Uri Sands leads TU Dance in rehearsal. Photo by Graham Tolbert Photography, Courtesy TU Dance

Is it any surprise a world premiere by choreographer Uri Sands and musician Justin Vernon, both renowned for the profound beauty and gorgeous musicality of their work, immediately sold out? We're hungry for creative collaborations that take reflective deep dives into what constitutes our humanity—and then there's the undeniable cool factor. Nine members of TU Dance will perform alongside Bon Iver (Vernon's band) during the evening-length piece. Presented as part of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra's Liquid Music Series. April 19–21. The work will also appear at the Hollywood Bowl Aug. 5.

25 to Watch
Brandon Stengel, Courtesy Tu Dance

In a quietly explosive solo embedded in Uri Sands' Matter, Alanna Morris-Van Tassel epitomized the grace and openness for which TU Dance is acclaimed. Wrapped in the American flag, she infused her twists and reaches, bound hands and open-armed vulnerability with a spring-loaded legacy of ancestral grief and personal gratitude before her hunched body detonated in heart-wrenching spasms of release.

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TU Dance
Southern Theater
Minneapolis, MN
May 6–16, 2010
Reviewed by Camille LeFevre


Marciano Silva Dos Santos in the opening section of Sense(ability). Photo by Jim Smith, Courtesy Southern Theater.


Audience engagement has been a guiding principle of TU Dance since Uri Sands and Toni Pierce-Sands, former Ailey dancers, founded the company in 2004. Until now, the group has touched its audiences largely through Sands’ singular choreography of graciousness. Dancers of diverse races and body types have embodied his portraits of the human condition with their powerful technique and inviting presence.


Sands’ first evening-length work, Sense(ability), retains the grace and vitality of his earlier pieces. But it’s also overlaid with attempts to involve the audience that are by turns assaulting, cute, and incomplete.  The result verges on gimmickry.

Created to engage the five senses in a performance focusing on the natural elements, the work opens with “Ether/Sound,” a mysterious section infused with classical beauty. The entire scene feels elevated, with its many arabesques, leaps, and lifts. Against the backdrop of Minneapolis composer Chris Thomson’s original electronic score (in this section a sonorous soundscape with an undercurrent of clacking noises), Marciano Silva Dos Santos whirls through space with desperate agility and agitated grace. He animates statuesque poses with a ripple of muscle, a slow turn, and lifted walks. Berit Ahlgren struggles, then goes slack in Sands’ arms, before he slides her across the floor and suspends her overhead.


But how, exactly, is Sands commenting on sound in “Ether/Sound”? Are we to interpret the figure encased in a white shroud, cocoon-like, on the floor as a message of silence in the midst of sonic sensation? Sound actually takes on more resonance in the second section, “Fire/Sight,” as the music becomes brighter—even sparkly—above a deep beat.

Here, dancers are immersed in rhythmic, full-throttle torso undulations, swaying hips, shoulder shrugs, and playful hops that flicker intensely under a strobe light. From time to time, a bright beam blasts at the audience, blinding us temporarily before the strobe starts again, the dancers’ afterimage lingering on our retinas.

With “Air/Touch,” the headache-inducing attack on our senses continues with fans blowing air on the audience. Pierce-Sands and Dos Santos perform a melodic, flowing duet and like adoring parents watch Katelyn Skelley emerge from her cocoon. The swish and drape of Pierce-Sands’ skirts evoke the sensation of a gentle touch.

“Water/Taste” is a cloying, pre-intermission vignette in which the repeated sound of water pouring into a glass is meant to drive us from the theater to get a drink or use the restroom.

The evening concluded with “Earth/Smell.” To Asian-inflected music driven by chest-thumping bass, the dancers forge through a grounded choreography of bent knees, contracted torsos, hunched jumps, pulsing fists, and stamping feet, as arms gather and slap the space. Performed largely in unison, the closing emanates vigor but no discernible smell—not even from the sweat pouring off the dancers’ bodies. With TU Dance, gimmicks really are unnecessary; the music and the movement can stand alone.

