When the New Orleans Ballet Association asked Trey McIntyre to create a dance that drew on the city’s character, the choreographer knew to steer clear of anything Mardi Gras-related.
It was 2008, three years after Hurricane Katrina, and McIntyre wanted to evoke something more deeply authentic and essential about the robust musical traditions of a city that had become a second home to him, and whose suffering he took personally.
“Ma Maison” is the work that resulted, and it is one of three pieces his contemporary dance company, the sportive and enterprising Trey McIntyre Project, will perform Friday and Saturday at Sidney Harman Hall. The name means “my house,” a comfortable image — even though the theme is not. This work is about death.
But it’s death, down-home style: “Ma Maison” unleashes the raucous celebration of the jazz funeral, the Cajun acceptance of ghosts, the fearlessness of a population that has experienced hurricanes and hardship since its very beginnings — and all of this unspools to very hot music. It’s the sound of the legendary Preservation Hall Jazz Band, a New Orleans treasure, adding just the sort of regional musical accent that is a McIntyre specialty.
His company is now based in Boise, Idaho, but McIntyre’s formative years were spent in the South of country music and steamy jazz clubs. New Orleans became a haven during his years with the Houston Ballet, first as a dancer and then as an in-house choreographer.
“Every time I had a layoff, I’d go to New Orleans, to just soak up the culture and meet people,” says McIntyre, 41, in a recent phone interview.
Washington ballet followers have seen McIntyre’s work aplenty: From 2004 to 2007, he was a resident choreographer of the Washington Ballet, which just this February performed “High Lonesome,” his feverish portrait of a dysfunctional family, with music by Beck. And his troupe has brought such sinewy, romantic works as “Like a Samba” (with vocals by Brazilian jazz star Astrud Gilberto) to Wolf Trap.
McIntyre’s company performed last at Harman Hall in 2008. That was also the year “Ma Maison’s” winking toast to the hereafter premiered in New Orleans, when, if anyone needed further evidence that McIntyre follows his own beat, the native of Wichita decided to swim upstream, set down his artistic roots in Idaho, far from the coastal urban centers, and find out whether his brand of unrestrained, somewhat quirky dancing would resonate there. (It has; McIntyre’s company is reportedly thriving in Boise and increasingly touring across the country.) The upcoming program displays this side of McIntyre, the popular touch and the musical ear attuned to the rhythms of the land.
Jazz is the background to life in New Orleans, so it’s no surprise that McIntyre chose jazz to accompany “Ma Maison” and “The Sweeter End,” the second commission from the New Orleans Ballet Association, which premiered in February in New Orleans and which will also be on the Harman program. But though he knew he wanted jazz, McIntyre didn’t know what kind of jazz would do for that first piece. After taking a tour of indoor and outdoor jazz venues throughout the city, he found himself drawn back to the French Quarter, to tiny, un-air-conditioned Preservation Hall.
“There are grooves in the floor from people standing there,” he marvels, describing the careworn space that has changed little since the band’s founding in 1961, and even since before then; the building dates back at least 200 years, when it housed a tavern. “The acoustics are churchlike; you vibrate from it.”
For “Ma Maison,” Preservation Hall’s creative director, Ben Jaffe, allowed McIntyre to choose works from the band’s catalogue of old-time jazz. For “The Sweeter End,” the musicians improvised. (The band played live for both premieres and has toured with the troupe, but at Harman the musical accompaniment will be on tape.)
“I was just star-struck,” McIntyre says. “I’m here with these legendary musicians and being a collaborator with them.”
The musicians, apparently, were just as impressed with McIntyre. One day during a break in rehearsals, clarinetist Charlie Gabriel, who has toured with such greats as Aretha Franklin and Nancy Wilson, came up to the choreographer. “He shook my hand and said, ‘Thank you for letting us be a part of this,’ ” McIntyre says. “It was all about savoring the moment. That’s typical of the experience in New Orleans.”
“The Sweeter End,” in fact, draws on that — the enjoyment-of-life vibe, the attitude of laissez les bons temps rouler, or “let the good times roll” — which McIntyre cherishes about the city.
There, pleasure “is given almost religious reverence,” he says. “It’s not considered self-indulgent. People want to have great food and have a great time, all that.” And bouncing, boisterous jazz is the echo, the heartbeat and the oxygen for it all.
“It’s not everybody who can walk through that door and really understand and appreciate what we do,” says Jaffe, whose parents founded Preservation Hall. “That takes a very special kind of person.” Jaffe says the success of the unusual collaboration between his musicians and a concert dance company was due to an “unwritten communication” between the dancers and musicians — which was not as easy to achieve as one might think, given that much of the music was improvised.
“That’s beautiful, when you can trust somebody, when we walk onstage and the dancers trust us, and we trust them,” Jaffe says. “It’s like standing naked in front of people, when you have this creation, like allowing someone to read your journal.”
The third work on the Harman program came about in similar fashion: through music and geography and the particular connections between them. McIntyre was the resident choreographer of Ballet Memphis when he created “In Dreams” for that troupe in 2007, a work of intense vulnerability and pain made visible. He used songs by Roy Orbison, including some the famed balladeer of broken hearts had recorded in Memphis, where he once lived. It was a continuation of McIntyre’s musical connection to Tennessee: He’d created a ballet called “Memphis,” using local music, and one titled “Pork Songs,” about a pig at war with his skillet destiny, that incorporated traditional vocal harmonies and, yes, barnyard sounds.
“In Dreams” is accompanied by the title song and other Orbison hits, including “Crying” and “Dream Baby.” McIntyre “instinctively found what spoke to him in the songs,” says Ballet Memphis Artistic Director Dorothy Gunther Pugh. “But it’s never been self-indulgent. It’s big enough for other people to be a part of.”
“Roy Orbison’s voice is so huge,” Pugh continues, “and I think Trey knew that this man’s story and his voice, how he goes to the absolute center of pain and heartbreak — if you’re going to use that as a jumping-off point, you need dancers who understand that, and you better be humble in the face of that.”
Indeed, for McIntyre, humility was at the heart of that work. If “Ma Maison” and “The Sweeter End” involved research of a culture, and drawing on its music, “In Dreams” centered on a more personal quest.
“It was about rubbing my own self raw,” McIntyre says. “When I listen to music, what are the memories it conjures, how does that register in my body? . . . The main reason I respond to Roy Orbison’s music is it’s very hard for an artist to display that level of emotion and still do it in an honest way.”
Using regional music to inspire a dance is the truest, most direct way into a culture’s heart — or his own.
“I approach choreography like anthropology,” McIntyre says. “It’s my way of learning.”
TREY MCINTYRE PROJECT, performing “Ma Maison,” “The Sweeter End” and “In Dreams” at Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F St. NW. Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m. Tickets are available at www.wpas.org or by calling 202-785-9727. After 10 a.m. on Friday, tickets are only available from Sidney Harman Hall at 202-547-1122 or http://www.shakespearetheatre.org.