Bon Iver and TU Dance to Rule the Palace

A collaboration between TU Dance, Bon Iver, and St. Paul Chamber Orchestra’s Liquid Music creates a performance greater than the sum of its parts

“A lot of people who go to see Bon Iver are big fans, maybe they’ve gone to his concerts where they are pretty familiar with the work or the albums, so this is an opportunity to take everything in newly at once, and that’s a pretty rare experience. … I think people are going to be really open to receiving because they won’t have an idea of what it’s going to look like in their minds.” —Kate Nordstrum, Liquid Music curator

A month before Come Through was set to premiere with four already sold out shows at Palace Theater (April 19-21), about 1,400 people at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA) got to see the collaboration between Bon Iver and TU Dance, presented by the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra’s Liquid Music program. Needless to say, those two “works in progress” performances also sold out. The next chance you have to see the piece will probably be Aug. 5 in Los Angeles at the Hollywood Bowl amphitheater.

For all of the hype (and the raving social media reviews from the preview performances), TU Dance co-artistic director Toni Pierce-Sands and Liquid Music curator Kate Nordstrum narrate a story that can be summed up simply: About a year and a half ago, Nordstrum wanted to include TU Dance in the upcoming Liquid Music series, co-artistic director and choreographer in residence of TU Dance Uri Sands said he had been digging Justin Vernon’s work, and Nordstrum made the connection. 

Vernon and Sands met for supper, they had a beer, and then Vernon came over to the house to meet Pierce-Sands in the same day. Personalities started clicking, artistic visions were meshing, and everyone thought, “Let’s do this,” Pierce-Sands says. “It wasn’t like a big ‘trying to make something work.’ What we all find was the most important was the connection between TU Dance, Uri, myself, Kate obviously, and Justin, and it just happened.”

That strong connection set the tone for the entire creative process. The first meaty workshop was in October 2017 at Vernon’s recording studio April Base in rural Wisconsin. Band and dancers set up in a large barn, Vernon started playing around with his music, and Sands started doing his thing. 

As the layers and the melodies started coming through, Sands felt out how different dance phrases fit and began choreographing with the dancers. They went back and forth with eureka moments, and the minutes ticked by as the two art forms riffed off each other. For the next few days, the energy flowed, and everything from that point on was organic, effortless—a feeling Pierce-Sands describes as the “truth” and the “magic” of knowing you’re doing it right. 

A volley of song after song from Vernon and dance clips from Sands, a few more meetups, and the introduction of visual artists Eric Carlson and Aaron Anderson soon followed, and then art, dance, and music groups reunited for the week long residency at MASS MoCA in March. 

“I participated in title brainstorms and stuff like that, but really the creative work and what came out through the music and choreography was totally driven by what the artists wanted to do,” Nordstrum says. “They were open about the process and interested in feedback, and it was great to be able to give that to them and have them decide to take it or leave it.”

After that week, the emails were tinged with even more “I miss you’s” after spending such an intense period of time together. Everyone had the countdown for the next time they were able to get together again in April when they put the finishing touches on the piece and tied up the loose ends, including creating a platform so the band could be on the stage with the dancers.

The final product sounds like it will send many of the same messages of support, accountability, hope and inspiration the collaboration itself does. Come Through speaks to the connection we all have as people, says Pierce-Sands, and adding the audience will be the last component.

“It’s more than, ‘Oh, this is TU Dance and what TU Dance does,’ and more than Bon Iver and what Bon Iver does,” says Pierce-Sands. “I can only speak of the first time we were workshopping and all the sudden Justin was singing, and it brought up in me—it invoked a place of sensitivity, and so I think we imagine and we feel that just the work itself conjures and evokes who we are as people and who we are as humans.”