ARENA Dances by Mathew Janczewski
“Dancin’ with ETHEL”
Southern Theater
Minneapolis, MN
October 23–26, 2008
Reviewed by Camille LeFevre


Photo by Eric Melzer.

Sarah Baumert and

Amy Behm-Thomson

of ARENA Dances.

Click here to watch excerpts

from the program.


Mathew Janczewski is concerned with the emotions that music elicits and translating those emotions into choreographic portraits of intimacy. This program of five works (including three premieres) was set to the often tense, dissonant, cinematic sounds of contemporary composers, performed onstage by the New York string quartet ETHEL.

Strife was evident in Janczewski’s partner-intensive choreography, particularly in the new duet Once (music by Mary Ellen Childs). In this unresolved study in claustrophobia, Stephen Schroeder clenches against, pushes down, and scoops away from Stephanie Laager when their hands, arms, backs, and legs aren’t linked in pauses or joined in lifts.


In the new duet Everything, Everything, Amy Behm-Thomson and guest artist Erin Thompson project a secret ironic knowingness as a woman’s voice reminds us, over the minor key score by Pamela Z, that there “are two remaining lifelines” and that the duet is “made possible through the generous donations of viewers like you.” The latter phrase, gleaned from public television, is somewhat self-reflexive given the onstage plea for donations before the show. The dancers also mirror each other’s extended arm presentation; flat, slicing hands; poking, beak-like fingers; and curving, wrapping, swinging movements.


The new quartet Run With Me is set to a sharp, sinister Psycho-like commissioned score by Michael Croswell. Headlocks, faux fist fights, and disciplined thrashing are submerged in Janczewski's soft, flowing choreography and evocative stage pictures, such as the when the women, backs arched on the floor, lie bathed in rectangles of light. The costumes—turquoise party dresses and red undies for the women, red shirts and dress pants on the men—add to the sense of disjuncture.


Janczewski’s dance vocabulary is one of spiral and sway, scoop and surge, tension and release, flight and groundedness, and quick directional turns. It’s propelled by a momentum that allows you to see the wind in the dancers’ hair. So when the dancers lilt and cascade through Spiral Shift (to music by Evan Ziporyn) in their diaphanous costumes, reveling in the energy of Ethel’s furiously polished live performance, the movement is lovely to watch.


But in this program, the lyricism becomes repetitive. Hold On (music by Phil Kline), for instance, juxtaposes a weighted sense of menace with smooth, watchful choreography. But when Julie Brant McBride vertically squiggles with tight annoyance, one longs for more of this individuality and edgy change in tone.


Take a look for yourself! Click here to watch excerpts from "Dancin' with ETHEL."


Eiko and Koma's Hunger
Walker Art Center
Minneapolis, MN
October 9–11, 2008
Reviewed by Camille LeFevre

Photo by Cameron Wittig
for Walker Art Center.
Eiko and Koma in Hunger.

The raven—a bird iconic around the world for its sociability, intelligence, and appetite for carrion—is omnipresent in Eiko and Koma’s Hunger. Throughout the 75-minute work, commissioned in part by the Walker Art Center where it premiered, recordings of the raven’s coarse, throaty caw are paired with resonant gamelan music performed live by Joko Sutrisno.

The bird’s form appears in the calligraphic slashes of black painted on backdrops before and during the piece by performers Charian (aka Chakrya So) and Peace (aka Setpheap Sorn). Peace embodies the creature’s ominous shape when she perches—her hands clawed and arms crooked like wings—on the prone figure of Charian. And the spectral, black-robed Koma, hovering in the background, evokes the watchful aspects of the black-feathered scavenger.

The object of raven’s interest is a sparse, harsh landscape of deprivation, filled with metaphors at once riveting and horrifying, grotesque and captivating.

