings of isolation as a young dancer of color that have now driven her to firmly establish TU Dance. Eventually she hopes to follow in the steps of her childhood mentor, the late Loyce Houlton of Minnesota Dance Theatre, by starting a school. "It's really a personal endeavor. We need to train kids of color and give them opportunities," she says. "Through Uri's eyes I've seen the potential of what is here." Sands adds that TU Dance (recently named one of Dance Magazine's "25 to Watch") is both "a representation of us and a reflection of the diverse culture in the Twin Cities."

The Southern program supports this assessment, featuring several premieres as well as two repertory pieces--the rollicking "Lady" set to Ladysmith Black Mambazo and the more serene "Tones of Adney." A new work, "Shapes and Gaits," says Sands, "pretty much deals with different walks of life and the different shapes of those walks of life." Set to a score ranging from Bach to Radiohead, the piece explores issues of acceptance, isolation, and prejudice; in one duet the dancers never touch hands. "It's like a gay couple walking down the streets today wanting to hold hands but not feeling like they could," Sands says.

Another piece, "Sweet Tea," commissioned by North Carolina Dance Theatre, where Sands also choreographs, employs huge chapeaux and fans to explore the essence of summer in the South, set to music by John Coltrane. And a new work for Pierce-Sands and Sands, as well as four other dancers, mines humor in an a cappella riff about high-heeled shoes. "It's not a typical duet about love and hate, it's about those shoes," says Pierce-Sands. "The guy could be the pair of shoes. It takes us away from preconceived ideas about relationships."

In the final analysis, says Sands, TU Dance, through its variety of viewpoints, is the product of the artists' thorough "assessment of what we could bring to this community. We knew we'd begin a company at some point because of our feeling of responsibility as individual artists to keep dance alive and thriving."

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