Justin Vernon is good with words. So good that his lyrics have helped Bon Iver win a few Grammys. Uri Sands, too, speaks easily and eloquently about his work with acclaimed dance troupe TU Dance.
But in separate conversations, both Vernon and Sands paused, failing to find words to capture the magic of what they’ve created together.
“It’s been very different — in ways that I’m not even ready to explain,” Vernon said by phone from April Base Studios in Wisconsin, the indie-rock icon’s creative outpost. “It’s pretty moving [stuff], what we’re doing.” He paused again. “I’m feeling it really hard, and I don’t even know why.”
Sitting in his dance company’s studio a day later and a state away, Sands shook his head. “This is beyond anything that I think we could have ever imagined,” he said. “Even watching the dancers today: They’re beautiful; the dance is gorgeous. But that’s a tenth of what you experience when it all comes together.”
The project that has knocked these artists speechless is part dance performance, part rock concert. In a series of pieces that shift in tempo and tone, nine dancers perform alongside Vernon and three bandmates as they create a live score. Last month, audiences first saw the project, titled “Come Through,” as a work-in-progress at MASS MoCA, the contemporary art museum in North Adams, Mass.
“It felt like we had been doing it for 20 years,” Vernon said. “But it also felt super-exciting and fresh.”
The performance — part of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra’s boundary-bending Liquid Music series — officially premieres this week, with four sold-out shows at St. Paul’s Palace Theatre. Expectations are high: Already, the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles has booked the mash-up.
Vernon has “no idea” whether the music will become an album. But he knows he’ll work with this troupe again: “I feel like I have new longtime collaborator with TU Dance.”
‘Cute little bromance’
Vernon and Sands have “a cute little bromance,” as one dancer put it. So it makes sense that the project began as a blind date.
The pair were set up by Liquid Music’s curator, Kate Nordstrum. “She totally got me to go to a lunch with somebody I’d never met before, which never happens,” Vernon said. “I don’t even have time to go to lunch with my mom as much as I’d like to.”
Sands and Vernon hit it off. Talked big ideas.
“I think we’re both really tired of art not moving the needle,” Vernon said. “About the needle not moving. About people not taking care of people. About the general status of the world. And about the lack of empathy and love on a global scale.”
They got beers. Traded audio files.
The TU Dance troupe then trekked to April Base, in rural Fall Creek, Wis., Vernon’s recording studio. They rehearsed in a big barn, laying a vinyl dance surface over the concrete floor.
“We basically riffed off of each other,” Vernon said.
“It felt like fellowship,” Sands said. “That’s what it was: fellowship.”
Until then, the dancers had just heard recordings. The musicians — Michael Lewis, B.J. Burton and J.T. Bates on drums — had just seen videos.
For a week, they created together, said dancer Taylor Collier. “Justin would watch a movement and respond musically. And when Uri would hear something musically, we’d respond to it with our bodies.
“It was a cool exchange back and forth between two different artists and two different art mediums.”
Turns out those different artists have created similar communities. In its studio on University Avenue in St. Paul, TU Dance hosts classes for kids and adults, professional rehearsals and intimate, work-in-progress performances.
“People of all different demographics are interacting and coming through,” Sands said. At April Base, he witnessed a similar commingling. Singers, musicians, friends. A band from Iceland, in town to record.
“What he’s doing there is the exact same sort of center,” Sands said. “He’s bringing artists together … to explore, to unpack the art form.”
Vernon and Sands’ early conversations about art and humanity became the themes that thread the work together. Sands’ choreography — modern, with hints of hip-hop and ballet — doesn’t spell out a story. Vernon’s lyrics — sung in his famous, synthesized falsetto — are often unclear. But together, they evoke an aching, then a searching.
“We have some very challenging times in this world today,” Sands said. “The work is not addressing that, per se. But I think what the work may do is reflect where we are today and a hope and desire for where we might like to be tomorrow.”
Not a concert or a dance show
On a recent afternoon, in TU Dance’s sunny studio, two women rehearsed a duet.
An easy, earthy guitar melody played as the two dancers mirrored each other’s movements. They leaned on each other, rising. They pushed each other forward, gently.
The recorded music sounded little like what Bon Iver played at MASS MoCA last month. But Sands and wife Toni Pierce-Sands, the company’s co-artistic director and co-founder, wanted to show a small audience of donors and friends where the project began.
“We wanted to give them the rawest form, so that we could give them the trajectory,” Sands said.
That trajectory was still changing at MASS MoCA, where music, dance, costume and visual art projections came together. For Collier, 26, performing to live music kept the dancers “super-aware, super-attentive, listening,” she said.
“If Justin decides to hold a note, how do we respond?” Collier said. “It just took it to a whole other level. Wow, I didn’t even know I could dance like that.”
Vernon, too, didn’t know he could play like that.
“I like playing music for people, but I’ve never gotten a lot out of being front and center and having people stare at you,” he said by phone. “So in this sense, I was able to relax a lot of things I realize I’ve carried with me. Not to hide — but increase in size, almost, musically.”
The dancers knew that the audiences at MASS MoCA would be made up, mostly, of “Justin’s fans,” Pierce-Sands said. “I was trying to figure out: How are these people going to respond to the work?
“It’s not a concert, but it’s not a dance performance,” she continued. “It’s something else.”
Then she paused, searching for the right words.