Tu Dance Center fills an unmet need in Minneapolis–St. Paul.

Uri Sands coaches students in TU Dance repertory.

They come bounding in, sometimes with moms or siblings in their wake, shoving dance bags and ballet slippers into cubbies along one wall of the former woodworking shop. After stripping down to black leotards and tights, the boys pull on loose cotton chaya pants, while the girls tie geometric-patterned lappas around their waists. Before one girl steps onto the gleaming wood studio floor covered with marley, she deftly rolls back each foot of her tights, revealing her bare feet.

An intermediate African-based movement class is getting underway at TU Dance Center in St. Paul, which opened two years ago. Ninety minutes later, Toni Pierce-Sands, one of the center’s founders, smiles and leans across the piano, clapping to the dancers’ rhythmic movements as the class wraps up. Sweaty and exhilarated, the students, who are enrolled in the school’s pre-professional program, quickly trade their chayas and lappas for ballet slippers and begin their ballet class. On other days, the students study modern dance—often Horton technique—with Pierce-Sands (the “T” in TU). They also learn TU Dance repertory choreographed by co-founder Uri Sands (the “U” in TU) from company members.

The Twin Cities has numerous nonprofit dance schools and for-profit studios. But the Sands started their school after noticing a lack of racial and cultural diversity that didn’t reflect the increasing multiculturalism of the Twin Cities. “We saw a need for another choice and another way of training kids in dance,” says Pierce-Sands, referring to a program she initiated for students from schools in underserved areas (see "Making it Happen," below). Also, in a community heavy on modern and postmodern dance, the school’s curriculum is unique. Pierce-Sands calls it “tri-part training” in modern, ballet and West African dance.

“The professional world today demands that dancers have fluency in a number of different genres,” she says. “We teach West African because it is a grounding force that complements modern and ballet in ways other styles do not. To be ready for the dance world today and tomorrow, students need these three foundational pillars, and to know how they’re connected.”

Toni Pierce-Sands leads a modern class.

Pierce-Sands grew up in St. Paul studying with Loyce Houlton at Minnesota Dance Theatre’s school in Minneapolis. After dancing in Europe for several years, she met Sands while at Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Their critically acclaimed, much awarded and extremely popular company, TU Dance, celebrates its 10th anniversary in September.

“We knew we had to have a company in order for the school to be successful, so the students could be connected with professional dancers,” says Pierce-Sands. “We’re not necessarily grooming future dancers for TU Dance,” Sands adds. “With our pre-professional program, we give students the tools to develop as young artists, so they have the best possible chance of success as they enter a company apprenticeship, or are accepted into a college or university dance program.”

While the curriculum isn’t “necessarily modeled on The Ailey School,” Pierce-Sands adds, “Mr. Ailey had one thing right.” Actually, pipes in Sands, “He had a couple things right!” They both laugh as Pierce-Sands continues. “Those three techniques are within the Ailey technique, along with Graham, Horton and Dunham. So we can’t help our influences. They’re part of our tool kit.”

Growing more reflective for a moment, she then adds: “Some days, for instance, I look at all these beautiful kids who are looking up at me, waiting. And I call on Mrs. Houlton, as I remember being that kid and how she inspired us. I also call in Mr. Ailey, and his idea of training young people to be dancers and present in their time.”

“Toni and Uri’s vision of building a space for teenagers from all walks of life to discover the discipline and joy of rigorous contemporary dance training is already achieving great results with young people,” says Carl Flink, chair of the Department of Theatre Arts & Dance, University of Minnesota–Twin Cities. “I feel certain the center will have a ripple effect in the makeup of the Twin Cities dance community in the coming years.”

Pre-professional students take classes in West African dance as well as modern and ballet.

MerSadies McCoy, an 18-year-old student at Saint Paul Conservatory for Performing Artists, met the couple during a residency and has been training at TU Dance Center ever since. “I fell in love with the Horton technique that Toni teaches,” she says. “I also love the openness, the diversity of students and the vibe of the school.”

The center also provides training opportunities for dance professionals, including open TU Dance company classes and TU dancer Berit Ahlgren’s Gaga workshops. “Given how robust the Twin Cities dance community is, I’ve always been surprised at the extremely limited number of studios available for professional artists to maintain, explore and expand their training,” Flink says. “The TU Dance Center, and its very accessible central location to both St. Paul and Minneapolis, represents a critical new training option in our dance community.”

