There’s a myth that lightning never strikes the same place twice.
In reality, given the right atmospheric alchemy, the phenomenon can occur again and again. Transfer this concept to St. Paul’s Palace Theatre on Thursday night and you get a sense of the energy generated by Come Through, a world premiere movement/music collaboration between TU Dance and Bon Iver.
St. Paul Chamber Orchestra Liquid Music Curator and Executive Producer Kate Nordstrum paired up TU’s Artistic Director Uri Sands and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, anticipating the dynamic potential of uniting two adventurous artists. The result is an evening-length commission more aptly described as a “sensory experience” than simply a dance or rock concert. Next stop is the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles.
Sands founded TU Dance in 2004 with creative and life partner Toni Pierce-Sands; both are veterans of New York’s iconic Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Rock music has driven Sands’ choreography before (Radiohead is a favorite) but Come Through is a singular live project. Vernon composed several new songs, and they’re still evolving. (Titles provided in this review may shift in the future.) There are no firm plans to record the score but judging by the fan reaction on Thursday it would be a welcome addition to the Bon Iver catalogue.
The evening begins with Bon Iver’s pulse-pounding “Do Y N Power?” and the dancers running straight out towards the audience. Bursts of projected imagery by visual artists Aaron Anderson and Eric Carlson reflect the information overload all-too-familiar in our social-media age. This opening section sets the tone for a show that taps into the global conditions of insecurity, injustice, and over-consumption, interspersed with interludes of empathy, curiosity, and ecstasy.
Come Through shows the strength of collective engagement, especially as the dancers’ bodies respond to the complex rhythmic layers in Bon Iver’s music. Vernon and fellow musicians BJ Burton, Michael Lewis, and JT Bates play on a riser overlooking the nine performers on stage, but physical distance is all that separates them. They establish a deep sonic-kinetic connection from the get-go.
With “The Jig,” for example, as slow walks build into runs, we glimpse Sands’ choreographic signatures – a subtle bob of the head, quick moving feet, snapshots from ballet, modern, hip hop, Gaga, and African dance technique. Alexis Staley’s solo turn in “Jelmore” is transcendent—every part of her body responds to the sounds; she moves as if wired up to Bon Iver’s instruments. So too Christian Warner commands the stage in the finale “Naeem,” as he encourages everyone in the theater to seek a higher plane of being through his joyous leaps and cartwheels.
Vernon’s vocals are a force of their own. Known for a vibrant range featuring a gorgeous falsetto, he slides effortlessly from ferocity to whisper. The bluesy edge to Vernon’s voice emerged most notably on the deep bass tones of “R.A.H.” while with “SDIAH” he takes a more intimate turn, recounting his life performing for thousands, then adding “We’re alone now and I’m singing this song to you.”
As much as Come Through relies on its meshing of music, movement and media, it also reveals a strong commitment to social and racial justice. Images of a hoodie recall the murder of Trayvon Martin. During “Naeem” a recitation of the history of Jim Crow laws (“It told us we were less than”) leads into the words of Martin Luther King, who urged people to demand change rather than waiting for it to happen, a call to action that resonates in this era of Black Lives Matter and March for Our Lives.
Come Through represents this particularly tenuous moment in human history. Its title has multiple meanings—it can describe having an experience, showing a feeling or successfully expressing something. TU Dance and Bon Iver touch upon all of these aspects. Fearless artists like Sands and Vernon show us how to interpret and recalibrate our relationship to these most uneasy times.
Come Through continues this weekend. Tonight’s performance and tomorrow’s matinee are sold out, but tickets are available for Saturday night’s 8 p.m. show here.
The crowd: First Avenue and Eaux Claires meets the Cowles Center for Dance and the Performing Arts.
Overheard in the crowd: Requests for set lists (not available) and questions about intermission (there isn’t one), reinforcing the description above.
Critic’s bias: As a longtime dance critic, I was thrilled to see such a large and mostly new audience witnessing one of the top companies in the Twin Cities.
Random notebook dumps: Justin Vernon’s voice is endlessly versatile (at one point he seemed to channel Joe Cocker) and when he sang a cappella the Palace space was so quiet.