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The dance of death: Trey McIntyre Project’s Go Out.

Jerky Moves

By Mae G. Banner

Trey McIntyre Project Jacob’s Pillow, Becket, Mass., Aug. 5

Doing it the hard way, freelance choreographer Trey McIntyre has put together what he calls a “pick-up ballet company,” to dance his growing repertory. The 11 members of the Trey McIntyre Project come from companies west of the Mississippi that McIntyre’s been working with over the past few years: Oregon Ballet Theatre, Washington Ballet, Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet from Los Angeles, and Ballet Memphis.

In a return concert at Jacob’s Pillow last Saturday (they debuted here last summer), the Project were at their best in the East Coast premiere of Go Out (2006), a stoic, though manic, dance of death set to Appalachian songs by the Clinch Mountain Boys, the Stanley Brothers, and various mountain preachers and their congregations.

Go Out set an authentic community before us, one with its strong emotions held in check; these emotions are expressed only in the screeching fiddle, the high lonesome singing, and the herky-jerky dancing, indirect as a mountain stream winding its way between the rocks.

The dancers’ jerking, constrained moves and their stony expressions fed into the agonized preaching of Rev. Crenshaw and his congregation, who succumbed to a group possession (“be real in your soul!”) which the dancers enacted, and the wake-like section “I Wonder Will We Meet Again” in which, one by one, the men in plaid shirts and jeans and the women in deliberately colorless cotton dresses stepped forward to solo before a dead congregant. The living men, stiff as the corpse, lifted him and carried him out to the Lord, leaving two couples behind to do a wild dance to the angry love ballad, “Little Maggie.”

Alison Roper, an incongruous figure in a red silk gown pulled up at the front to show her ballet legs and toe shoes, danced silently through the proceedings, entering and exiting at will, dancing to a terrifying lullaby with Dawn Fay as a dying child, or scaring all the folks at a country play-party, just by her presence.

In an ensemble section, “The Last Words of Copernicus,” the fabulous Jonathan Dummar skipped out as Roper’s puppet. Wearing a full-face mask, Dummar did a wild, randy demon’s dance, jerky and flat-footed, like the Appalachian limberjack dolls that leap and buck on a board set between the toymaker’s knees. His dance scared everyone around him, yet drew them to him.

Roper is death, or maybe the Devil, or both in one form. If we doubted this at first, we got it for sure in the final “O Death,” to Ralph Stanley’s horror-driven song. John Michael Schert struggled with Roper, who stood over him, her legs wide, wrestled with him, and watched him as he fell. She rocked him, covered him with her voluminous skirt, and rode his shoulders as he tried to rise. At last, he fell on his back, and, cold and dead, slid from beneath her skirt.

In all his choreography, McIntyre favors snap-off, sudden moves: jerks, jabs, quick touches. His dances generally don’t flow; they thrust. This worked best in Go Out, where the moves were appropriate to the music and to the hard scrabble Appalachian community the choreographer brought into being.

The same style seemed arbitrary in Just (2006), a dance for two couples originally made for the Oregon Ballet Theatre and set to unbearable music by Henry Cowell. The dancers, in very brief white costumes, did fast, twisty moves that showed a lot of muscle and strong ballet technique, but left me cold.

The opening dance, Like a Samba, made in 1997 for the Oregon Ballet Theatre, was a pleasing showpiece, a display of “ballet meets ballroom.” Set to smooth bossa nova songs of Antonio Carlos Jobim, it played the dancers’ tall, lean ballet bodies in combinations of ballet lifts and torso thrusts. Dancers would step out with big leg extensions and lead with their chests to this insinuating music.

The duets combined aggressive partnering with lots of confidence. The men were forward and the women were independent, especially, of course, “The Girl from Ipanema,” who twisted her way right out of the men’s grasp, leaving them stunned.

Dummar, from the Chicago-based Joffrey Ballet, has an unballetic body, comparatively short and stocky, but he dances like lightning. In Samba, he slashed the air with angled arms, wild jumps, and big acrobatics, punctuated by hesitations, pushes and sudden freeze frame stops. You can’t take your eyes off him.

If McIntyre can keep this group together—they’re all on leave from their home companies for the Project’s tour—dancegoers can look forward to more new work that’s made, not just for their individual strengths, but, like Go Out, dances that show what they can do as an ensemble.

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