The piece opens with Eiko and Koma, naked and dusted with white rice powder, upside down on two crossed lengths of chain-link. They might have been thrown there during a nuclear blast. They might be the memory of prisoners interned at Japanese-American “relocation camps.” As they slowly move toward each other, their motion registers as ambient sound: The metal has been miked.

Thereafter, much of the work takes place on a mat lying on top of and covered with loose rice. Here Eiko, mouth gaping and thin limbs sprawling, conjures images of starvation in Somalia or Darfur, as she quietly writhes amid the plentitude of grain beneath her. Similarly, Peace and Charian bend their legs backward as if in poses of Hindu deities, reminders of spiritual starvation in the midst of plenty.

Both of the men, at different times, appear with mounds of cooked rice, which they carry bundled in black cloth like newborns. The women, their limbs stiff and useless, sink their open mouths into the rice but seemingly gain no sustenance from it.

After Koma moves his mouth to Eiko's lips, arm, and shoulder, she violently slams herself back into the chain link. Koma then heaves the cooked rice into Eiko’s chest. For these wordless creatures, painstaking movement or a guttural call seems the only means of communication.

But the presence of Charian and Peace, in their white skirts and red shirts, give Hunger a sense of hope. Their interactions are both painful and tender. They slash at the canvas with anger and abandon, their brushes dripping with black paint. When Eiko and Koma—covered in powder, sweat, rice and paint—stand by them at the end, their arduous process of humanity is leavened with the possibility of both youth and of art.

Last June, audiences on the Stone Arch Bridge over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis absorbed a 360-degree perspective of Marylee Hardenbergh’s Solstice River. People of all ages, from children to grandparents, ran from one side of the bridge to the other in search of dancers high up on adjacent buildings or waving streamers from the jetty below. After white-robed women enacted a mingling-of-waters ceremony on the lock and dam, the sun began to set, filling the sky with color.


“When you do site-specific dance,” Hardenbergh says, “you open yourself up to these fabulously serendipitous moments of incredible beauty that you simply can’t plan for.”


California choreographer Deidre Cavazzi agrees. Last July, she performed A Sonnet for the Sea aboard the Brig Pilgrim, a replica of an 1825 tall ship moored in Dana Point Harbor, in what has become an annual tradition for the last three years. The performance included a jig on the dock, and a duet between a woman in bowsprite netting and a man on a floating platform 30 feet below. “An amazing layer of fog settled in the harbor, making the whole performance magical,” she recalls. “With site work, there are so many variables you can’t control, which makes every performance completely different.”


With outdoor site work, weather is only one of those variables. Indoors, people are another variable—and they can be more erratic than the weather. Last year, during a particularly spirited moment of Cavazzi’s Mightier Than the Sword: Dancing Volumes for Banned Books Week at a college library in Mission Viejo, a security guard—uninformed about the performance—pulled a gun on a member of the technical crew.


Months, even years, of planning go into the creation of site-specific work, from obtaining permits, insurance, and permissions, to researching and exploring the site, to making and rehearsing the piece. But it’s the thrill of experiencing the work as it happens—with or without natural or human influence—that leaves an indelible impression.


“Site-specific dance gets people into places they wouldn’t ordinarily have gone,” says choreographer Debra Loewen of Milwaukee. Last year her Wild Space Dance Company, in Place and Occasion, explored the phenomenon of 1930s dance marathons in the dilapidated historic Turner Ballroom. In her Vanishing Line, dancers arrived by yacht, disembarked on piers, and navigated Lakeshore State Park’s beaches and rocky terrain before disappearing into the night.


“People tell me they return to the sites where they’ve seen my work and have a memory that’s special,” Loewen says. “Site-specific dance alerts them to look at the site in a different way. It reminds them there’s more to see than they first imagined.”


Hardenbergh states this experience another way: “Site-specific dance creates a sense of place in viewers that’s not as fleeting or ephemeral as the performance itself; it’s a lasting impression.”


