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Tall Talent: Choreographer Trey McIntyre Discusses His Work

by Dean Speer and Francis Timlin

February 25, 2006 -- Portland Art Museum, Portland, Oregon

We met over lunch at the Portland Art Museum the day after the world premiere of McIntrye’s newest work for Oregon Ballet Theatre, “Just.”  He points out to us that the addition to PAM – the former Masonic Temple not many yards away – housed what used to be his office while he was Resident Choreographer at OBT during their 1998-99 season when this building was the home of OBT.

How did you get started dancing and into ballet?

I was a Musical Theatre kid in Wichita and couldn’t put one foot in front of the other.  I was chubby, clumsy, and awkward, so my mom put me into dance class.  I didn’t like it and used to cut classes.  However, this new vocabulary inspired me to start making up dances.  My teacher watched me doing this in the parking lot.  She did a very wise thing – instead of chastising me for skipping class, she had me come in and teach the steps to the rest of the class.  This was Carol Iwasaki (now the Chair of the Ballet Department at the University of Utah).  I wanted to choreograph from this point forward.

From Wichita, I went to the North Carolina School of the Arts where I studied with some really great people like Melissa Hayden and Duncan Noble, but felt I had no real opportunities to choreograph.  It was recommended that I go to Houston Ballet which had a summer institute in choreography.  I caught Ben Stevenson’s attention and he gave me a choreographic apprenticeship.  I performed with Houston Ballet for six years and it was a great time to be there, as there was so much talent around.  Margot Fonteyn came in to coach and MacMillan was there too.  I got to observe how they worked with the dancers.

The pre-performance speaker mentioned that you think in movement terms.  Could you expand on that?

I tend to think in terms of shape, space, and color – not steps.  I like to shape movement and have things present themselves, so I don’t exactly think in terms of movement.  I like to evoke moods, concepts, and stir up a lot of stuff.

I’m in love with music – I took eight years of piano before ever dancing.  I believe what I do is to compose a melodic counterpoint to music.  I walk the line between formalism and expressionism.

Let’s talk about how you created the opening solo for Artur (Sultanov).  I found it audacious...

I was very detailed with Artur’s solo – he was able to add more of himself as the process went on.



Did you demonstrate to the dancers what you want?  What is your process for creating?

I demonstrate and verbalize.  I find the dancers respond well to metaphor.

I saw in “Just” many modern dance moments such as Graham-like contractions – rounded backs and thrust out arms – and Cunningham torsos.  Do you have a modern dance background?  Are these movement ideas conscious choices?

I have limited modern training – just a few classes at North Carolina School of the Arts.  No, I’m not conscious of specific elements drawn from modern choreographers who may be influencing me.  It’s more a journey of discovery.

Some choreographers know exactly what they want when they go into the studio.  Do you find that you edit and change things until you get a product that’s finished?

I do tons of “editing.”  It goes back and forth between myself and the dancers – it’s a conversation and energy exchange.  I want the dancers’ personalities to inform the movement.  I find myself often returning to first versions.

If there could be no limitations such as money, time, number of dancers and so forth, what might this look like to you?

I would like to have the same group of dancers to work with.  This opens up lots of possibilities.  I could really focus on music and form.  I’m very interested in film.  Not just to record a dance but to explore and experiment with film as a form or medium for dance itself.  I would be open to directing or having a full-time company, but I don’t think I could survive from a creative standpoint with the added responsibilities.

Tell us about your summer company, the McIntyre Project.

It’s underwritten by White Oak and we rehearse there.  I like working with Anne Mueller and Alison Roper, due to our long working relationship. Artur will be joining us this summer.  We rehearse for a few weeks and then also perform: Six weeks at White Oak and then Jacobs Pillow and Wolf Trap.  I’m doing a new piece in collaboration with Jessye Norman.

I’m not familiar with the canon of your work.  It may be a bit like asking someone to tell us who their favorite grandchildren are, but could you tell us what some of your memorable ballets are?

My favorite is usually the one I’ve just made, whichever one I’m closest to at the time.  But one that continues to stick with me is “High Lonesome” which is to music by Beck and was done for Ballet Memphis.  It’s autobiographical and is the story of my family.

Another would be “The Reassuring Effects of Form and Poetry” to the Dvorak “Serenade for Strings.” I made it for The Washington Ballet.  I think the piece marks a return to simplicity for me and an increased understanding of my roots in ballet technique.  The longer I choreograph, the greater the respect and appreciation I have for the vocabulary of ballet and the endless opportunities it affords.

What’s on the horizon for you?

I have a new piece coming up for Memphis Ballet and possibly one for Washington Ballet, assuming they are able to resolve the current employment situation.  The one for Memphis Ballet is something new for me – dinner theater where there will be a piece to accompany each course on the menu.  Part of my inspiration is drawn from the Australian hermaphrodite fish – so there must be a ballet in there somewhere! [Laughs.]

Artistically, I always want an entertaining evening.  I like having a blank page to work from and like being in the moment.  I don’t want to get bored and need to feel that I am growing and not repeating myself.

What are some of your interests or hobbies outside of ballet?

I’m a huge movie fan.  A couple of my favorite films are “The Life Aquatic,” which is about the secrets of life and magic, and “Everything is Illuminated.” Also, “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.”  I’m currently reading a book by Jonathan Safran Foer.  He approaches language like he’s just discovered it – such a wonder in words.

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