LIGHTS UP: ONE FIGURE WRITHES OVER ANOTHER, starfish-like, while a woman in a sexless pilgrim dress holds a glowing spark towards the pair. As if projected through a dead leaf’s frame, sepia light smatters the stage. One of the two shapes, a dark man in nude briefs, detaches from the other, a woman struggling inside a white cocoon — then he dances along the diagonal, with the high-heeled and sway-hipped gait of African dance, but awkward, tentative, still in a splay. Upstage another man sneaks an entrance, his dance smoother, and soon three more dancers soothe their way in from the downstage corners. Joining the second man, they make two high-gloss couples, all finesse and balance and careful counterbalance, sharp architecture and pretty distension. But meanwhile the first man is still making his prickly way upstage, breathing loudly, the pilgrim is ushering her light around the corners, and the cocoon is still quivering — and none of these figures appear to know anything about each other.
In this scene from TU Dance‘s Sense(ability), choreographer Uri Sands’s first evening-length work, it’s not the number of elements I object to, but their undigested agglomeration. Who are all these figures, and what are they up to? Why are some in couples? Why do some dance differently than others? I don’t know, I can’t tell, and I’m not encouraged to care, because Sands gives no time for these characters or their dances to evolve. Even when Sands has less going on, he still doesn’t push toward evolution. Dancers in a rough circle, contracting their bodies like cultists working towards a passion or a riot, must be building up to something as they hop upstage, but actually they’re not; when they get to their destination, they just quit.
You might think the structure Sands devises for the evening, in which he maps the five senses onto the elements, would support the dance, but the conceit never goes beyond surface level. Sands must have done some research, some thinking on the subject, but where did it go? Fire is fiery all right, air is spacey, and earth is earthy, but beyond that I couldn’t grasp any thoughts on these elements, and still less on the senses — and it doesn’t help that he turns one whole section (“Water/Taste”) into a very obvious joke.
Speaking of help, Sands doesn’t get much from his design collaborators. Carolyn Wong’s lighting, for example, first impressed and then annoyed me: you can’t just throw a galaxy on the floor and not address it in some way. Sands probably asked for the blaring bright lights and strobes that turn “Fire/Sight” into an epileptic’s minefield, but didn’t Wong know better? Chris Thomson’s music is best when it fades into a serviceable background of faux-tribal drum mixes and music-of-the-spheres vagary, but too often it intrudes with soulless techno, sax-and-xylo burbles, or cut-rate Philip Glass imitation. Toni Pierce-Sands’s costumes have their high points — take the postmodern beggar garb, all ripple and frill, and colorful as a caravan wreck, that she creates for “Fire/Sight” — but across the evening they don’t go together, don’t make any larger whole.
And that’s my issue with Sense(ability) itself. It’s not that Sands doesn’t create some fascinating moves — one passage in which a female dancer climbs in her partner’s arms, champing at the air like a horse in water, sticks in my mind. One whole section, “Fire/Sight” (minus its obnoxious lighting), is a good contribution to the TU Dance repertory. But I’m missing an overall vision. The short sketches and fragments Sands turned out before Sense(ability) — often suggesting some larger whole, and inscrutably numbered, like the first Star Wars movies — tantalized me and made me want to see a full evening, because they were based around specific yet strange images, images I wanted to see Sands plumb. Here, though, Sands lacks that central image.
If the piece doesn’t evolve, though, it still shows me Sands evolving; it may be, though not terribly interesting itself, a step towards something new. For one thing, Sands has largely altered his style here. The ballet-based figure studies he used to depend on, with their hyper-articulate, hyper-refined (you might even say cold) sensibility, are scarce here. The heaviest influence now comes from African dance, with something Middle-Eastern about the arms. This is a big change: in Sense(ability), TU Dance is no longer recognizably a contemporary ballet company.
Along with the change in choreography, the company has changed: the dancers can now all do African dance convincingly, which wasn’t the case a few years ago. And there’s another change in the company. Where, when TU Dance first began, the company was a mixed bag of solo standouts, TU now has a strong communal feel. I don’t know quite what to make of this. On the one hand, it adds a cultish intensity to their ensemble work. On the other hand, dancers who promised to be stars a couple of years ago now blend into the herd, to the extent that they look uncomfortable in solos, unable to own the stage alone. It doesn’t do much for the general aimlessness of the work that the dancers don’t seize or direct your attention; I felt that, everywhere I looked, I wasn’t seeing the main event.
Everywhere I looked, that is, except for at Chrysetta Leigh Stevens. New to the company, this little fireball does not mind engrossing your gaze; she is a splashing, rippling dance whirlwind. I spent some time looking back and forth between Stevens and another capable and attractive TU dancer, trying to pick out what makes Stevens so watchable and the other not, but all I could come up with was what I always say about good dancers: Stevens looks like she’s alive in the dance, feeling it, making each decision right now, never just performing choreography. In Stevens, there’s a sensibility worth seeing.
Sense(ability), presented by TU Dance, is on stage at the Southern Theater in Minneapolis through May 16.
About the author: Originally from Tallahassee, Lightsey Darst is a poet, dance writer, and adjunct instructor at various Twin Cities colleges. Her manuscript Find the Girl has just been published by Coffee House; she has also been awarded a 2007 NEA Fellowship. She hosts the writing salon, “The Works.”