Make no mistake: Trey McIntyre, guest artist at Ballet Memphis, will never be described as the enfant terrible of the dance world. The choreographer might be young, but with his affable nature and easy-on-the-eyes good looks, he seems more like the boy next door than anything else.
McIntyre's latest, High Lonesome, will debut at Ballet Memphis' Red Hot & Blue triple bill this weekend. And it won't be all swans and Strauss. At the ripe old age of 31, McIntyre is a new generation of choreographer.
"With most people, how it works is you'll have a career as a famous dancer and when you retire, because you've achieved some sort of notoriety, you'll get the opportunity to try choreography," he says.
Instead of dancing into choreography, McIntyre took another route.
"I was a music theater kid," he says of his early Wichita, Kansas, days, "but I was sort of short and awkward and fat. I would go to auditions and I couldn't do the dance part." To improve his coordination, his mother stuck him in ballet classes. At first, he didn't like it: It was too hard and too boring. When his parents dropped him off, he says, he would skip class and go next door and get a Slurpee. One day, while he was supposed to be in class, he was showing a friend some dance steps he had made up when his ballet teacher saw him from out the window.
"My instinct," he says, "was to start making up steps even before I knew what choreography was."
Instead of chastising him, the ballet teacher invited him to teach the steps to the class. A choreographer was born.
"From that point on, my early dance training, even when I was a dancer with Houston Ballet I always felt that was my schooling to become a choreographer," says McIntyre.
After going to Houston for an intensive summer workshop, the artistic director of the Houston Ballet, Ben Stevenson, created a special position for McIntyre as choreographic apprentice. During the next few years, he both danced and choreographed for the company. "I was learning what it was like to be a dancer in a professional company, learning the work of the most famous choreographers in the world. But I was also making work for that company and starting to work with other companies."
And while he thinks his age has perhaps worked against him in terms of experience, he sees an opportunity to connect with a different audience.
"Your older audiences are going to die off and you have to cultivate a new audience. The ballet companies have to create their audience. It's not like in Europe where it's part of the society and you grow up knowing about that kind of thing and you go with your parents," says McIntyre. "If ballet companies don't evolve and become contemporary, then why exist?"
One way McIntyre's High Lonesome taps a more contemporary feel is his choice of music. The entire 22-minute ballet is choreographed to songs from Beck's Odelay album.
"You can't beat his work," says McIntyre. "It's amazing music and incredibly danceable. It has a lot of layers the way classical music would."
The title of the ballet comes from the name of a Louis L'Amour novel. McIntyre says his grandfather used to read L'Amour's Western series, and his father would always joke about how corny they were. When McIntyre's father got a little older, he began reading them as well.
"As sort of a continuing legacy," says McIntyre, "I picked up one myself. It's terrible writing but an incredible read. It's like a soap opera."
But the piece is not about the wild, wild West or the plot of a L'Amour novel; it, rather, focuses on McIntyre's family.
"It's not a narrative piece; it's not the story of my family," he says by way of clarification. The ballet is instead an exploration of family relationships. For the piece, McIntyre drew on his own experience as well as the strengths of the dancers.
"One of the most important things to me in a dancer is not how great their technique is or what their body can do, but what they think about and how their mind works. That's the most apparent thing, especially if you're not a trained dancer watching a performance. What you're clued into is what the person's thinking and what they convey," says McIntyre. "[Ballet] is an abstract art form: nobody's saying anything. They're not telling you this story. You're having to somehow connect on a level that you can't speak."
Also on the bill for Red Hot & Blue are Dracula, which was performed by the ballet two years ago, and Kindling, a new pas de deux produced by Ballet Memphis associate artistic director Karl Condon.
"I think Ballet Memphis is unique in that it's ahead of the curve. It's a really progressive company," says McIntyre. "I hope people here are proud of that."