Trey McIntyre Brings David Bowie to the Houston Ballet
'Pretty Things' debuts at Wortham Theater Center May 20–29.
Bayou City audiences have had to wait 19 years for a new work custom-made for Houston Ballet by acclaimed gay dance maker Trey McIntyre. But on May 20, the curtain will rise at the Wortham Theater Center for the world premiere of Pretty Things, a new rock ballet set to eight classic tracks by David Bowie including “Changes,” “Life on Mars?” “Ashes to Ashes,” and “Young Americans.”
Pretty Things is the eighth work that McIntyre, 52, has created for Houston Ballet. It’s an appropriate homecoming for the most gifted dance maker that the company has produced in its venerable five-decade history, and one of America’s most talented living choreographers. Delayed for two years by the pandemic, the production features wildly theatrical designs by Thomas Mika that would make Ziggy Pop green with envy.
“David Bowie’s music is grand; it’s operatic and huge in scale,” says McIntyre. “He sings like a peacock walks. There’s great depth and humanity, as well. In many ways, his voice embodies the conflict I’m looking to work out in this dance.
“I’m making this work to explore and reconcile my complicated relationship with the narcissism inherent in being a performer,” he continues. “Culturally, narcissism is a term regarded mainly as a mental illness, and yet it seems to be an important quality for those who pursue a life of being ‘seen.’ How do we reconcile valuing the performer, but not the qualities it takes to be one? How do we value art but not the artist?”
Pretty Things, which showcases a cast of 11 men, is the first all-male work that McIntyre has made for a professional company. “The men in Houston Ballet are incredibly strong,” he observes. “It’s the perfect place to make a piece like this.”
A Passion for Dance
In 1987, 17-year-old McIntyre first arrived in Houston to attend Houston Ballet Academy’s summer intensive program. He had grown disenchanted with dance and was contemplating abandoning the study of ballet altogether, but then the Academy’s summer workshop program reignited his passion for ballet.
Ben Stevenson, then the company’s artistic director, immediately recognized a significant choreographic talent in the teenager from Kansas, and would provide him with numerous opportunities to grow as a dance maker over the next 16 years. In 1990, when McIntyre joined Houston Ballet’s professional company, Stevenson created the special position of “choreographic apprentice” and commissioned McIntyre to create his first ballet for the company—Skeleton Clock, set to music by John Adams. Having the opportunity to work with such contemporary European masters as Christopher Bruce, Jiri Kylian, and Sir Kenneth MacMillan at Houston Ballet greatly expanded McIntyre’s horizons as a dance maker.
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McIntyre performed with the company from 1990 to 1995. Although he stood out at 6’ 6” with matinee-idol good looks, he never ascended to dancing the leading classical male roles. From 1990 to 2003, he created seven works for Houston Ballet, growing in technical mastery and displaying a wonderful sense of wit and humor in the pieces he created.
By the time he left Houston Ballet as a dancer in 1995, he had begun to receive major commissions from such renowned companies as American Ballet Theatre, New York City Ballet, Stuttgart Ballet, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago and the San Francisco Ballet. He retained the position of choreographic associate with Houston Ballet until 2007.
In 2001, McIntyre was named one of Dance Magazine’s 25 to Watch. In 2003, he was singled out as one of People Magazine’s 25 Hottest Bachelors. In 2004, he co-founded his own dance company, the Trey McIntyre Project (TMP), with Anne Mueller and his then partner John Michael Schert, a dancer who also performed with the company and served as its executive director.
A New Contemporary Dance Model
In 2008, McIntyre relocated TMP to Boise, Idaho, far from Manhattan, the center of the dance universe. The decision initially raised eyebrows, but over time, the move began to be viewed as a gesture of genius. The cost of living in Idaho was much lower, Boise passionately embraced the dancers, and they enjoyed 30 weeks of employment each year with full health insurance. The company embarked on a busy national and international touring schedule, and began to thrive. TMP came to be viewed as a new model for American contemporary-dance companies to emulate.
McIntyre’s renown as a choreographer grew. Reviewing a performance by TMP at the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in 2008, Alastair Macaulay, chief dance critic of the New York Times, compared him to the legendary choreographer Antony Tudor, praising “the way he can time movements to music for dramatic eloquence so that the music tells a story different from, but related to, the dance. But there’s a fertility of invention and a modernity of spirit here that are all Mr. McIntyre’s own.”
McIntyre’s decision to close the company in 2014 was greeted with shock and dismay. But the grinding pressures of running a dance company had taken their toll. “A dance company is its own kind of rat race,” he told the New York Times in 2014. “The gifts are too numerous to list. But in the end, you have to really be an adult, and there is a creative sacrifice.”
A London “COVID Adventure”
The past two years have freed McIntyre from the daily stresses of being a freelance choreographer—a liberation that he could never have imagined. The COVID-19 pandemic forced the postponement of Pretty Things. McIntyre stayed in Houston for about six months, not wishing to return to New York City, which was then the epicenter of the pandemic.
“A friend in London had a flat to lend me, and I’ve never lived abroad so it was a great experience,” McIntyre recalls. “I went there as a COVID adventure. I’ve been living in London for the past year and a half.
“The first year of the pandemic was the happiest time of my life,” he notes. “It gave me the time to slow down and not be a driven person. I’ve always had a freight train inside me, driving me as a person. Somehow I needed the whole world to slow down for me to be able to do that myself.
“[The pandemic] helped me to connect with what’s truly important to me as an artist—remembering what it’s like to be a kid and do a project because you have a creative desire. I’m a happier, healthier person because of it.”
The pandemic also gave McIntyre the time to focus on his work as a photographer, resulting in a series of breathtakingly sensual male nude portraits.
“The time in the studio choreographing a new work is so proscribed; it goes so fast, and there’s a big group of people,” he observes. “I love the one-on-one exploration with another person in photography. Dance is about showing, exploring the human body. To have that space in photography where a person can stand in their own body, be safe, and be seen, that can be a very powerful experience. It’s very spiritually fulfilling.”
A Return to Neverland
McIntyre’s work will also be center stage in September when Houston Ballet revives his magical three-act production of Peter Pan to launch its 2022–23 season. The work, created for Houston Ballet in 2002, is his magnum opus. He researched, planned, and worked with the design team for three years before stepping into the studio to choreograph the work.
Set to music by Sir Edward Elgar in an arrangement by Niel Deponte, the production features spectacular scenery by Thomas Boyd and punk-inspired costumes by Tony Award-winning costume designer Jeanne Button. When it premiered, critic Robert Greskovic wrote in Dance View, “To call Trey McIntyre’s Peter Pan the most impressive, original, multi-act ballet created by an American choreographer in recent memory doesn’t quite do the three-act production justice. Peter Pan is a story ballet that really flies.”
“Coming back to Houston always feels like home,” McIntyre notes. “It’s been incredible to see how much growth and resilience the city has had. It makes me proud every time I get to touch back in.”
What: Trey McIntyre’s Pretty Things
When: May 20–29
Where: Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas Ave.
This article appears in the May 2022 edition of OutSmart magazine.