Somehow the baggy pants and mop of curly hair make Trey McIntyre look cool. The pants are all but falling off; the tennis shoes are not exactly ballet friendly. But then McIntyre doesn't have to demonstrate much at all while at work on his new ballet.
He's halfway through putting together The Shadow, an evening of dances inspired by Hans Christian Andersen tales and set to Dvorák's Symphony No. 8. It opens September 4 at the Brown Theater in Wortham Theater Center.
On a hot afternoon at Houston Ballet's studios, the choreographer looks completely at ease. That is due in part to the fact that the studios are familiar territory: He got his professional start as a ballet dancer in this building and he knows many of the dancers. He left the company eight years ago, but has been back often to create new works. The Shadow will be his seventh for the company following Skeleton Clock (1990), Curupira (1993), Touched (1994), Second Before the Ground (1996), Bound (2000), and Peter Pan (2002).
Much in demand around the world, McIntyre has been asked to create ballets for Stuttgart Ballet, Pennsylvania Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, Ballet de Santiago (Chile), Ballet Florida, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, and Oregon Ballet Theatre, among others.
While his works range from impersonal and edgy to quirky fun, lately he's been captivated by children's fairy tales. "I like stories with a magical element, so children's stories are a match," says the 33-year-old Kansas native. In addition to Peter Pan, his first full-length ballet, he created a nervy Aliss in Wonderland for Texas Ballet Theater. McIntyre had also hoped to use the French children's tale The Red Balloon for Houston Ballet's fall program, but dropped the idea at the last moment when he wasn't sure he could get the rights to the film in time. He then toyed with the idea of turning a single tale by Hans Christian Andersen into a ballet, before deciding to treat several pieces as written, brief and succinct.
Years ago the choreographer wanted to use Dvorák's Symphony No. 8 for a ballet, but former artistic director Ben Stevenson talked him out of doing something so overly ambitious. "I shelved the idea," he says, "but I like the music‹it has detail and incidental qualities that illustrate this play."
The ballet is a collaborative effort with costume and set designer Sandra Woodall. "I must have read 80 or 90 of Andersen's stories," McIntyre explains. "Sandra read some aloud, and reading aloud makes a difference in how it feels. We were jazzed about doing several stories as a set."
He eventually settled on five: "The Shadow," "The Dead Child," "The Tinderbox," "The Naughty Boy," and "Thumbelina." The stories are connected thematically, with "big, simple ideas," he says, and equally simple, abstract sets. Slide projectors cast stark images. The colors are bold: dark cobalt blue for "The Dead Child" and earthy brown and red for "The Tinderbox."
McIntyre has two weeks to put together what will eventually be a 35-minute work. "I come with sketches, outlines, and the music," he says, but he otherwise arrives at the studio "with not a single step in mind." He prefers working directly with the dancers, many of whom he's collaborated with previously, although some were recommended "sight unseen."
The unknowns are a gamble. "There is not a wasted gesture," says the choreographer. "If a dancer doesn't work out, I can make the role smaller. But the hardest time is with a slow dancer. A quick dancer helps me complete my train of thought."
Many of the 20 dancers in The Shadow will appear in more than one tale. "The piece is male heavy," he acknowledges, to capitalize on the known strength of the company's men. Rehearsals begin after company class at 11:50 a.m. and end at 6:45 p.m., with a five-minute break between each work, and a 55-minute break for lunch.
The first rehearsal for the day is "The Dead Child," in which a mother is so stricken with grief over the death of her only son that she loses interest in her husband and daughters. Julie Gumbinner jumps up on the platform that serves both as bed and casket to reach her son. Her character leans over him only to be pulled back by the husband. When the husband and daughters gather at the grave, McIntyre cautions the performers, "Be careful about being too sentimental," and he demonstrates how their heads should tilt only slightly.
The rehearsal flows, then stops. He signals an assistant handling the tape of the music where to begin again. He starts again, then stops, starts, stops, starts, stops. "Slow down," he orders Gumbinner. Then, during a lift, he says, "This should be glum and dark," constantly imbedding meaning into what otherwise would be simple ballet steps.
At this stage, the work looks rough, with some sections quite polished and others still in the gestation stage.
"The Tinderbox" has the largest cast‹20‹and now the studio fills with yet more dancers. Some have just finished rehearsing In the middle, somewhat elevated; others have been working on A Dance in the Garden of Mirth. Both of these ballets with The Shadow will complete the season-opening program this month. Yet other dancers come in from rehearsals of The Sleeping Beauty, which opens in mid-September. Rehearsals in all five studios go on simultaneously.
It's a heavy workload for the company. But the results are clear on this afternoon as the dancers work on "The Tinderbox," which McIntyre describes as a tale about "how you can cheat, lie, steal, and still become king. It has a subversive ending," he says. "I think it is very timely for what is going on today." Dominic Walsh plays a soldier who steals the magical tinderbox, captures the princess, and sets three ferocious dogs into action. It is a very intense ballet, and as the hour passes, dancers shed layers of outer garments, using shirts to wipe off sweat. Like shadows, a set of understudies mirror the steps, trying to stay out of the way.
"Andersen's stories can be very dark and grim," McIntyre says. "What I like about children's stories is the content is for adults while the telling is for children."
Margaret Putnam lives in Richardson, Texas, and writes about dance for The Dallas Morning News.