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Getting ‘(serious)’

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One of the world’s top choreographers, former Houstonian Trey McIntyre was among People magazine’s 2003 “25 Hottest Bachelors” and Out’s 2008 “Tastemakers.” He talks about his process, the work he’s bringing to Houston, a city he loves.

By Neil Ellis Orts
Photo by Jonas Lundqvist

TreyMcIntyre
Trey McIntyre

Trey McIntyre grew up in Kansas, studied at the North Carolina School of the Arts, then came to Houston in his late teens to train at the Houston Ballet Academy (now the Ben Stevenson Academy). Artistic Director Ben Stevenson created the position of choreographic apprentice for him and later named him choreographic associate. Since leaving Houston, McIntyre has choreographed more than 80 works of dance for some of the world’s most prestigious dance companies. In a few short years, his own company, the Trey McIntyre Project (which he created in with his partner in life and dance, executive director John Michael Schert), has created a stir in the contemporary dance scene. The company, which now calls Boise, Idaho, home, is currently on its second international tour and appears at the Wortham Center’s Cullen Theater on Friday, November 13 (visit www.spahouston.org for ticket information).

Neil Ellis Orts: Looking at some video that you have on your website, I was surprised by what I saw. Everything I’ve heard about you is Houston Ballet and other ballet companies, but your work doesn’t look like ballet to me.
Trey McIntyre: Great!

So what are some of your influences? Clearly your background is ballet.

ChanelDaSilva
Chanel Da Silva in one of McIntyre's works of barely-ballet.

Ballet is a language and a vocabulary and a science for making sense out of an imperfect instrument in the human body. I think the reason I still consider myself a ballet choreographer is because the way I communicate with dancers is through that terminology. I think it’s just a way of speaking incredibly clearly. No matter where the movement may go, even if it doesn’t end up looking like ballet, it’s still the process by which that information is communicated clearly. But as a choreographer I’m constantly pushing myself to find new things. I don’t mean just trying to expand the form or be more creative. I think as an artist you’re constantly having to find new things in yourself because you’re changing every single day, and if you’re truly being honest, each piece is new and different. In that case, for me, especially because I’ve gotten further and further away from working with ballet companies, it’s probably pushed the style of movement further and further from that, but still in the end I consider it all ballet.

One of the things I noticed in your dancers or choreography is that I feel the weight, which I generally associate with modern dance technique. Have you always played with weight in that way?
I don’t think it was ever a conscious choice to move in that direction. As far as I can recollect, that’s always been something that’s important to me. I like the idea of contrast and juxtaposition. There can’t be a lift without weight. I also think that weight has something to do with my heritage. I was born in Kansas and there’s something about people that come from the Great Plains. They have a natural sense of the earth under their feet. I grew up just seeing space; there’s barely even a hill. So there’s something about that expanse. And the way air hits your body, to me, is like one big breath out.

I work with ballet dancers, and it’s actually one of my biggest struggles, when I first work with someone, to still exercise a fantastic classical technique, but to also do that through a sense of what’s underneath them. Honestly, I think the distinctions at this point in history are meaningless. It changes drastically from piece to piece. I guess the labels of what category [my choreography] might fit into, I leave up to someone else.

What are you bringing to Houston?
We’re opening with a ballet called Like a Samba. That one looks like ballet. It’s actually the only piece that I didn’t make with these dancers. I actually made it some time ago. It was back when I was having a real fascination with the confines of classical vocabulary and really sticking to it in a purist manner and seeing how I could communicate within that. It’s all the music of Astrud Gilberto. It’s different riffs, also, on Latin dance and incorporating that into classical vocabulary.

The next piece is called (serious). It’s a trio and all set to Henry Cowell music. I really try to build some impossible challenge into each work just so I’m guaranteed to not fall into any of my own comfort zones. I have to be uncomfortable the whole time making the piece, otherwise it just becomes about demonstrating what I think I can do well as opposed to diving into the unknown. So with this piece in particular, my challenge was to not prepare at all. It was really just call some dancers into the studio, not even choose music, and commit myself to making the piece about that particular moment, what I bring in that day, what the dancer brings in that day, and figuring it out there in the studio. Eventually its own poetic narrative presented itself.

Then the last piece in the first half is called Shape. It’s a really short piece. It’s basically the story of the dancers’ bodies using big red balloons. It was meant to be ridiculous, and then I saw how quickly I could make it a serious topic, to take this new body shape seriously and see if I could create a world for that.

In the second half is a piece called The Sun Road. It was commissioned by Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts, and they asked me to make a piece about Glacier National Park as a part of their Face of America series. I dove in there on that one, because it’s something I would never have thought of on my own, to make a piece about a national park. We went to the park, and we decided the focus of the piece would be about the loss of glacier and how global climate change is impacting that park. We filmed a lot of video content of the dancers in the park, and then that video content is presented as projections as part of the live performance.

Is there anything that connects these four pieces that you put them all in one program, or is it again about juxtaposition?
It’s not a thematic program, but I certainly think about balance and how the works relate to one another and create an experience.

How long were you in Houston?
I was there for nine years. I loved it and I miss it so much.

Is it fun to bring new work to a city where you lived and worked so long?
I’m excited about it, and I’m also excited about spending time back in the city and going to places that I love. It can be very melancholy. Nine years is a long time. It was pretty formative years. I got there when I was 17, and I actually had a position with Houston Ballet for longer than that. I remained choreographic associate for quite a while, so I had ties for a really long time. I’m looking forward to showing off the city to my company.

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Neil Ellis Orts

Neil Ellis Orts is a regular contributor to OutSmart Magazine.

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