So what is site-specific dance? The term is used to describe almost any dance performance not occurring on a concert stage, from Anna Halprin and Trisha Brown’s outdoor experiments in the 1960s and ’70s, to the multidecade, on-site oeuvres of Loewen, Heidi Duckler, Joanna Haigood, Stephan Koplowitz, and Ann Carlson. But the one element that sets apart true site-specific work is a commitment to place. “For me, a work is site-specific when everything, including your inspiration, comes from the location so that the material itself couldn’t be done somewhere else,” says Loewen. “It’s not about choreographing something in the studio, then trimming the edges to make it fit someplace else,” she continues. “It might involve contouring and forging interesting relationships between the body and the walls or the hallways, or even the history of the place.”


It may also involve moving the audience throughout the site to view different parts of the performance from various perspectives. As Cavazzi says, “The movement vocabulary changes with each location, as do audience vantage points. This is a fantastic challenge as a choreographer. Each new space opens new ways of looking at dance and movement, and each experience changes my preconceived ideas about space.”


Before deciding on the vantage points for her emotionally resonant Sleeping With the Ambassador (2003), Duckler and her collaborators “mapped the site” of Los Angeles’ Ambassador Hotel to determine where the audience would walk, stand, or participate. The performers practically “lived at the site,” she says, while generating material, such as choreography around and on furniture, stairways, door openings, and columns. By creating relationships between the dancers’ bodies and the building, Duckler adds, she was able to “physicalize the space.”


Noémie Lafrance, who sent her dancers skidding across the stainless-steel curves of Frank Gehry’s Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College in upstate New York in Rapture (work in progress) last year, has her own take on the physicality she requires. “I’m interested in using my physical knowledge to respond to a space in an instinctual, sensorial way,” she says. By putting her dancers in rigging, Lafrance has created a choreography that “describes the curves, slopes and topography of the building to generate an orchestration of rhythms and patterns in response to the architecture.”


The creation of site-specific dance often has a positive effect on the non-dancers who watch or participate in the work. When creating A Sonnet for the Sea with her ArchiTexture Dance Company, Cavazzi says she attended ship-crew meetings “to win them over.” She eventually incorporated several crew members into the piece. Also, during on-board rehearsals, she noticed some passersby kept returning to observe the piece and talk with her. By the performance time, she says, “They’d developed a sense of ownership in the piece because they’d watched it being created over a period of months.”


For the dance world at large, one advantage of on-site work is that it often attracts audience members who have never seen a dance performance. “Passersby or even people who are too intimidated to attend a dance concert are drawn to my performances,” says Hardenbergh.


To some site-specific choreographers, their greatest role is as a community builder. Loewen says collaboration is essential to realizing her works. Not only does a site-specific dance bring together dancers, place, and audience, it also enlightens the city administrators, local organizations and on-site work crews who make such work possible about the transformative power of dance.


As the Brig Pilgrim crew told Cavazzi after the first Sonnet performance, “This ship has always been so beautiful to us, but we never imagined you could make her more beautiful by bringing her alive with dance. We’ll never be able to look at the ship the same way.”


Camille LeFevre is the dance critic for the
Minneapolis Star Tribune and an independent scholar of site-specific dance.


Photo by Bentley Cavazzi, Courtesy ArchiTexture.

Don’t call her work “activist art,” says choreographer Emily Johnson. Though the endangered natural environment has been her theme in several works, the soft-spoken, slender Johnson says she owes her vision as much to the exploratory vocabulary of contact improvisation as the natural world of her Alaskan childhood.


