At the first of four sold-out shows at the Palace Theatre, Bon Iver and TU Dance — two local, nationally renowned performing arts powerhouses — performed something transcendent and deeply felt, a gripping blend of contemporary dance and music called Come Through. This project was commissioned by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra’s Liquid Music.
Upon entering, you can’t help but notice all the ways the Palace has had to adapt to this event. Instead of the throngs of ticket holders, there are patrons, who expect the courtesy of your traditional concert hall rather than a venue that hosts Doomtree, the xx, and Wilco. Instead of standing-room only, there are black plastic folding chairs laid out in comfortably sized rows. There are no lines at the bar, and the house music is kept low enough that you can actually have a conversation at normal volume with your neighbor. The stage has been stripped away of nearly all of its curtains and obstructions, revealing the black brick wall and a set of scaffolding. As if all that weren’t enough, you’re handed a program as you walk in the door.
Without the safety of a curtain to hide behind, the nine dancers and four band members take the stage to belated applause. (Vernon is joined for this performance by producer/programmer BJ Burton and local mainstays Michael Lewis and JT Bates, all of whom match in black PEOPLE T-shirts.) We’ve made it this far, and the audience still doesn’t know what they’re in for — least of all the Bon Iver fan near me, who whispers, “I totally forgot there was gonna be dancing in this show.” That program we’re all holding offers no commentary or caption.
The night kicks off with a prelude not unlike “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄” from 22, A Million, and any doubts about the artists’ compatibility vanish. The pounding of the music is met with raised arms and pumping chests from the dancers, filling their bodies with Uri Sands’s complex, fluid, and rhythmically demanding choreography.
What follows are a series of vignettes — or are they movements? — that seem to guard their connections to one another. A ballet this is not. For 75 minutes, the original music and movement are inexorably tied to each other. Even when the piece is tapered down to a single body, or when Bon Iver are left to their own devices up on their perch, the cohesion is as astounding as it is confounding.
At times, you can hear the hum of the HVAC; the crack of Bates’ snare drum emanating from the actual source rather than the PA; arms hitting legs and the dancers’ heavy breathing. Barely anyone coughs.
The music — it grooves, more than anything in Bon Iver’s catalog, while still feeling like a natural evolution from 22, A Million. The band has stripped down to something more like a jazz combo then their usual sprawling set-up, with Burton and Bates laying down expert-level beats that for Vernon and Lewis to fill in with Auto-Tune, synth textures, and trap samples.
Come Through is as much a feat of stagecraft as it is anything else. Whether it’s military marches, time-lapses of blooming fungi, or the static image of a black hoodie, the shamelessly glitchy projections by Eric Timothy Carlson and Aaron Anderson, who also created the equally esoteric lyric videos for 22, A Million, offer no easy resolutions while overwhelming the entire stage. (Rounding out the design team are TU Dance regulars Carolyn Wong, whose lighting design glides between stark and subtle, and Zinda Williams, who balances contemporary dance costumes with the urgency of street clothes.)
As a theater and dance lighting designer by day and a music photographer by night, I found it immensely gratifying to see this band and dance company — both so highly regarded in their respective lanes — tackle Come Through. The work is willing to create a sense of wonder and puzzlement, and to let us sit in it; to bend and stretch and pull our expectations and assumptions; to keep us waiting until the very end for something that just might tie it together.
Emmet Kowler works with lights all day and takes photos after dark.