The resignation of a renowned Twin Cities dance leader following sexual misconduct allegations has raised a call for greater protections and dialogue in the industry.
At TU Dance, a prestigious dance company in St. Paul, co-founder Uri Sands resigned at the end of December, nearly two months before the company reached an undisclosed settlement with a former dancer. Five former dancers told the Star Tribune they experienced years of misconduct from Sands. But through an attorney, Sands, 46, who started the St. Paul company with his wife, denied any misconduct, saying he “believed that he had consensual, adult relationships with those individuals.”
Now, some dancers are pushing the community to confront consent issues in the wake of the MeToo movement — like other industries, from yoga to gymnastics, have done.
“Definitely [what happened at TU Dance] has repercussions,” said Sally Rousse, a veteran ballet dancer, choreographer and co-founder of James Sewell Ballet in Minneapolis. “We need to talk about it. We could lead the work in the country in exemplifying appropriate touch, appropriate behavior. … Dancers are held up to [a] highly sexualized, objectified place. It would be great if we could reclaim the appropriate behavior.”
Rousse and Caroline Palmer, a former Star Tribune freelance dance writer and former legal manager at the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault, organized a private forum on sexual harassment in the industry in 2017, at the height of the MeToo movement. They’re planning a second one later this year.
Allegations of inappropriate behavior have hit dance companies from the New York City Ballet to the London Royal Ballet. In the Twin Cities, the Children’s Theatre Company reached settlements last year over sex abuse from the 1970s and 1980s, and more theaters have hired intimacy directors, choreographers safely staging intimate scenes. “There are really abuses of power specific to the dance field,” said a 35-year-old former TU Dance dancer, one of the five dancers alleging misconduct who spoke to the Star Tribune on the condition of anonymity, adding that dance education should include consent and that companies need to protect dancers. “I think it’s a bigger question of how we react and respond to this behavior.”
Pattern of behavior
Sands founded TU Dance with his wife, Toni Pierce-Sands in 2004 — their first initials making up the company name. The couple had made their mark with the New York-based Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, one of the nation’s leading troupes, and their company quickly rose in prominence in Minnesota, with Star Tribune arts critics naming the couple Artists of the Year in 2005 and the Knight Foundation granting the company $500,000 in 2014. The company, which has 10 dancers, has worked with 4,000 students since 2011.
Five former dancers who spoke to the Star Tribune on the condition of anonymity said they experienced unwanted touch or sexual contact from Sands since 2012. In the small, competitive dance community, they said they were reluctant to share their stories fearing backlash. Only one of the five women filed a police report (which Minneapolis police confirmed) and took legal action, retaining Jeff Anderson’s firm, which represented the Children’s Theatre and local Catholic Church victims. The others said they just want their stories told.
“Our bodies are our materials, so it’s a very fine line to be asked to use your body artistically,” one of the five dancers added. “We don’t have a practice of consent. There’s not a very clear line of what’s OK and what’s not OK.”
Attorney Sara McGrane, who represented Sands and the company, said that he has “since learned that those individuals don’t believe that they were consensual given that he was in a position of authority. And for that he is sorry.”
Over the years, Sands and Pierce-Sands opened a school and training center, won grants and collaborated with Justin Vernon of folk band Bon Iver, performing across the nation.
“They’re the most important professional dance company in the Twin Cities,” said Michèle Steinwald, an independent dance curator and program director for Momentum: New Dance Works, who hasn’t worked directly with TU. “It’s incredible there’s a conversation now happening. It’s thanks to survivors that are willing to break the silence.”
Olive Bieringa, a dancer and educator who now lives in Norway, said two of the women told her a couple of years ago of inappropriate conduct while being forced to share hotel rooms with Sands.
“I think the company owes something to all of those dancers,” Bieringa said in an e-mail, adding that some contact improvisation — a form of improvised dancing — have addressed consent, but all dancers need trainings on safe touch. “It’s challenging because we are working with our bodies, minds, touch and movement all day long. It is hard to do good work when you do not feel safe.”
One dancer said she traveled with Sands to Paris on tour in 2014, but when they arrived, she saw that Sands had booked one room for the week with one bed. “We have a tight budget,” she said he told her.
That night, she said she awoke to him kissing and touching her under her clothes; she moved to sleep on the floor, she said. Another former dancer said she was also surprised to find one hotel room when she traveled abroad as Sands’ assistant. That night she said he came into bed and lay up against her while she was sleeping; she alleges that two months later he raped her. In 2017, she and two women reported to a former board member that Sands “engaged inappropriately and at times illegally.” .
McGrane said the 2017 e-mail report to the board led to the board requiring Sands to complete counseling and therapy and he was prohibited from traveling alone with female dancers; the company also reviewed its sexual misconduct policy.
After Anderson’s firm served a member of the board with a lawsuit last October, TU Dance hired an independent investigator and a human resources director, and did mandatory anti-discrimination and harassment training for dancers, employees and board members.