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‘Bowie and Queen’ at the Washington Ballet brings two musical legends together

Dancers perform in “Dancing in the Street,” one-half of the Washington Ballet’s “Bowie and Queen.” (Jennifer Zmuda)

“I’ve never been a person who uses ‘normal’ ballet music,” says Trey McIntyre, the choreographer of “Mercury Half-Life,” a ballet using the music of Queen and the late Freddie Mercury. “I’m a musician first. I studied piano for 10 years before I took my first dance class,” he says.

“In some ways, pop music is more difficult than a classic symphony, for example,” McIntyre says. “In a symphony there’s a journey that goes from this section to this section to this section, whereas pop music can be more repetitive. And with lyrics, one could simply illustrate what the lyrics are saying and use that as a script.”

“Mercury Half-Life,” which has no traditional plot and uses 15 Queen songs, is the first act of “Bowie & Queen,” The Washington Ballet’s latest production. The second act is “Dancing in the Street,” in which choreographer Edwaard Liang created a love story based on the music of David Bowie, who died in January.

Liang, too, had to deal with the presence of lyrics when it came to building his piece.

“With music that has lyrics to it, either you use the lyrics to tell the story, or you use the lyrics as though they are music itself,” Liang. “I used the lyrics to help with the storyline.”

Liang also had to find a way to link three unrelated Bowie songs — “Good Morning Girl,” “I’m Not Losing Sleep” and “Dancing in the Street” — into a cohesive unit. “I asked [composer] Gabriel Gaffney Smith to compose new music that threads everything together so it would be seamless,” he says.

Both men want to inspire their audience to reinterpret music that many people already know. Their dances stand to serve the music, not necessarily the other way around.

“I think music is a very easy crutch; you can just merely illustrate what’s happening in it,” McIntyre says. “I want to make sure I have something to add to the story. With [this], there was something I knew I could contribute.”

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