It’s unusual these days to hear classical music at the Trey McIntyre Project headquarters – or to see dancers working on pointe shoes. You’re more likely to hear popular tunes from the best hip, esoteric contemporary songwriters and dancers in soft ballet shoes working McIntyre’s intricate moves.
But at a rehearsal last month, choreographer McIntyre, the artistic director of this pool of very talented young dancers, was in the mood to get back to something from his past, he said, back to classical for this new piece that taps into his creative roots.
“I’ve become wary of classical,” McIntyre said. “It makes you lazy. A full symphony contains so much musical detail that it’s like a road map for you to follow, so I’ve come to shy away from it.”
Still, it’s territory he knows well.
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McIntyre discovered classical ballet while growing up in Wichita, where his family still lives. Though unusually tall for a ballet dancer at 6-foot-5, he showed a talent for the dance genre.
He left at 15 to study dance at North Carolina School of the Arts and then Houston Ballet School, where he displayed a brilliance for choreography.
Since then, the 43-year-old McIntyre has become one of America’s most lauded and watched choreographers, first as a freelance artist, now as the artistic director of the Trey McIntyre Project.
The Project, an innovative evolution in the ballet company model, will make its Wichita debut Friday at the Orpheum Theatre. Not only does this performance mark the first time McIntyre’s company will perform in his hometown, it’s the first time his choreography has been seen in the place that inspired it.
The performance is the first in a series of three events the Orpheum is hosting in its new Modern Dance Series.
The venue identified dance as a genre not being fully served in the community in terms of bringing the best high-quality companies to town, said Jennifer Wright, Orpheum president.
“There’s just something about dance that is very inspiring,” she said.
The company also will be presenting a workshop to local dance students at Wichita State University on Friday before the show, said Mallory Rine, Orpheum marketing coordinator.
McIntyre co-founded the company in 2005 with dancer and Executive Director John Michael Schert as an off-season affair. Schert continues to co-lead the company.
In 2008, they established their home in Boise, Idaho, a surprise move that drew attention from the national dance world as much for their business choices as their dance.
“It’s hard to believe, I know,” McIntyre said. “I’m really excited.”
Many of McIntyre’s most well-known pieces, including the autobiographical “High Lonesome” and “Leatherwing Bat,” were at least in part inspired by his formative years in Kansas.
For this engagement, the program is packed with three pieces that delve into McIntyre’s history.
The newest piece, “Pass, Away,” created in February, will share the program with “Arrantza,” McIntyre’s exploration of the Basque culture he discovered in Boise, and “Queen of the Goths,” a visceral study of a character from Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus.”
“Queen” originally was created in 2007 for the Washington Ballet in D.C. In it, the main character, performed by Elizabeth Keller, dances on pointe, a classical modality McIntyre mostly left behind a few years ago.
“Arrantza” is from McIntyre’s recent past, created in 2010 and premiering during this past Jaialdi, the giant Basque festival that takes over Boise every five years. It then traveled the world as part of the Project’s repertoire for the season. It’s performed to stories told by the Basque in Boise and traditional rhythms and music recorded for the piece.
“Pass, Away,” which is performed to songs by Richard Strauss sung by American soprano Jessye Norman, touches on a more distant history. McIntyre’s always-intense rehearsal process became a moment for him to pause and observe his own evolution as an artist.
McIntyre used this suite of songs once before – as an 18-year-old student at the Houston Ballet – to create one of his first ballets.
“Thinking back to how I was then and how little content there was,” he said, “this allowed me to see my progress and growth over the decades.”
He started with a memory.
“All I could remember was one gesture, so I used that as a departure point to explore new ideas,” he said.
That gesture happens at the beginning of one of the five sections – all duets or solos – as Rachel Sherak perches sideways against Benjamin Behrend. She opens her mouth and touches her cheek, as if she is calling out to something.
That’s the only remnant from that earlier work. The rest is thoroughly grounded in the now, in the reality of McIntyre’s personal transitions and growth.
The piece, as the title implies, explores issues of death. It’s more a metaphor for the daily small “deaths” that lead us to our ultimate transition.
“It’s really about letting go of old ways, something I’ve been doing a lot of lately,” McIntyre said. “But it’s also about death. I’m really at peace with the idea of my own death. I had that in the back of my mind – the fact that all life ends – while I was working on this. But it’s actually a pretty optimistic work.”
That truth that no one can escape adds the emotional context to this ballet.
“I gave the dancers license to explore the idea of their own deaths, whatever that means for them,” he said. “So we’re talking a lot about the unknown – and allowed them to draw on that.”
The choreography has a weightier quality to it. The dancers lean and press their full bodies against one another and climb on each other in McIntyre’s effort to explore new ways of working toward a purposeful creative discomfort.
“Every time I start a new piece, it’s a blank slate, and I feel utterly optimistic,” he said. “A few days into it and I feel like a fraud and I’m ready to quit whenever I catch myself coming to a place I’ve been before. Then I have to push myself out of it. I don’t recognize it and I can’t judge it. And I’m surprised every time.”
Each of the sections expresses the inner workings of an emotional process, not relationships between people.
“It’s about disparate parts of oneself working together to move forward,” he said. “I find I’m happiest when I can slowly experience those little moments, the small details of things that need to end, the mourning that needs to happen – even throwing away a shirt that’s been in the closet unworn for years. Getting rid of that is like a small death.”
Contributing: Lori O’Toole Buselt of The Eagle