South Dade-bred choreographer Uri Sands made a triumphant return to his home turf Saturday with a performance of three of his dances put on by his and wife Toni Pierce-Sands’ troupe TU Dance at the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center.
The enthusiastic response from a mostly South Dade audience, filled with students and their families as well as Miami dance aficionados, came not only from the sense of a warm welcome to a hometown son made good, but the considerable quality and power of the dances.
The evening’s emotional centerpiece was One, a 2013 work inspired by the notorious story of Henrietta Lacks, an African American woman who died of cancer in 1951 and whose cells were used, without her permission, to create a line of cells still important in medical research.
Sands has turned Lacks’ tale of grotesque immortality into a wrenching, metaphorically layered dance that winds, unexpectedly yet inexorably, to a sense of shimmering redemption. It was anchored by a powerhouse performance from Alanna Morris-Van Tassel, leading the troupe’s terrific women — Tara Cacciatore, Taylor Collier, Kendra Dennard, Kaitlin Setzke, Katelyn Skelley and Elayna Waxse.
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One starts with Tassel dancing alone, in steady, scooping, grounded movements, with occasional trembling or cowering gestures, as if she is overwhelmed. Moments when Tassel stands bent-legged, hands on forward-thrust hips; or sits with legs apart, evoke fertility and childbearing — Lacks’ cancer was discovered when she gave birth, while her cancer and the use of her cells represent a terrible, uncontrollable reproduction.
One by one, the other women join her in the same dance sequence, like ghosts or clones, and there’s a sense that they and Tassel are caught in a pattern they can’t control.
The aching, soaring Henry Gorecki arias and Carolyn Wong’s beautifully shadowed lighting add to the somber atmosphere. At the end, the other women recede into darkness at the back, then reemerge to join Tassel, her arms open to a shimmering cloud of silver confetti — then leave her again, hands on hips, as if she were giving birth to the universe.
Sands’ two other pieces were very different. High Heel Blues was a charmingly comic duet, exuberantly performed by the athletically sensual Collier and the lankily virtuoso Duncan Schultz.
Set to a chattering jazz ode to high-heeled shoes by the duo Tuck and Patti, High Heel Blues could easily have been one of those cliché pieces in which a man pursues a flirtatious woman. Instead, gutsy dancing and playful, physical back-and-forth gave Blues a sense of honesty — and of appreciation for an individual, independent woman.
Hikari was Sands’ final and most ambitious piece of the evening. It featured a stunning, monumental set by Hawaiian print artist Hiroki Morinoue, whose layers of towering, diaphanous curtains covered with intricate black and white graphic patterns simultaneously evoke densely flowering nature and intricate mechanical design. Wong’s striking, dramatic lighting design — excellent here and throughout the concert — was almost tactile, shifting the atmosphere from darkly ominous to glaringly bright.
To churning electronic music by Mike Sheridan, the 10 dancers rush on and off, dancing with slashing, often frenetic movements, sometimes alone or in duos or trios, sometimes in frantic groups. The costumes by Tulle & Dye, narrow white pants and deconstructed, elaborate tops, evoke 19th century colonial dress.
At first the dancers seem like frightened, isolated figures in an overwhelming jungle, joining in a tribal dance; later they seem caught in an equally overwhelming modern urban or electronic jungle. At the end they edge slowly, whispering, into the growing darkness, until we only hear their voices — like spirits absorbed into the forest, or into the world’s circuit boards.
All three of Sands’ pieces were more satisfying than the opener, If and Or, by much more veteran choreographer Dwight Rhoden. Set to a musical collage, it seemed to be a kind of self-referential tribute to the act and power of dancing. Despite a strong and committed performance by the company, If and Or felt busy, overly long and almost generic in its dense, post-modern vocabulary.