“Through this level of training, we’re turning out amazing human beings, whether they dance or become audience members or administrators in dance,” says Pierce-Sands. “When Uri and I started TU Dance, we knew we also wanted a school. And one day I envisioned young kids waiting on the corner for a bus to our studio, just like my sister and I took the bus to MDT.” Then, her vision came true.

“One evening I walked out of the center and saw one of our young dancers standing in the bus shelter, with her leg up on the glass wall, stretching. I thought, ‘People are driving by and there’s a young dancer. We’re putting dance out in the world, just like in New York.’” DT

Camille LeFevre is a St. Paul–based arts journalist who has written about TU Dance since its inception. She’s the author of The Dance Bible: The Complete Guide for Aspiring Dancers.

Making It Happen

TU Dance Center

St. Paul, Minnesota

Directors: Toni Pierce-Sands and Uri Sands

Year Opened: 2011

Number of Students Enrolled: 120

tudance.org

In 2012 TU Dance Center initiated a pilot program to provide a year of training at no cost to 25 students in underserved areas. In 2013, program enrollment increased to 75. To make it happen, the company conducts outreach activities at five schools, and the Sands invite selected students to attend classes at the studio. In addition to free tuition, these students receive dance attire and bus cards to cover their transportation. Funding is through the Minnesota State Arts Board.

Top and middle photos by Ingrid Werthmann; bottom photo by Bill Kelley

It was a monumental undertaking, “the biggest, most complex version we have ever done,” said Merce Cunningham at the time. The remounting of Cunningham and John Cage’s Ocean in September 2008, at the bottom of Rainbow Quarry in Waite Park, 70 minutes northwest of Minneapolis/St. Paul, was an event for the dance-history books. Captured on film by Charles Atlas, Ocean, the documentary, aired in September at the Walker Art Center and will be shown January 10 in New York at Baryshnikov Arts Center.

 

Ocean debuted in 1994 in Brussels and was performed several times on proscenium and circular stages. But for the 2008 version, which Cunningham, then 89, mounted and watched from his wheelchair, the dancers were sited on a stage erected 150 feet below ground at the bottom of the quarry, surrounded by 1,200 audience members (each of the four performances were sold-out) and 150 musicians.

 

The 360-degree configuration formed a dramatic structure of three concentric circles, the structure Cage originally conceived for the piece. As such, recalled Philip Bither, performance curator at the Walker Art Center (one of the work’s presenters), the production of Ocean was the most “ambitious and audacious in the Walker Art Center’s history.” Another of Cage and Cunningham’s longtime collaborators, filmmaker Charles Atlas, was there, of course, documenting the work for posterity.
Atlas’ film had its world premiere almost two years later to the day, September 15, 2010, at the Walker. While Atlas initially planned to film the 90-minute dance work using five cameras in order to create a five-channel installation piece, rain during many of the performances scotched that idea. He also considered shooting two different films: One would simply document the performance; in the other, he’d cinematically interpret the work.

 

Instead, he made one 100-minute film. “An epic,” he called it, at its screening. The result is a largely straightforward document of the performance as it happened, in real time. The large digital clock, ever-present during the live work as it counted down the minutes to zero, is in nearly every frame of the film as well.
Atlas opens his film with close-ups of granite and expansive images of the quarry, with shots of stagehands assembling the platform and oboes tuning. He inserts split screens from time to time, which juxtapose one dancer’s pose or phrasing with another’s. About 50 minutes into the film, Atlas homes in on details of the dancers’ bodies in motion. Throughout the film, David Tudor’s electronic score pings, rumbles and twangs with the sounds of what could be seals barking, waves crashing or whales singing.

 

Ocean lacks the cinematic innovation of Cunningham and Atlas’ pioneering “film dance” collaborations, which occurred primarily from 1974 through 1983 (when Atlas was the Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s filmmaker-in-residence). As the last film Atlas made with Cunningham before his death, however, Ocean captures the performance of Cunningham’s monumental work, and pays tribute to the culmination of their 40-year collaboration.

 

Camille LeFevre is a dance critic and arts journalist based in Minneapolis/St. Paul.

 

Photo: MCDC’s Andrea Weber at Rainbow Quarry (by Cameron Wittig, courtesy of Walker Art Center)

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