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By Martha Ullman West
Annali Rose of TMP in Hulls Gulch at the foothills of Boise, ID. Photo by David Harry Stewart, Courtesy TMP.
On a cold, March day in Boise, Trey McIntyre, dressed in jeans and shabby street shoes, softly but definitely called out the center combinations for company class: “pas de chat, piqué, pas de basque, chassé.” At one point he slyly inserted a movement best described as a swimmer’s flutter kick, a typical skewing of classical technique.
The dancers, quick-witted and fast on their feet, had just done a barre, during which McIntyre had emphasized focus, flexibility, and speed. Some have the long-limbed look of classical dancers, epitomized by John Michael Schert, McIntyre’s partner and tireless multi-tasker as TMP’s executive director. Others, like Jason Hartley and Chanel DaSilva, release their power from more compact physiques. While everyone’s training and experience varies, they are unified even in class by the same single-minded joy in their work they reveal onstage, in rehearsal, and in the streets of wherever they’re dancing.
Just in the last year they’ve performed in Europe, the Dominican Republic, Colombia, and cities in a dozen states—including, of course, Boise, Idaho, the place they call home. This year, they add China, South Korea, Vietnam, and the Philippines as dancing diplomats for the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the State Department’s DanceMotion USA, a role they already play as Boise’s cultural ambassadors.
That mission fits these very American dancers, who inevitably bring audiences to their feet, high on the sheer pleasure of McIntyre’s celebration of the best of American character—optimism, community, and resilience in the face of disaster. His choreography speaks to the heart, his subject not the princes and sylphs of 19th-century Europe, but rather the lives of everyday people—the ups and downs of childhood and romance.
They’ll be bringing two of McIntyre’s recent works to Lincoln Center Out of Doors on August 3. The Sweeter End, its title a positive play on the phrase “the bitter end,” pays tribute to New Orleans’ citizenry in recovering from Hurricane Katrina. Ma Maison explores how some cultures deal with death. Both are collaborations with New Orleans’ legendary Preservation Hall Jazz Band, which will accompany them.
Neither piece is performed in pointe shoes. The 6' 6" self-proclaimed feminist is ambivalent about them. “I have a hard time reconciling a painful and gender-specific footwear, when I’m perfectly sure both women and men have feet,” quips McIntyre. “But, alas, pointe shoes can be so beautiful.” TMP’s women take class on pointe and he employs the same vocabulary as Petipa, augmented by hip hop, contact improvisation, modern dance, and pedestrian movement. Sets, costumes, and the use of film all add up in McIntyre’s work to a full and engaging theatrical experience that entertains as it enlightens.
All 10 dancers are wholeheartedly dedicated to McIntyre’s use, as he puts it, “of the ballet vocabulary to create dances that convey the emotional grace of life’s journey.” Because of that commitment, it’s obvious that if he asked them to do tour jetés on Mars for an audience of rocks, they’d perform with the same energy and purpose as in the Mahalia Jackson Theater in New Orleans, where Sweeter End premiered last February.
Idaho’s capital could just as well have been Mars for Brooklyn native Chanel DaSilva, who accepted a job with TMP before even asking “Where’s Boise?” A Juilliard graduate, DaSilva met McIntyre in 2008 when he taught a master workshop at the school.
“From the first eight counts,” she says, “I knew this was something I was interested in. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I did know what I wanted to feel like—challenged, showing myself. In TMP, I found the perfect place. I wanted modern and ballet, and I’m getting them.”
In the opening of The Sweeter End, DaSilva reveals herself to be a performer with extraordinary expressive range. Back turned, shoulders shaking in unbearable grief, she begins upstage and ends downstage, facing the audience, her shoulders still riffing along with the band, but now with jazzy joie de vivre.
Sweeter End and Ma Maison evolved from McIntyre’s desire to “learn through the lens of choreography about a culture I was fed by when I was with Houston Ballet.” His dance-making career began there in 1989, when former artistic director Ben Stevenson named him choreographic associate. Since then, McIntyre, whose elegant épaulement proclaims his classical training, has created more than 80 works for ballet companies from Seattle to Stuttgart, using music that ranges from rap to Mozart. He also served as resident choreographer at Ballet Memphis, Oregon Ballet Theatre, and The Washington Ballet, which helped him learn about connecting to audiences with very different cultural points of view.
