We paired leading artists from Minnesota’s theater, music, visual arts, dance, and literary communities to talk about craft, creativity, and the inspiration behind their boundary-pushing work.
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Uri Sands and Toni Pierce-Sands of TU Dance Kristin Van Loon and Arwen Wilder of HIJACK
We know it takes two to tango. But it also takes two to “contact improv,” two to pas de deux—and in the world of local contemporary dance, two to prod, percolate, and persevere. Some of Minnesota’s best choreography comes from couples, and this year two of them—Kristin Van Loon and Arwen Wilder of the anarchic, mirthfully post-modern HIJACK, and Toni Pierce-Sands and Uri Sands of the sinewy, sensuous TU Dance—celebrate major milestones. HIJACK turns 20, marking the occasion with a commission from Walker Art Center December 5–7 and a national tour. TU turns 10, debuting a new work at the Cowles Center November 15–17 and investing further in a youth dance center in St. Paul. We paired up the pairs to talk improv, instigation, and the dearth of diversity in the art scene.
Toni: So why the name “HIJACK”?
Kristin: Right away we wanted something that sounded like a rock band. I came across the word “hijack” in an arts-criticism context. It was an article about [guerilla text artist] Jenny Holzer. She was saying that’s what an artist should do to expectations, to culture. You hijack.
Arwen: Plus, we undermine each other. Kristin has ideas that I challenge and vice versa. That’s another part of the hijacking that happens. kristin: We like to have both instability and stability.
Arwen: You make the choreography impossible so that you have to improvise. But then you can’t get too flowy in the improvisational world because you have to get back into your move on the right count. And that constant battle—that undermining—is very much like the battle between us, which is the meat of the work.
Uri: What are the rules, if any, when you use improvisation as a tool?
Kristin: It’s not what people expect. It’s not that we’re just experimenting.
Arwen: Most of what we’re doing is set. But we’re big fans of the chance device. One section of the pieces we’re working on now is very set. It features two guys dancing with us, and what they do is very set, too. But we’re all moving at the same time. So the way we match up can be a little random. Even though we’re doing all the moves in a precise order, there’s a lot of improvisation because suddenly they’re in the space that we are used to being in. The moment of the performance is improvisational even though the movement itself is something we’ve practiced over and over again.
Uri: It takes technique! Improvisation is actually a technique!
Toni: You guys are actually creating work together. We don’t do that. Uri, he’s really the choreographer for TU Dance. I always think of myself as a dancer, of being inside the work. But you guys—you both get to be the watcher and the maker, simultaneously.
Kristin: With two people choreographing, I feel like we’re practicing the performer-audience relationship all the time, with each other.
Toni: When Uri first came to Minnesota, he was always the one doing the movement. He was creating dance on his own body. But he’s such an amazing mover that dancers were just too in awe of it. It made them less confident. So I had to say to Uri: “Stop moving. Sit down.” As he develops as a choreographer, he’s not as dependent on the way that he moves. Now it’s the bodies in front of him that influence the work. When the movement comes out, it’s manifesting on the bodies actually doing the dance.
Arwen: So, about 10 years ago when you guys were starting, when Minnesota Dance Alliance was ending and [then director] June Wilson was moving away, I remember June talking about advising young dancers of color. She said she loved the dance community here but would often advise dancers of color to move someplace else. She would say, “It’s just too hard here, and I hate to do this—I’m the head of MDA—but personally, I can’t tell you this is a good place to be.” Hearing her talk about it was so sad to me. And now, 10 years later, you guys have this school in St. Paul. Have you seen it change in the decade you’ve been here?
Toni: From my perspective, there aren’t enough bodies of color. It’s not culturally integrated enough. I can say it, I can own it, because I was raised here.
Uri: Me not being from here, I was blown away to find that Minnesota was really culturally mixed. There’s an enormous Scandinavian population, of course, but there’s also Hmong, East African, and Mexican populations. I had no idea Minnesota would be like that. Then you go into the arts, into the Guthrie or wherever, and you say, “Of the 1,200 people sitting in this audience, I am one of two black guys…And the only other black guy is the one black guy that’s on stage!” I feel like the arts have a responsibility to reflect the community that’s supporting it. We just felt like that’s what we wanted to do with the school.
Kristin: It’s a gorgeous space.
Uri: We want to provide access to dance to people that wouldn’t otherwise have it. Are we seeing a difference? Yes. The evidence is there in the studio on any Saturday morning: diverse middle-school kids taking dance classes. That’s where the next audience is coming from. We believe that in 10 years we’ll see that reflected in the companies. We’ll have our students in Xenon, maybe even in HIJACK. We’re beginning to infiltrate. All we did was crack the door open a little bit.
For extended interviews with this year's featured artists, visit mnmo.com/fallarts2013.
7 Other Must-See Shows
Mohana: Estuaries of Desire, Ananya Dance Theatre, 9/20–21, oshaughnessy.stkate.edu
Three and Three, Joe Chvala and the Flying Foot Forum, 9/20–21, flyingfootforum.com
Casi-Casa, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, 9/21, northrup.umn.edu
Venus and Adonis, Ballet of the Dolls, 9/27–29, ritz-theater.org
Fall Season, Minnesota Dance Theatre, 10/4–13, mndance.org
20th Anniversary, James Sewell Ballet, 10/25–11/3, jsballet.org
Flower of Algeria, Jawaahir Dance Company, 11/14–24, jawaahir.org