Like generations of choreographers, Trey McIntyre has set ballets to scores by Chopin, Tchaikovsky, and Stravinsky. Yet the McIntyre that New York audiences have gotten to know in 2012 is not afraid to embrace more colloquial music. In August 2010, at the Joyce Theater, San Francisco’s Smuin Ballet danced Oh, Inverted World, a smart piece by McIntyre to music by indie rock band the Shins. Then, in November, at the BAM Fisher space, the choreographer’s own company, the Trey McIntyre Project, danced three thrilling ballets—all of them, remarkably, made this year—to Broadway show tunes, classic rock, and children’s songs. Most of the music was American.
The choice of homegrown music was no accident. These performances were presented by DanceMotion USA, a program of the U.S. State Department, and BAM, which encourages international exchange through artistic collaboration. After McIntyre and his crew, representing America, toured Asia earlier this year, the Korea National Contemporary Dance Company was chosen as their partner. The Korean dancers then traveled from Seoul to McIntyre’s studio in Boise, Idaho, where McIntyre created a new work on dancers from both companies.
That work was The Unkindness of Ravens, which premiered at BAM alongside other works representing the repertory of both companies. One of the themes the work explores, fittingly, is the awkwardness created when vastly different cultures collide.
The score is a cross-cultural pastiche, mixing Korean Buddhist chanting, the original cast recording of A Chorus Line, and Johnny Cash, with other similarly eclectic sources. Wearing glued-on pharaoh-esque beards, cropped pants, and sleeveless black tops, the five dancers intermittently step up to a microphone between dances to tell intentionally hokey jokes, often in languages that are obviously not their own. (How many choreographers does it take to screw in a light bulb?” one of the Korean dancers asks in English, exaggerating her accent. “Five-six-seven-eight.”) They pass around detachable black wings, which they flap or point menacingly like machine guns.
Humorous contrasts abound in the dancing, as well. A group dance of slinky kicks and promiscuous partner swapping ends unexpectedly with all five performers grinning goofily and giving the audience jazz hands. Later, a fraught pas de deux pauses so the woman can hump her partner’s leg like a dog. The piece is whimsical, even silly at times, but always gripping.
McIntyre’s Ladies and Gentle Men, which had its premiere at Jacob’s Pillow in August and closed the BAM program, was an even greater triumph. It was enlightening to witness children’s songs, culled from the 1970s album and ABC after-school special Free to Be... You and Me, turned into such sophisticated work. The songs, which promote diversity and acceptance in the most politically correct of terms, can sound somewhat naive to adult ears, but McIntyre’s choreography explores the complex reality behind these themes.
McIntyre equates adulthood with a duty to conform. Benjamin Behrends frolics with Ashley Werhun only to be bullied into submission by two other men. As Diana Ross croons “When I Grow Up,” Chanel DaSilva and Travis Walker dance a duet that oscillates tensely between youth and adulthood. Their arms intertwine and they stare forward anxiously, as if posing for a family portrait, then seconds later tumble over each other like children at play in a sandbox.
Underneath trim suits and colorful dresses that recall the 1950s, the cast of three men and three women wear tighter-fitting, paint-splattered costumes: a metaphor for their flawed but nonetheless beautiful selves. (When Werhun unbuttons Behrends’s shirt, it seems as if they might be about to play doctor, but it’s this hidden identity she’s after.) In the finale, danced to the title number, all the dancers cast aside their adult clothes and let their freak flags fly, indulging in a communal celebration. In ecstatic solos, they slide across the floor and perform odd combinations of steps that look improvised. If the clothing metaphor is obvious, the piece doesn’t suffer for it.
The three works from the Korean company’s repertory were both choreographed by Sung-yop Hong, the ensemble’s artistic director since its establishment in 2010. While all the dances on the program employed props to some degree, Hong’s relied on them heavily: dance theater with the emphasis on theater. It was helpful to see the material that the Koreans were accustomed to dancing, but it was harder to relate to these works than McIntyre’s.
In Mosaic, Yoonhee Lee, wearing a floral-print swimsuit, struts about and holds one-legged balances while four men slide white tiles to one another, anticipating her steps and never letting her feet touch the floor. Although Lee handles her task admirably, the fast-moving tiles—and the increasingly intricate patterns they form—draw the eye away from her dancing. Anlee Chang’s solo Flame, in which she strikes her costume, repeatedly sending sparks flying, was more gimmicky yet.
The ensemble piece Can’t It Really Be Helped? had more substance. Moving in unison, their faces eerily covered by fabric, the jaunty steps seem clipped, as though some force were holding them back. The use of props here is mysterious: The dancers carry plastic birds on sticks, which they plant in the floor at the front of the stage. (Are these the ravens McIntyre refers to in the title of his new work? They do indeed look unkind.)
Too much contemporary ballet—at least that routinely seen in New York—is dull. The steps are predictably fast and hyperextended, and few choreographers approach their scores with sensitivity. Furthermore, choreographers seem reluctant to entertain, as if to do so would dilute the art. (Never mind that George Balanchine, who helped classicism reach new heights in the 20th century, crafted brilliant ballets to Gershwin standards and Sousa marches.)
In this respect, McIntyre’s presence is refreshing. The athletic steps he prefers aren’t so different from those used by his peers, and he too favors speed, but he distinguishes himself with his musicality, his ideas, and above all the directness of his approach. His ballets provide a welcome reminder that art and entertainment needn’t be mutually exclusive.