The national conversation about race ushered in by Barack Obama's presidency isn't going away anytime soon. If anything, the Donald Trump era is viewed by many as requiring an even more urgent need to address racism, xenophobia and bigotry. At the forefront of the battle stand artists, who can tackle social and political issues in ways that an op-ed or Facebook post cannot.
The Twin Cities is lucky to have TU Dance, which, for its fall season concert at the O'Shaughnessy in St. Paul, addressed the racism that festers at the heart of our country with fearlessness, artistry and grace. The work offered a response to police violence against black people, and the awakening that has been led by communities of color since the unrest in Ferguson, Mo.
Two premieres, by Artistic Director Uri Sands and guest artist Francesca Harper, were presented in dialogue with each other at the beginning and end of the evening. Both used voice-over (notably, Harper's use of the audio of Sandra Bland's arrest, and Sands' use of a speech by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.) in combination with movement that poked and prodded at tensions involving race and identity until the dancers erupted.
In between the two premieres was a more lyrical work by Sands from 2005 called "Tearing" that featured some lovely duets and a trio, with an especially moving performance by Tara Cacciatore and Darwin Black.
Harper's "In Witnessing" saw Artistic Director Toni Pierce-Sands carry a microphone on stage, holding it to the lips of the dancers, individually, to allow them to speak. Her movements were woven into the choreography. They became an integral part of the message, where the dancers' voices — declaring their humanity — became as important as their moves. The dancers carried pressure and stress, bursting into sprints, eventually finding a rhythmic cohesion and release.
Sands' "Matter" evoked historical violence against African-Americans as part of the movement vocabulary. The dancers held their hands behind their backs, as if bound, and alluded to being choked or hanged. Like Harper's work, Sands offered a hopeful resolution, a pathway toward freedom: As an enormous weight that hung over the performers lifted, they raised their arms overhead into a poetic V.
Sheila Regan is a Minneapolis arts writer.