Trey McIntyre Project, dancing its dreams at full bore at Harman Hall

The two best things about Trey McIntyre Project: the dancers’ easy facility with all kinds of rebounding, whip-snapping moves — the bigger the better — and the music. Not to be discounted are the satisfactions of an evening spent with early jazz from New Orleans’s Preservation Hall Jazz Band and the gentle rhythms and unsparing revelations of Roy Orbison.

For most of the audience that filled Sidney Harman Hall on Friday night for McIntyre’s program, that combination was more than enough. There were rapturous ovations for every piece, and no wonder. McIntyre, the 6-foot-6 former ballet dancer and crackerjack choreographer of the popular song, seems to attract an ardent following wherever he goes — even when it’s far off the beaten path for an artist in the niche world of dance. In 2008, he moved his contemporary dance company to Boise, Idaho, which has proved to be a fertile home base for bustling seasons of national and international tours.

McIntyre’s dances offer a beguiling mix of sweat-flinging raw power and sensuality. There was something considerably deeper, however, in the evening’s centerpiece: “In Dreams,” a piece for five dancers, originally created for Ballet Memphis in 2007 (and performed by that company at the Kennedy Center last year).

In the title song, as well as in “You Tell Me,” “I Never Knew It,” “The Crowd” and “Crying,” you hear Orbison’s voice differently in this piece, with the dancers echoing a tango pulse while a soloist might break off and carom to the singer’s warbling yearning, made all the more poignant with the corporal emphasis. Time seems suspended in this dream zone of ecstatic backbends and guarded forward motion. There’s a recurring motif of feeling for the floor with a hesitant foot before each step, which neatly sums up the theme of halting but uncontrollable pursuit in the face of certain heartbreak.

Neither of the other two works, “Ma Maison” and “The Sweeter End,” possessed such cohesiveness. There were other charms, to be sure, in these works commissioned after Hurricane Katrina by the New Orleans Ballet Association. For starters, Preservation Hall’s rasping, unembellished sound — not easy to dance to but so atmospheric. You could almost smell the sweat, spilled booze and night air of some intimate sidestreet club.

A gritty, rough-edged theatricality pervaded the costumes for both works: the bohemian formalwear and skull masks by Jeanne Button for “Ma Maison,” and the tattered denim of “The Sweeter End.” The outfits were accessorized by spray paint, in a nod to the markings rescue workers would leave on flooded houses after Katrina to signal they’d been there, and how many dead they’d found.

Both works ran on jittery energy, capturing something of New Orleans’s defiance toward death (in “Ma Maison”) and heroic embrace of pleasure (“Sweeter End”). In high-energy solos or small groups, the dancers were unfailingly direct, moving versions of the tenor who strides downstage, plants his feet and belts toward the upper balcony. If the shockwaves from such kinetic force could peel paint, the walls of Harman Hall would bear the evidence.

It’s no surprise that with a big, powerful body of his own, McIntyre goes for physical might in his choreography. But I wouldn’t mind a little less horsepower and a little more dramatic possibility. What is the human story he’s telling?

Too frequently, McIntyre stops short of extending his work past the physical. He might consider how one couple’s dancing builds upon what came before. Or how the various sections knit together, apart from gathering momentum toward an explosive dance-party finale. The full-throttle approach will get you there fast and with a certain amount of thrill, but what happens along the way becomes a blur.

Sarah Kaufman received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism and has been The Washington Post's dance critic since 1996. But after logging serious sit-time in opera houses, church basements, fairground tents and lawn chairs, what moves her most is seeing grace happen where she least expects it.
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