It’s no secret that TU Dance always puts on a good show. The company founded by former Alvin Ailey stars Uri Sands and Toni Pierce-Sands earns sold-out houses and standing ovations in response to Sands’s smart, lively choreography, and the company’s sleek, keen dancing. TU Dance offers acrobatic leaps, twisting, thinky partnering, and heartfelt emotion; no wonder audiences love them. But as the company enters its fourth year, in what direction is it going?
This concert opens with two revivals and closes with two premieres. “Lady” (from 2003, before the company was quite formed), an African-inflected work set to the soulful music of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, finds Sands in an easy, theatrical mood, arranging movement frontally, for the audience, along the line of some conceit he finds in the music—a gaggle of giggling girls, say, or a trio of swaggering men. I find “Lady” on the dull and predictable side, except when the ecstatic cutting free of one company member or another raises the dance above itself, above the sequence of audience-oriented steps. But “Lady” does contain a gem: a little duet for Sands and Pierce-Sands that switches between sensual adventure and gentle kindness, between complex moves in which Pierce-Sands’s long legs act as compasses, leading the pair from one involution to the next, and soft companionate curves, one body holding up another.
In the second revival, “For You” (2007), one audience member is seated on stage and six dancers dance directly in front of and for this single viewer, aiming their looks and their forms in his or her direction. Last time I saw this, I felt mostly embarrassed for the singled-out audience member, who is the recipient of some truly treacly smiles. This time, however, I saw how the one viewer acts as an imaginary magnifying glass for the rest of us, inviting us to experience the kaleidoscopic swirl of bodies on stage. “For You” is elegant modern dance, sweeping and athletic. Sands has a bent for the arduous in partnering, which results in risky, almost combative moves as two dancers tumble over each other, catching a few impossible balances on the way to the ground. Still, overall “For You” is strikingly humanist in its close-up view of the dance’s delicate negotiations.
The first premiere, “Likedatliciousonicdindaadaa,” is easily the hit of the night. Here, Sands dives into urban dance (club dance, popping and locking, breakdance), sliding a cute duet and two brief, shadowy solos onto the stage before finishing off with a full company freak-out. Sands has featured urban dance before, but never in quite this way. Before, he seemed to assume that his academically trained dancers could handle a little groove, when in fact they often couldn’t, resulting in a secondhand account of street dance. This time, though, it looks as if Sands and company have done their research and taken a few classes. More importantly, Sands isn’t just flinging up some flat version here; he’s investigating. Where does the snap that begins breakdance come from? he seems to ask, starting his own quick solo with a tortured agitation of his hands. I’ve never seen Sands bring his intellectual muscle to bear on this type of dance; it’s a promising new direction for him.
The second premiere, “Ash and Dust,” shows Sands in his moody, quirky, this-is-a-strange-cold-world vein—neurotic gestures, weird, splayed-out bug moves, cut-off relations between dancers, and an atmosphere of high seriousness. “Ash and Dust” is his least successful foray in this direction: its invention is dulled by an unmoving pseudo-narrative and hemmed in by the repetitive music (seemingly ripped from some Merchant-Ivory film about an unfortunate clockmaker). Sands has created beautiful, evocative work in this vein before, but “Ash and Dust” falls short—perhaps because Sands aims at a more accessible “meaning” here.
So what does this evening add up to? A lot of enjoyable dancing, but also some confusion. Sands does African-modern, cool modern, urban dance, and his own ballet-modern hybrid; he makes frontal, straight-up entertainment as well as high-concept dance artifacts. Clearly he’s excited by a lot of different things in the world, and no one would want to change that. But I’m not sure his invention, plentiful as it is, stands up to his wide range. Seeing the same distinctive move used in two completely different contexts undermines its integrity in both, and gives one the feeling that Sands isn’t going quite far enough after his inspiration. A little deeper investigation would help the company’s dancers as well. Between the high turnover at TU Dance (I count at least five dancers making their TU Dance debut this fall) and the variety of dance styles, even dancers as good as these are bound to fall flat somewhere. This time, the least convincing dance came in “Lady,” where only a few dancers could let loose enough to look as if they were genuinely dancing and not just performing steps.
Don’t get me wrong, this is an excellent company and always well worth seeing. But by setting their own bar so high, TU Dance invites the question: could they do better?
TU Dance performs at the Southern Theater through June 29.