Ask Uri Sands and Toni Pierce-Sands what drives them, both personally and professionally, and they give you a travelogue.
When the founders of TU Dance were members of the Alvin Ailey Company in the 1990s, tours took them to every continent except Antarctica. They fell in love in Greece, broke up in Israel, then got back together in Paris. They have been married since 2001.
Dance took Sands from the risky streets of Miami, where he grew up, to the cultural capitals of the world. Dance gave St. Paul native Pierce-Sands freedom and regal bearing. So what made this globe-trotting duo settle in the Twin Cities and remain here, more or less, for the past 10 years?
“We just want to give back to the world some of the gifts and opportunities we’ve been given,” said Sands, 40, last week in a sparse anteroom at their St. Paul dance studio. “We know what dance did for us, as windows and doors, and we want it to be that type of opportunity for dancers, fans, everybody.”
“It really isn’t about us,” added Pierce-Sands, 52. “It’s about sharing the joy that we’ve experienced through this form.”
The company, which has its spring concert Saturday at Ordway Center in St. Paul, burst onto the scene in June 2003 with a show at the Barbara Barker Dance Center at the University of Minnesota, where Pierce-Sands was teaching.
On one of the nights of their opening weekend, tornado sirens forced dancers and audience members to huddle in a stairwell. But that show, titled “Space-T.U.-Embrace,” announced their talents and ethos. Top-notch dancers executed a seamless blend of ballet, jazz, African and modern dance that was inviting, fun and beautiful.
“Majestic and powerful” is how the Star Tribune described Sands. On the basis of that show alone, City Pages declared Sands and Pierce-Sands artists of the year.
One decade and a cavalcade of accolades later, the troupe is thriving, even as companies such as Minnesota Dance Theatre and Ballet of the Dolls face steep challenges.
What began for Sands and Pierce-Sands as big dreams backed by small grants from the Jerome Foundation and University of Minnesota has turned into a solid company with 10 dancers on contract plus two artistic directors and a part-time staff. The troupe’s annual budget has grown to more than $600,000, a figure that is certain to rise. A recent $500,000, five-year grant from the Knight Foundation will help TU expand its dance school and build capacity for future growth.
The pair spoke at their 4,200-square-foot TU Dance studio and school, located between an auto-body shop and a Subway outlet on W. University Avenue in St. Paul. Opened two years ago, the school has more than 100 students.
The company was rehearsing pieces for Saturday’s performance, where they will present “The River,” a duet choreographed by Ailey that will be performed by Sands and Laurel Keen; Sands’ “One,” about Henrietta Lacks, the African-American woman who died in 1951 but whose cells are still used by research scientists today; and “Hikari,” a new piece on the theme of light and lightness that was commissioned by the Ordway.
Even before the rehearsal wrapped up at 4 p.m., eager young dancers began streaming into the dance studio.
Charlie Bruner, a Deephaven mother, waited in the lobby for her daughter, Isabella. Bruner has been making the 45-mile round-trip drive from her home to St. Paul several times a week because Isabella has found a “home,” she said.
“We used to be at MDT [Minnesota Dance Theatre], then Isabella got hurt and couldn’t do ballet anymore,” she said. “But then she came here, and it’s warm and welcoming. We give money to TU because it’s such a special company.”
Generosity and openness
Nearly all TU Dance supporters interviewed at an open rehearsal at the Ordway echoed that sentiment, both about the work they see onstage, and their interactions with the founders. They point to generosity and openness of the work that, as founding board chair Leif Anderson said, “invites everyone in.”
Al Zdrazil, a former assistant attorney general of Minnesota and a longtime supporter of the troupe, said that he has “known Toni from way back, and I never know what they’re going to do, but I know it’s going to be interesting and accessible. They are committed to the highest artistic excellence.”
At the crowded open rehearsal, Sands asked one of his company members, David Rue, to illustrate the dance-making process for “Hikari,” which is Japanese for light and which was choreographed by Sands.
Rue, a Liberian refugee who graduated from the University of Minnesota, spoke eloquently while dancing.
“First, we played with light as if it were a thing we’re running to or from,” Rue said as he illustrated the movements. “We looked at light in terms of illumination,” he said, covering his eyes, “and weightlessness” (he rose and got taller, as if getting ready to float away). Images such as sea foam and shadows got translated into movement.
As Rue spoke and danced, the phrases and motifs built until he was scooping out something from inside his chest.
Sands’ choreography is not narrative or even heady, even though it’s well-considered and intelligent. He goes straight for the heart, trying to capture emotions.
“Ten years from now, you may not remember something specific about a person, but you remember how they made you feel,” he said. “We’re on the cusp of doing something, I know, but we can’t speak too loftily. It’s all about the people, and the work.”
From funders to audience members, dancers to staff, the company has built up a well of good feelings, which allowed Pierce-Sands to dream a little out loud.
“What will we be in the next 10 years?” she asked. “We’ll be taking dance from St. Paul to the world.”