Twin Cities Dance Company Celebrates Diversity, Relevancy, Accessibility

November 29, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Rising to prominence in New York's dance scene, dancers Toni Pierce-Sands and Uri Sands left the Big Apple to start their own company in the Twin Cities, where an arts renaissance offered new chances to carve out their own niche. Fred de Sam Lazaro reports on how Tu Dance company is making dance accessible to a diverse audience.

JEFFREY BROWN: Next: a story of the arts and community.

It’s about a group in Minnesota that aims to take dance to new places. Its name is TU Dance.

Special correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro tells its story.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: TU Dance’s location, a rusty but recovering urban neighborhood, fits with its founders’ goal to put a new face on dance.

For Uri Sands and Toni Pierce-Sands, it’s been an unusual journey to get to this corner of Saint Paul.

Each rose to prominence in the ’90s, seeming to reach the pinnacle of storybook careers with New York’s Alvin Ailey Dance company.

Uri Sands grew up break dancing on Miami’s streets, took ballet as an elective in public school, and at 20 was invited to join Ailey’s troupe.

Toni Pierce grew up in Minnesota, where her mother enrolled her in dance school at 6, was eventually hired by Ailey, moved to Europe, was married for a time and had a son, then returned again to Ailey.

BEN JOHNSON,NorthropDanceCenter, University of Minnesota: I remember seeing Toni and Uri both as dancers. And they are two of the nation’s best dancers.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Ben Johnson, director of NorthropDanceCenter at the University of Minnesota, says the pair stands out for their wide repertoire. Johnson specifically recalls Toni Pierce-Sands performing a piece called “Cry” by Alvin Ailey, one of the 20th century’s giants of modern dance.

BEN JOHNSON: He created this piece to celebrate all mothers and women around the world. And only a very elite few dancers are allowed to perform this particular solo.

And that’s the piece that I first saw Toni Pierce perform. And Uri in the same way, I remember exactly the first time I ever saw him perform, again with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. He’s considered one of the most exquisite movers and one of the most beautiful dancers.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Toni Pierce returned home from New York again in 1999 for what she intended to be a short visit.

TONI PIERCE-SANDS, TU Dance: My family was helping take care of my son at the time. So I came back to Minnesota with all intentions to rebound with my family and then go back to New York, where Uri then shows up at the door and says, let’s stay in Minnesota.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: It may have seemed counterintuitive at first, but the Twin Cities, known for a thriving art scene and enjoying a renaissance in dance, offered new opportunities to carve out a niche.

URI SANDS, TU Dance: There had been a lot of work already done in the dance world, as well as room and space to welcome in new ideas and new visions for dance here in the Twin Cities.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: In 2004, the couple began TU Dance, named after Toni and Uri’s first initials. The company has regularly sold out larger and larger venues. What makes them stand apart is how many styles they incorporate into their programs.

BEN JOHNSON: What I have noticed over the past five years as a company is the evolution of the range of their work and how and they’re one of the few companies that within their own work spans so many different kinds of styles, from classical ballet to modern dance to contemporary performance to urban dance.

URI SANDS: One thing that is important for the diversity of the work that we do is for the dancers that work with the company to actually bring their experiences, their own personal experiences, because it’s all of these different components that ultimately help us create this sort of unique synergy, the uniqueness of the work that defines TU Dance.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Uri Sands choreographs most of the company’s works. His first evening-long piece was called “Sense(ability),” an exploration of all five senses and the elements. He described it to the local PBS program “Minnesota Original.”

URI SANDS: For instance, there’s air and touch, there’s water taste, fire sight, earth and smell, sound, ether. Toni and Marciano are doing a duet. And that’s air and touch.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: For those of the 11-member company, like David Rue and Eva Mohn, working here is a departure in both style and mind-set. They say TU Dance is not about competition, not just geared to a glorious performance.

EVA MOHN, dancer: For me, performance is such a small part of why I dance, and actually probably the least significant.


EVA MOHN: Yes. And I feel — I wouldn’t have said that a few years ago.

DAVID RUE, dancer: I love the process of creating and the process of rehearsing work, the process of taking class, and then the performance is just another part of that process, instead of this MountOlympus that we’re all trying to climb up to.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: TU Dance’s founders say they want to give opportunities to a wider diversity of students.

TONI PIERCE-SANDS: My sister and I danced at Minnesota Dance Theatre, and at that point, we were kind of the only two young dancers of color.

And after leaving and coming back, I — so much had grown here in the Twin Cities and in Saint Paul in terms of dance and the community and the dancers, but there was something that didn’t change, which was dancers of color.

URI SANDS: However, it doesn’t mean that we’re trying to do some social service or make sure that like everybody can just kind of like dance and we’re going to — excuse the phrase — kind of like dumb it down. That’s not what we’re doing.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: To give them that access, TU Dance works closely with local schools. Those who are invited, like 17-year-old Dominick Dates, face a mixture of grueling practice and tolerance, technical proficiency and individuality.

DOMINICK DATES, dance student: They teach you what they want you to do, but you do it how you want to do it. So, you can make whatever they teach you yours.

TONI PIERCE-SANDS: Yes, you got to put your own flavor.

DOMINICK DATES: Yes, your own flavor.


FRED DE SAM LAZARO: High school senior Immanuelle Thomas joined TU Dance from another dance school.

IMMANUELLE THOMAS, student: I come to TU and my teachers, I’m like, oh, wow, she has curves like me. Somebody in the company, she has a curve where I have a curve, and their skin is like mine. And I really understood, like, if they can make it, then there’s no excuse for me.

TONI PIERCE-SANDS: The idea is that, as performers, as artists, as students, that we are representing our audience, our community, the people, the watchers. And, my gosh, it’s just — it’s deep, but it’s kind of simple for us, you know?

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Less simple is raising the money to run a nonprofit dance company and school, to offer scholarships so students can study there for years. TU Dance’s annual budget is just $450,000.

Still, Toni Pierce-Sands at 50 and Uri Sands at 38 say they are looking forward to the legacy phase of their careers, sharing and giving back to an art form that transformed their lives.

RAY SUAREZ: Fred’s reporting is a partnership with the Under-Told Stories Project at Saint Mary’s University in Minnesota.