Trey McIntyre's Refreshing Splash of Samba At Wolf Trap

Getting outside of the box was one theme evident in the Trey McIntyre Project's performance Tuesday. Here, dancers start the show with
Getting outside of the box was one theme evident in the Trey McIntyre Project's performance Tuesday. Here, dancers start the show with "Like a Samba," which seemed to reference Twyla Tharp. (By Scott Suchman -- Wolf Trap)
By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 10, 2006

Trey McIntyre is exactly what you want on a breezy summer night. His dances are crisp and light; they hit you like a splash of eau de Cologne. In the program performed by the Trey McIntyre Project on Tuesday night at Wolf Trap, women in white halter-top dresses swiveled their hips against a teal-blue backdrop; couples in what looked like bondage-influenced swimsuits whipped each other around with cool assurance. There was bossa nova and bluegrass.

McIntyre, a young, increasingly popular choreographer, is known to local audiences for his frequent work with the Washington Ballet (he is its choreographer in residence); in May he premiered the smart, vivid "Always, No Sometimes," set to Beatles songs. The year before, he unveiled a flawed dance-drama, "The Rite of Spring." Tuesday's program, which was the last stop for his pickup troupe, assembled just for the summer, put the same strengths and weaknesses on view.

McIntyre is a master at crafting a suite of dances, as in his Beatles work, or the Wolf Trap opener, "Like a Samba." He does a good job of using songs to change the moods. When it comes to steps, he's especially gifted at sprinkling in the oddball quirks that add great fun and liveliness. And he's learned well from his forebears. "Like a Samba" looked as if he'd made a close study of Twyla Tharp, particularly her perils-of-love Sinatra tributes ("Nine Sinatra Songs" and "Sinatra Suite"); the all-white costume concept brought her "Baker's Dozen" to mind. "Samba" displayed a Tharpian playfulness, and there was also a Tharplike silky fluidity in the dancing.

But while I found myself thinking of Tharp, I was also admiring McIntyre's skill. He not only bends and twists his dancers with invigorating effect, and adds witty, ironic counterpoint. He also fleshes them out as characters in subtle, telling ways. "Samba," accompanied by the smoky vocals of Brazilian jazz star Astrud Gilberto, begins with Jason Hartley's hips (he and two other Washington Ballet dancers are part of the project), wiggling in silhouette in a square of light. Later Hartley dances a solo expanding on the notion of the irrepressible showman dying to burst out of his box. He hops stiffly onstage as if his legs and arms were bound; as the music ramps up, he launches into an acrobatic riff that sends him soaring through space, arcing and spinning in air like a BMX showoff with nothing to lose. It was a concise, complete portrait.

Similarly, Michele Jimenez had a finely nuanced diva turn as the head-turner described in Gilberto's hit "The Girl From Ipanema." McIntyre toyed with her here; the drop-dead-gorgeous dancer didn't always look so elegant. At times she tipped over backward (on purpose, into the arms of her two partners). But she never dropped her air of being so above it all. This delicious trio paid tribute to Jimenez's extraordinary facility, her creamy legato and appealing softness, in what was, regrettably, her last local performance. The Washington Ballet's top ballerina is moving on to Amsterdam's Dutch National Ballet.

McIntyre likes spirited, spunky techno-wizards; his troupe is full of them. He uses their qualities best in short bursts, as in the series of vignettes in "Samba." "Just," which followed, was more serious, set to Henry Cowell's anxious "Set of Five for Violin, Piano and Percussion." And while it started out as a kind of visual tongue-twister, it unfortunately got chewy in the middle. However dangerous-glamorous the four dancers looked in their skin-baring swimwear, their abstract intertwinings felt like the same moves over and over.

McIntyre can lose his way when he reaches for drama, as he did in "Go Out." Here, he evoked the effect of a death on a small-town community. There was a glassy-eyed body on the ground, surrounded by plainly dressed folk whipping off their hats to bow their heads and clutching one another in stoic support. The most bereaved of the lot, a young woman with wide, feverish eyes, spins around and suddenly we're in a flashback of happier times, but they're interrupted by the humorless figure of Death -- Alison Roper -- chasing people around. McIntyre must have seen American Ballet Theatre's recent revival of the classic antiwar ballet "The Green Table," for his Death stalked around a lot like Kurt Jooss's Death, except McIntyre's bringer of doom was not a man in a skeleton suit but a woman in a scarlet ball gown.

A mix of folk songs and bluegrass tunes added to the homespun atmosphere, particularly the whiskey vocals of the great Ralph Stanley. It ended with a strange but evocative image, as Roper's big skirt swept over her last victim -- John Michael Schert. As he fell lifeless at her feet, she strode upstage, her back to us, toward a spot of golden light on the backdrop. Going to the light, perhaps, or riding into the sunset. The rest of the work had been marred by overacting and forced emotion. But in that final glimpse there was a sense of lonely, sad triumph.

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