March 24 marks the beginning of Kennedy Center’s celebration of all things contemporary. Known as DIRECT CURRENT, included programming spans music, dance, audiovisual installations and more across a multitude of genres. One of the first performances slated for the two-week block of programming is Come Through, a collaboration between Minnesota-based TU Dance and Justin Vernon of Bon Iver.
Vernon’s name attached to something is an easy way to pique interest, but the multi-person team of dancers and musicians have a story to tell themselves. Toni Pierce-Sands of TU Dance and drummer JT Bates of Vernon’s band gave insight into the incredible collaborative process behind this program. Initially commissioned by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra’s Liquid Music series, it was workshopped at Mass MoCA, and eventually brought to major venues like the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles, CA.
“As a drummer, it’s pretty fun for me because we’re obviously pretty connected on the planet, drums and movement,” Bates says of the initial attraction to the project. “I’m always excited when I get to do stuff like this, and this one is extra exciting because working with this dance company is amazing.”
Before the project was even commissioned, Pierce-Sands notes that she and Kate Norstrum of Liquid Music had known each other for a while, and had a hope to collaborate at some point. When the piece was commissioned, she said Norstrum had the idea to work with Vernon and the prospect excited both Pierce-Sands and TU Dance cofounder Uri Sands.
“From there, Uri and Justin met, which was the first connection of the love story. Then we met, then it continued to extend with the decision to go forward with the collaboration and workshop in MASS MoCA,” Pierce-Sands says. “It would premiere and basically finish, if you will; its destination was the Palace Theatre. In the meantime, we all fell in love with each other.”
Bates affirms this sentiment. “It’s true, it’s really true.”
The collaborative process of bringing these creatives from two different worlds was anchored in unspoken understanding and respect for their art and each other. There were no formal introductions or getting-to-know you sessions; they spoke to each other through their work.
“We didn’t stand in a circle, we didn’t introduce each other, dancers were in the studio warming up and then one by one the [musicians] would come in and then we just kind of started. Justin would play stuff, dancers would start to improvise and Uri would structure it out. From our perspective, through the process and through the art itself is how we got to know each other,” Pierce-Sands explains.
The loose structure actually lent itself to the best possible creative condition and allowed the piece to travel even farther than Minnesota. That lends itself to the perfect performance to help kick off DIRECT CURRENT, as it sums up the best of carefully curated energy among humans who see even further than eye to eye and into the creative mind.
“Sometimes these collaborations are a little too wide open at the front,” echoes Bates. “It’s hard, because you don’t want to over define it and you want to really let it grow into its own organism. One side or the other can’t be too defined from the get-go, because then you’re just really structuring things to one side. This really felt like it stayed loose, coming from Justin and Uri and Toni. We were all figuring it out together, and everyone had creative input — dancers, drummers, everyone. You could feel free to say what you felt strongly about. It really became, very quickly, a feeling of falling in love with each other as people and collaborators and that just made it feel more open. I think that really comes down to chemistry of humans.”
John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts: 2700 F St. NW, DC; www.kennedy-center.org