Six years ago, ballet choreographer Trey McIntyre broke one of the cardinal rules of success in the concert dance world. As the recession rolled in, he abandoned the cultural capital of San Francisco and a successful career as a freelance choreographer for major companies like New York City Ballet to move his fledgling company to Boise, Idaho, the kind of small Western city that artistic arbiters on the coasts tend to scoff at as provincial and uninterested in art.
“When I first came here they said you’ll disappear off the dance map,” McIntyre says from a Chicago stop on the tour that will bring the Trey McIntyre Project to the South Miami Dade Cultural Arts Center on Saturday. “The opposite was true — we got a lot of attention. It just requires more creativity.”
Boise named TMP cultural ambassadors. Local businesses donated everything from free medical care to free cookies, and sponsored dancers with 35 weeks of pay and health insurance — a luxurious existence in the dance world. Locals treated them like hometown rock stars; a sold-out run at the city’s 2,000-seat performing arts center sparked a brisk ticket scalping business. Boise proved a secure base for frequent and successful tours, including to major U.S. venues like the Brooklyn Academy of Music and Walt Disney Concert Hall, and abroad to Asia, Europe and Latin America.
McIntyre’s troupe embraced the community in return, performing at local basketball games, on the street, in a children’s hospital. Their weeklong Miami visit is packed with community outreach activities, including a free school performance and dance workshops for seniors; professional dancers; and elementary, middle school and students at Miami-Dade College, whose MDC Live program is co-presenting the performance. One of the 10 dancers, Elizabeth Keller, is a former member of Miami City Ballet, for whom McIntyre choreographed The Reassuring Effects of Form and Poetry in 2004.
“Being surrounded by other artists and companies is more of a challenge than being away,” he says. “As a choreographer when you watch someone else’s work, especially if you respond to it … that’s the culprit for how a lot of work gets to look the same. I’m appreciative of being cut off that way. There are so many other things to be inspired by.”
He finds as many layers of inspiration in pop music and culture as he does in classical composers and abstract concepts. In Miami, the company will perform Mercury Half-Life, set to music by the rock group Queen, and The Vinegar Works: Four Dances of Moral Instruction, inspired by the work of illustrator and writer Edward Gorey.
McIntyre accords a surprising amount of respect to Queen, now best known for sports stadium anthems like We Will Rock You and its flamboyant, gay lead singer Freddie Mercury.
“It’s such fanciful peacock operatic scale music, that’s so much fun but with such an incredibly wide range of exploration,” McIntyre says. He finds an additional challenge in not resorting to the obvious by illustrating the lyrics, or synchronizing directly with the simple rhythms and structures. “With a symphony one can be lazier; there’s a detailed road map and you can just illustrate the music and make an interesting piece,” he says. “The challenge of pop music is there’s a lot more work to be done.”
For Half-Life he focused on the emotional power that pop songs derive from being soundtracks to many people’s lives — whether a romantic meeting or a transformative adolescence — and the way in which pop anthems like Queen’s move people to sing and move along. “Iconic songs can move a stadium to stomp their feet, but a theater too — audiences can’t wait to participate in the music,” he says. “What does that mean, and why do we need that as a culture?”
The Gorey piece was a different kind of challenge — to capture the illustrator’s precarious blend of grotesque humor, and to do so with a narrative, theatrical style that was new to McIntyre. Vinegar Works, which was premiered in Berkley, Calif., in March, features some wild costumes and characters for its four segments, with puppets, masked dancers on stilts and a dancer as a bouncing, balloon-shaped baby.
“He did a beautiful job balancing the adorable and horrific,” says McIntyre, who worked closely with the Gorey estate. “He holds our hands through our own fears; shadows our own demons.” Another section is based on the Gashlycrumb Tinies, an alphabetical account of children’s deaths. “Gorey makes it OK to accept these parts of ourselves, our own morbid, aggressive selves,” McIntyre says. “Not to make fun of it but to dive into and accept it.”
Despite the success McIntyre has found in his Western outpost, he is disbanding the troupe — this is its last tour. He and his partner, who was also the TMP’s executive director, are splitting, and McIntyre says he wants to focus on new creative endeavors in photography and filmmaking.
“It’s really time,” he says. “There’s so many things I want to accomplish as an artist … and what a great thing to put this on the shelf while I feel really good about it from beginning to end.”
But he still plans to stay in Boise. And he hopes that other dance artists struggling with skyrocketing living costs and dwindling support in cities like New York and San Francisco will make a similar leap.
“Artists are still fearful,” he says. “I think we need new creative thought leaders … to be more radical, immediate and brave.
“Circumstances stink. At the same time there’s a great opportunity to be part of our world, which is global. Organize, move to an area as a group, pick a new place.”