TREY MCINTYRE'S initial experience with ballet did not augur well for a career in dance. "I would skip class a lot. My mom would drop me off, and I would go get a Slurpee next door." Ballet class, to this 11-year-old in Wichita, Kan., "felt so square and confining."
But an enlightened teacher noticed that while her less-than-stellar student was spending time in the parking lot, he was also busy teaching steps he had invented to some friends. "She watched from the window -- from the class I was supposed to be in. When she came outside, instead of yelling at me, she suggested, 'Why don't you teach this to the rest of the class?' She really helped me to find what was exciting about dance for me."
It was clear that choreography was McIntyre's focus, even as he continued to hone his own technique, eventually joining the Houston Ballet. And in fact, at 38, he has now been making dances for professional companies in the U.S. and abroad since he was 20. Altogether, he has created more than 70 ballets.
This year, however, McIntyre has taken a bold step: He has committed himself full time to his own troupe, the Trey McIntyre Project. After a warmly received debut in August at the venerable Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival in the Massachusetts Berkshires, the company will launch its inaugural tour Friday in Laguna Beach as part of the Laguna Dance Festival. (Additional Southern California performances, in Santa Barbara and L.A., are planned for February.)
For three years, McIntyre led a company during the summer only. Each June, he assembled the dancers -- mostly members of full-time companies with whom he had worked previously -- and spent a month in the idyllic White Oak Plantation in Florida preparing repertory before heading out to summer festivals.
But by 2007, the third year of the project, the strapping 6-feet-6 choreographer felt eager to take on a year-round operation. "The next step I wanted to take as an artist required a much more long-term collaboration," he said during a relaxed interview in the cozy Tea Garden on the Jacob's Pillow grounds, as piano music from a ballet class in an adjacent rustic studio spilled outside.
"It was a big leap of faith. I had been offered company directorships in the past and was fully aware of all the other things that are involved, besides getting to have dancers you can work with all the time. But shortly before the 2007 tour, the realization was, we either were going to move forward or we were going to be stuck. I have to evolve, to move forward, on a regular basis. If something feels mastered, it's not comfortable just to stay with that. That extends to all things -- choreography, relationships."
Ella Baff, the executive director of Jacob's Pillow, presented the troupe in 2005 and 2006 and has followed McIntyre's development closely. "I totally get the idea of wanting to have a group of dancers who you can work with in a consistent way," she said by phone from her office. "You can collaborate with them. You can put your vocabulary, your signature, on those bodies, in those minds, and invent a style of your own that becomes evident to an audience."
Boost from ballet
MCINTYRE is an intriguing blend -- an inquisitive artist who is also a wholesome, amiable Midwesterner. ("I'm built for field work," he jokes.) He has been selected as one of Dance Magazine's "25 to Watch" as well as (in 2003) one of People magazine's "25 Hottest Bachelors." His is a refreshing, individual voice in a ballet world where so many choreographers of his generation seem hamstrung by the influence of George Balanchine or William Forsythe. He is not afraid to explore psychological conflicts in his work -- especially the isolation and questioning of childhood and adolescence. But he can also come up with a sumptuous pure dance that rides headlong on a rich classical score, such as "The Reassuring Effects (of Form and Poetry)," set to a Dvorák serenade, which will close the Laguna program.
As a youngster taken with musical theater, he recalled, he was "shorter and heavier. I went to dance auditions and was useless. I couldn't put one foot in front of the other." It was his mother who figured that ballet class might help. And once that perceptive teacher engaged his interest, he moved on to the elite training ground of the North Carolina School of the Arts and then, at 17, followed a friend's recommendation and enrolled in the Houston Ballet Academy.
Ben Stevenson, the eminent British choreographer who was artistic director of the Houston Ballet from 1976 to 2003, spotted McIntyre's talent immediately, when he fulfilled an assignment for a summer choreographic workshop. "He was given a huge number of girls for his dance -- not the best girls in the summer school either," Stevenson, now the artistic director of Texas Ballet Theater, said recently. "He came up with the best piece. It was so clever. You need to have an imagination to be a good choreographer, and that's what he has."
In 1989, Stevenson created the position of choreographic apprentice for McIntyre. "Ben let me work with dancers in the company even while I was still at the school. He was very hands-off," McIntyre said. "He gave me the best training as a choreographer, which is just to have time."
By his early 20s, McIntyre was contributing to the Houston repertory and other Texas troupes. By 1994, his reputation was sufficient for New York City Ballet to commission a work from him. He earned the title of choreographic associate with the Houston Ballet in 1995 and has been resident choreographer for Oregon Ballet Theatre, Ballet Memphis and Washington Ballet.
Although he may have been resistant to ballet as a boy, he says, "I'm thankful that I continue to be grounded by such a classical base. I think the classical vocabulary is essentially about speaking clearly. No matter what you do, you're clear in what you're saying and how you're communicating."
THE Trey McIntyre Project, with a budget of $1.6 million, is a compact ensemble of 10 that he envisions expanding to 12 next year. He is happy working on this scale for the moment. "I don't want to be making any larger pieces. I also want to be sure that every dancer is challenged and working a lot."
A few of the dancers worked in prior incarnations of the troupe -- including the majestic yet understated John Michael Schert, who is also the executive director. Said McIntyre of Schert, who is also his partner, "He's definitely an artist and needs to have that cathartic experience onstage. But he is also very logical and analytical and has to exercise that part of his brain."
Having a leading dancer who doubles as executive director is just one way in which the Trey McIntyre Projects breaks the mold. Another is in its choice of home base: Boise, Idaho. The troupe had performed there each summer, and it suited McIntyre's preference for a smaller city.
"It's a liberal pocket in the midst of not-too-liberal territory," he said. "People are really forward-thinking and care about the city in the right way." Ballet Idaho, which is based in the city, presented the company's 2007 performance there, and the city is giving the company a dance floor. Baff admires the bold choice: "There is support for them there. They will have to work extremely hard, but they won't have to battle the external environment that most companies have to battle."
Simply by launching his company, McIntyre is playing it anything but safe. But he feels this is the way for him to do the work he needs to do.
"My reason is to develop ideas about, essentially, why does dance matter in the first place? I think it's a worthy question to ask. It seems to become less pertinent, in terms of greater American culture. So if it's not speaking to people's needs for what they get from art, then we need to have a look at it."