Praised by Minneapolis critics for the clean, strong physicality of her movement as well as her readiness to take on pertinent issues, Johnson is winning grants and increasing national recognition. Performing on the spit/sluice we are outlaws this past June in a tiny theater adjacent to a bowling alley in Minneapolis, Johnson emanated a ferocity-laced sweetness in a duet, performed with dancer Susan Scalf, that she originally choreographed on a spit of land in her native Alaska. Johnson’s sharp, truncated movements contrasted with Scalf’s more robust presence and whipping limbs, with both styles interspersed with the occasional spoken word or shout. The props included a blue tarp, representing the Mississippi River, in which Johnson rolled herself. At one point, dancers threw glasses of water on windows, then quickly tried to staunch the downward flow with their fingers.

In her freshman year as a scholarship student studying physical therapy at the University of Minnesota, Johnson took a dance class—and changed her major. She studied ballet and modern dance, but her biggest influence at the university was contact improvisation guru Chris Aiken. “Dance improvisation has been a huge force in my training ever since,” she says. “I feel that’s where my base is.” (She has since also studied improvisation with Julyen Hamilton, Jennifer Monson, and Nancy Stark Smith.)

Johnson, 30, who is one-eighth Yup’ik Eskimo, acquired her environmental sensitivity while growing up on the Kenai Peninsula, where she relished her family’s hunting, camping, and fishing trips. Her mother was a homemaker and special-education teacher’s aide, her father an electrician.  Johnson played varsity basketball and ran cross-country in high school. As a child, her only dance training was a “tap and tumble” class, she recalls.
After graduating from the University of Minnesota in 1998, Johnson turned out a prolific body of lean, rigorous, abstract work performed by Catalyst, her company of powerful young women. Spoken text, sports metaphors, children’s games, and props entered into the work, while Johnson deftly fused humor, drama ,and movement into riveting minimalist pieces both thought-provoking and entertaining.

Works like Power Play (2001) examined competitive sports via Johnson’s muscular moderndance idiom. Never Meant to Hurt (2003) realized a beautiful text on love and loneliness through an unsentimental choreography of tension and release, grasping and flinging away, long open moves, and angled limbs—all of which enhanced the work’s mystery.

In 2004, the Walker Art Center commissioned and produced Johnson’s most ambitious work to date, Heat and Life. Performed in an old soap factory near downtown Minneapolis, it was accompanied by an electronic ambient soundscape created by Lateduster,  a group, led by Johnson’s husband, JG Everest. The dancers performed the stripped-down, vernacular choreography with singleminded purpose. The walked, ran, and reconfigured themselves like a SWAT team, representing her vision of a world already reeling from the affects of global warming But Johnson's use of the site and space, her costuming and props, and music and movement were a flashback to the performances of dancemakers in the 1960s and ’70s. It was the piece that Johnson brought this summer to New York’s Dance Theater Workshop and that she intends to perform in all 50 states. She’s crossed Alaska, Wisconsin, Minnesota and New York off the list; this fall Catalyst performs the work in Nebraska, South Dakota and Iowa, and in March 2007 the work will be at Links Hall in Chicago. After each show, the audience participates in a question-and-answer session with a local environmental organization.

“I don’t feel this piece will change the world,” Johnson says, “but the feedback I get from the organizations I collaborate with is they feel it creates a vital intersection of art and science. They can talk facts and figures, but they can’t talk about the heart or emotion of the situation. They can’t paint a dire picture, which is where the performance comes in. That’s the role of art.”

Camille LeFevre is freelance dance critic and arts journalist based in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Catalyst, Dances by Emily Johnson:
Heat and Life @ The Soap Factory, Minneapolis, MN
©Photography by Gene Pittman
for Walker Art Center


Catalyst, dances by Emily Johnson
The Soap Factory, Minneapolis, MN
October 28–30, 2004
Reviewed by Camille LeFevre


Shortly after graduating from the University of Minnesota in 1998, Emily Johnson became a presence in the Twin Cities for her rigorous, abstract dance works performed by Catalyst, her company of lithe, tough women. Her choreography was fresh and fierce, evocative and disciplined, her use of staging, costumes, and live music surprisingly mature. Critics hailed the young choreographer as a fresh talent with tremendous potential.