He often does this musically. For Memphis he created Grace, with a gospel choir onstage with the dancers. For Houston, he made Peter Pan, his first major evening-length ballet, to a score by Elgar, honoring Stevenson’s British style and the audience’s thirst for story ballets.
“Sweeter End really feels like new territory—read: scary,” McIntyre said, following its New Orleans premiere. “As a choreographer who is probably a bit of an anthropologist, to get to experience watching the ballet with that culture, for people to recognize themselves in a piece and feel loved or understood or just seen, is a peaceful communion.”
That emotional and intellectual connection is what McIntyre sought to forge with dancers, too. For nearly a decade, because he thought artistic directorship of a big ballet company would provide him with a group of dancers to work with consistently, he applied for openings. But when short-listed, he withdrew his name. Why? He finally decided that running someone else’s company was not for him. “I found that inheriting a legacy, for me as an artist, was inherently flawed. Starting from scratch was a more appealing idea.”
In 2004, with Schert, then also dancing with Alonzo King/LINES Ballet, and Anne Mueller of OBT, he organized a summer pick-up company with dancers from Ballet Memphis, OBT and The Washington Ballet. Smash hit performances at Vail came in 2005, followed by standing ovations at Wolf Trap, Jacob’s Pillow, and other summer festivals. The company went full-time in 2008 and has grown financially as well as artistically with every season. Last year ended, according to Schert, with a $30,000 surplus that provided bonuses for the entire organization. Next year, contracts will increase from 36 weeks to 39.
Benefits such as health insurance, a stipend for body work, free haircuts, and an arrangement Schert made with Boise State University for TMP members to get cost-free undergraduate degrees (with credits for life experience), plus Boise’s low cost of living, make this a very good deal for the dancers.
TMP’s dancers are on the road for 25 weeks, but they are very much part of Boise’s dance community, which includes Ballet Idaho, Idaho Dance Theatre, and Balance, a modern dance company for young women on which DaSilva practices her choreographic skills. The city boasts a health-food movement, gourmet restaurants, and coffee houses with art by local artists on their walls. McIntyre started cultivating those artists the minute the company went full-time, inviting them to make portraits of the dancers and split the proceeds of whatever they sold.
Because of the “McIntyre method,” building on what’s already there, whether it’s the strengths of individual dancers or Boise’s growing arts community, and using all available resources to do it (including the web), TMP rose to international prominence with the speed of light. “It feels fantastic,” McIntyre said in Boise last March during performance week. “But it involves a lot of hard work and sacrifice to make it happen. So many things remind me of a gift and opportunity—that I now have the freedom to try an idea. It’s a life shift.”
After Lincoln Center, TMP heads for Vail, where they’ll present a world premiere, as well as the company premiere of Oh, Inverted World, set to the music of Portland-based indie-pop group The Shins. Through the end of the year they tour mostly in the west with three programs, including the New Orleans pieces; the heart-rending In Dreams, a pointe piece to Roy Orbison’s blues-tinted country songs; and Blue Until June, a cheerfully satiric take on wedding rituals, to Etta James. In January, they premiere a ballet based on the 1972 Ms. Foundation for Women’s Free to Be…You and Me—which says it all about TMP.
Martha Ullman West is working on a book titled Making Ballet American: Todd Bolender and Janet Reed.
Trey’s challenge to his dancers
“I look for talent, strong technique, a unique way of moving. Dancers have to be serious, brave, and open. I hold them to a standard every day, the same as me, no letting up. Of course I’m the choreographer, but they’re the ones who have to go onstage and interpret. They need to have the skill, trust, and vision of the overall picture.”
Inset: The Sweeter End, with Chanel DaSilva at right. Photo by Robert Allen; Ma Maison. Photo by Robert Allen; Brett Perry in one of TMP's community events. Photo by Trey McIntyre; Trey McIntyre, Photo by Daniel Rosenthal of Brooks Institute of Photography © 2011. All Courtesy TMP.