Death got to carry an umbrella at Wolf Trap on Wednesday night. The living were not so lucky.
Those who braved the storm for the last local performance of the Trey McIntyre Project found that the Filene Center offered little shelter. Wind swept the driving rain through the center’s open sides and across the seats in waves. Thunder roared and lightning lit the sky like a strobe.
It was an unnerving setting. And it was eerily perfect for the evening’s opener, McIntyre’s “The Vinegar Works: Four Dances of Moral Instruction,” based on the dark art of the late Edward Gorey. Near the end of this piece, when the top-hatted figure of Death glides onstage like an English gent, carrying a big black umbrella, he seemed to be poking fun at the damp audience. McIntyre couldn’t have anticipated the irony. Was that Gorey having the last laugh?
There were more light moments in this grim piece, which takes its title from a collection of Gorey’s writing about odd, doomed creatures. Some of these creatures populated the dance: a fat, nasty, man-size baby who growls; veiled women whose black-lipsticked mouths form silent screams; and one of the unfortunate moppets from “The Gashlycrumb Tinies,” whose deaths were told in lilting verse. Alan Cumming read its lines, in a recording: “I is for Ida, who drowned in a lake; J is for James, who took lye by mistake.” And so on, up to poor Zillah, succumbing to gin.
Which wee victim was the one danced with rubbery vigor by Brett Perry in darling gray knickers? (Bruce Bui designed the artful Edwardian-esque costumes.) He fared better than his literary inspiration, for he got to bounce around the stage in McIntyre’s characteristic mix of quirky, athletic moves that send the body in different directions at once. The music, Shostakovich’s mournful and frenzied Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor, added depth to this view of eccentrics on the crux of two worlds: living and dying, and also Victorian rigidity giving way to Edwardian looseness.
McIntyre’s company premiered “The Vinegar Works” in March at its farewell performance in its home town of Boise, Idaho. After six years, Trey McIntyre Project is folding, despite a successful and well-funded existence that saw it touring nationally and internationally. McIntyre has said he is burned out from leading the busy organization and will turn to film projects and freelance work after this tour concludes at the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in Massachusetts at the end of the month.
It is natural that endings, and a death of sorts, would be on McIntyre’s mind. But despite its rich premise and handsome design, “Vinegar Works” felt unmotivated in spots, as if more was on the choreographer’s mind at the time of its creation than the dancing.
“Mercury Half-Life” was more typical of McIntyre: an energetic rock ballet, performed to songs by the British band Queen. (Yes, “We Are the Champions” and “Another One Bites the Dust,” but also such lesser-known gems as “Good Old-Fashioned Lover Boy,” “Love of My Life” and “Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon.”) Frontman Freddie Mercury had one of the greatest voices of all time, and it was not just a nostalgic thrill to hear it again, well-amplified and soaring to the rafters. Paired with the dancers’ airborne twists and rebounds, this was an intensely invigorating experience, leaving you with a full-body thrum even as you stepped into the wet grass afterward. The stylistic range and complexity of Queen’s music is as good an expression as any for this crazy little thing called life (to paraphrase Mercury), which seemed to be McIntyre’s rather broad point here. That, and the loneliness you can feel even when surrounded by stadium-filling vocals and other dancers and you’re stuck, for instance, in a solo tap dance, just you and the void and your echoing steps.
Uneasiness is McIntyre’s enduring subject. In “Mercury Half-Life,” his dancers whipped themselves into mini rainstorms of sweat, their red-and-white jackets flapping around them like nets. Chanel DaSilva kicked her leg to her ear and caught the foot in one hand; she stayed there, balanced at full extension, while you held your breath. They do not make these feats look easy. They show us the effort. There is a certain honesty in that.
I’ll miss Trey McIntyre Project, for its original works that dive into life’s dark side and don’t resolve easily. All kinds of crazy little things have found vivid expression in McIntyre’s hands. I’m eager to see what he does next.