In her much-anticipated new work, Heat and Life, Johnson displays a more experimental bent. Although the work’s theme is the future perils of global warming, Johnson’s use of site and space, costuming and props, music and movement conjures flashbacks to the performances of dancemakers in the 1960s.

Heat and Life takes place inside (and at times outside) the cavernous rooms of a former soap factory. The seven dancers eschew “dancerly” costumes for pants, boots, blaze-orange vests or ponchos, goggles, and face masks. In the stripped-down choreography, they walk, run, and assemble, dissemble, and reassemble with the orderly purpose of a SWAT team.

Everyday items like industrial electrical cords, blocks of ice melting in red plastic bags, and the walkie-talkies the dancers use to shout out each other’s movements add a touch of realism. As if intending to subvert our notions of performance, the dancers yell to each other using their real names, sell dust masks before the show, and order the audience to another part of the factory at the end of the performance.

Throughout the 80-minute piece, the aura of hazard rarely lets up. The dancers negotiate squares of green turf (vibrant pieces of nature in an otherwise barren world) on the concrete floor like dangerous terrain. Standing on tiptoe, they stumble or collapse, legs crumbling beneath them. They crab walk, hum like bees, stand at attention with their hands clasped behind their heads.

One woman gets left behind, twisting in place before pulling her shirt over her head and rocking herself. Another woman tears apart a square of turf with a garden shears. Like giant birds, the dancers slowly bow their heads, raise and lower their arms—or are they signaling through the flames? Repetitiveness, multiple endings, and a lack of focus marred an otherwise ardent venture.

For more information:

Sarah Michelson
Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, MN
September 15–18, 2005
Reviewed by Camille LeFevre


Before creating her “Daylight” series, co-commissioned by the Walker Art Center, Sarah Michelson interviewed the architects at Herzog and de Meuron, who designed the art center’s new addition and theater. Daylight (for Minneapolis) brought the series home, as Michelson responded with insouciance and brilliance to the Swiss firm’s architectural theories.

In her structural and perceptual reconfiguration of the Walker’s brand-new theater (an audacious move), Michelson explored the architects’ concepts of the hidden and the revealed, while upending traditional audience expectations. She left the theater’s seats vacant, putting the bulk of the audience in walled-in, onstage seating. Unless they were in the back rows and knew to stand up and look down and behind them, their sightlines were limited to what occurred in front of them. Only from the front row of the center balcony could one watch other groups of dancers (all of them from Minneapolis) huddled around the live band, or moving in the side balconies or the theater seats, or performing behind the onstage seating.

Michelson’s exploration of openness and closure continued in the sumptuous lighting, which darkened, spot lit, or flooded the theater with blinding brightness. The full-bodied movements of the professional “onstage” dancers (Michelson, Parker Lutz, Mike Iveson, and Greg Zuccolo) were open, swinging and propelled by momentum; conversely, the 44 Minneapolis dancers (many of them from a local arts high school, with their long, dyed-red hair hiding their faces) did a slow or pulsating rib undulation while moving one foot forward and back and caressing one thigh with one hand.

Bridging the two groups was the transcendent Jennifer Howard, who spent most of the performance with the Minneapolis dancers, slicing and muscling through the space behind the stage audience. After entering the front stage vacated by the Michelson dancers, Howard collapsed at the feet of a dancer wearing a Mickey Mouse head, piquing questions about the increasing Disney-fication of art, as well as the postmodern blend of professional and amateur, high art and pop culture in this work and in contemporary culture as a whole.

Michelson also probed the cult of celebrity, turning the relationship between art and institution inside out by displaying enormous portraits of the Walker’s staff. Repetition underscored the dancers’ movements, echoing the recurring white-painted lattice motif—a reference to an architectural feature—on screens, leotards, and windows. That pattern signaled the audience where to look before and after the performance to see the dance installations taking place inside, outside, and in the windows of the Walker.


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