“When we’re in the presence of brilliance, we know it. Yo-Yo Ma with his cello, for example. Born for his art, devoting his life to perfecting it. Trey McIntyre is just such a luminary among makers of dance.” I wrote that in 1998 for one of my first assignments at OBT, when I interviewed Trey about his creative process as a choreographer. Fifteen years later, having followed his impressive career with pleasure, it’s my privilege to interview Trey again as he makes his new ballet, Robust American Love, for OBT’s “American Music Festival” program in April.
Watching Trey in the studio the past couple of weeks, I see that creative principles he articulated fifteen years ago continue to guide his work. In ways that I hope are illuminating, I’ve interspersed material from that 1998 article into the interview below. (The older quotes are in italics.)
Linda Besant: The Fleet Foxes are real favorites here in the Northwest. How did you choose their music for this “American Music Festival” commission?
Trey McIntyre: Christopher Stowell asked me to use somebody from this area. Andrea Lauer, a designer I was working with, mentioned that she knew someone who was the sound engineer for the Fleet Foxes. They had been in the back of my mind, to me their first album is so great, so special, that it was an easy choice.
The reason I respond to them is the Americana part, so suggestive of wide-open spaces and canyons, and obviously, folk music references, and kind of old-style lyrics and poetry. These are themes I’m very interested in. Coming from the heartland, coming from Wichita, Kansas, it has never until now, with this piece, been a conscious thing, but my perspective is American. It’s funny, I’m at an age right now that there’s a certain kind of patriotism that I’m really warming up to—how great it is to live in this place. Both in our way of governing and treating each other, but also the terrain, and all the things that make up being in this country.
Other people have recognized it in the work I’ve made, especially later in life. Dance writers—I’ve started being referred to really frequently as a very American choreographer. In this piece, I’m actually for the first time really looking at that, thinking about the experience of country. I really approached the piece with those feelings.
I chose pre-civil war era America in terms of very early stages of inhabiting a brand new place and pioneering, and the kind of toughness and optimism that it took for people to make that leap. We’re talking about being from hardy stock—my family is heavy with Dutch and German and Native American, really connected to doing an honest day’s work, and connected with the land. I wanted to explore those ideas within the piece.
LB: How did you arrive at the title Robust American Love for this ballet?
TM: I thought about people whose language speaks to the same ideas, and Walt Whitman was of course right in the forefront. It was great for me because I didn’t realize how big his canon is. Really gorgeous and so evocative of exactly what I’m trying to get at. I just randomly happened upon this one poem that talks about the West coast. I sat up late last night recording myself reading the poem because I wanted to hear it back and understand what the words mean. I might use a recording of the poem, we’ll see.
A Promise to California
A promise to California,
Or inland to the great pastoral Plains, and on to Puget sound and Oregon;
Sojourning east a while longer, soon I travel toward you, to remain,
to teach robust American love,
For I know very well that I and robust love belong among you,
inland, and along the Western sea;
For these States tend inland and toward the Western sea, and I will also.
LB: Once you’ve chosen the music and have a core idea, how does the movement vocabulary for a new ballet take shape in the mind of a person like you, whose gift is to think in moving images?
TM: “I make sure I completely understand the music count for count, listening a jillion times, imagining movement, improvising with it to get it into my body.” (Trey begins to fill in the blanks, knowing a solo will go here, a group of dancers there.) “Then I try to work improvisationally in the studio. The best stuff comes out that way” (Each day he films his choreography. At night, he studies how the work is progressing.) “There’s an essence that I feel about each ballet, an organic connection, and I recognize it when I see it. The first rule of choreography for me is that I follow my own heart.”
LB: What if it doesn’t feel right?
TM: “Sometimes I’ll listen to music that’s completely opposite of the score for the ballet, and suddenly an answer will come in. Or I’ll think of a ballet that has a similar problem and study how the choreographer solved it. Or I’ll go to a movie, and I always get something out of it. I think in cinematic terms when I structure ballets.” (When he’s formulating an image-idea,) “Everything around me has an influence.”
LB: It’s been a real joy to watch you work with Alison Roper on Robust American Love. I was here when you gave Alison her first major role, in Like a Samba, in 1997 when she was still an apprentice, and she’s never looked back. You’ve made so many stunning ballets with her since. Just and Go Out particularly come to mind.
TM: I get the privilege of that relationship, for me. She’s so physically gifted, just built to be a ballerina; but at the same time, and this is not always the case, in fact rarely the case, she has developed such a command of that instrument, understanding it head to toe, and immediately going to the place of so much meaning. She’s never, “OK I just learned the steps, I’ll get to other stuff later.” She gets to what’s important as quickly as possible and then goes deeper and deeper. I have to remind myself to give her feedback because on the one hand I’d love to just watch her and see what she does with it, but I know that feedback is important to her, that it fuels her.
In 1998, Trey said, “Alison takes in every bit of information and works with it. Dancing makes her happy. She carries a full part in the process, we stay on the same wavelength, and it keeps me focused.”
LB: Alison has been rehearsing in a prototype of her costume. It seems like an important element of the choreography.
TM: The costumes take another angle on the context of pioneering America. It’s a weird notion, but it makes sense to me. There’s an excitement and a sexuality to it, it’s primal. So in the costuming I wanted to have two ideas happening at once. Part of it is that the dancers’ bodies here are just so beautiful, and I wanted to unencumber them; the other is these clothes that haven’t gotten too far from Victorian England in so many ways, especially having the women corseted and tight. We have these things busting open— a transition period from restriction to expansiveness. So the clothes are constructed to really kind of hang off of the dancers. The costumes dance on their own, almost separately.
Andrea Lauer (the same person who suggested the Fleet Foxes, she’s kind of the fairy godmother of this piece) also suggested Melissa Schlachtmeyer to design the costumes. It’s working out really well. The fabric is very light denim, so there’s a weight to them.
LB: Making a ballet to a band like the Fleet Foxes isn’t unusual for you. In fact, for the last decade it seems like you’ve drawn on all kinds of popular music, from Preservation Hall Jazz Band to The Shins.
TM: Just this last show I made a piece using classical music again, operatic as well, really because I wanted to stop myself and check back in. The reasoning for using so much popular music is that I want to use contemporary work, and it’s very rare that I like contemporary symphonic music. Maybe this is another kind of American connection—I respond to the sense of place that pop music gives me, because I hear it everywhere, and it becomes a sound track to my life that is very emotionally evocative.
LB: In 1998, I asked Trey how he first started to create choreography.
Trey described himself as “a music theater baby. I wanted to be an actor from day one,” he said. “I was a heavy, clumsy kid. My mom enrolled me in ballet, she thought that might help, and I was a star right away because I was a boy.” Trey was 11, and skipping ballet class, when he put his first combination of steps together. His teacher found him outside, making up steps for other kids. She brought him in to teach his creation to the class. “From then on,” Trey said, “I was always crafting something. It was never a conscious thing, just the way I thought.”
Now, as I did in 1998, I want to thank Carol Iwasaki, Trey’s first teacher of dance, who recognized in the boy who was cutting class an imagination born to create ballet.