Dianne McIntyre talks about her love affair with modern dance

Dianne McIntyre talks about modern dance, jazz and life in Cleveland in advance of her show at the American Dance Guild Festival

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Dianne McIntyre

Dianne McIntyre Photo: Larry Coleman


Dianne McIntyre, one of modern dance's reigning divas, returns to New York for a performance at the American Dance Guild Festival. The American Dance Guild Festival showcases Life's Force, a signature dance choreographed by Dianne McIntyre, for her Sounds in Motion company, at the Ailey Citigroup Theater. The African-American dancer and choreographer spoke about her career from Cleveland, where she first started dancing at the age of four.

In modern dance, the names of its persevering practitioners are like cherished objects. Dianne McIntyre is one such. Born in Cleveland, where she now lives, she began studying dance at four and choreographing at seven. Now 66, McIntyre is one of dance’s most important African-American artists. Her choreographic focus, beginning in New York in the ’70s with her company, Sounds in Motion, was to explore the deep and lively relationship between jazz music and dance. Starting September 6, one of her signature works, Life’s Force, will be shown in conjunction with the American Dance Guild Festival. Originally, the dance was intended for six, but for the occasion McIntyre has expanded the cast to 21, featuring dancers she has worked with throughout her career, including Jawole Willa Jo Zollar and Marlies Yearby. Jazz trumpeter Ahmed Abdullah, another longtime collaborator, will lead the band. McIntyre spoke about the reunion.

Time Out New York: Why do you live in Cleveland?
Dianne McIntyre:
I came to Cleveland in 2003 to help my parents. Now, I am with my mother; I’m her main caregiver. It wasn’t a hard decision because my parents had given me so much when I was growing up. At the same time, it has its challenges—mostly all the people I know in the field are in New York. That was my home base starting in 1970. When I got here, I was like, Am I going to start my own thing here? But I didn’t. I do works in Cleveland, and sometimes I try to combine people from Cleveland and New York. I have choreographed on several companies here. So I try to bring my background and experience to the dance arena in Cleveland, and at the same time I’ve been choreographing a lot in different parts of the country. I think it was Jennifer Dunning [of The New York Times] who said, “Even though you don’t live here, you have to do something at least once a year here in New York. You have to try to keep that connection.” And I haven’t purposely done that; however, it’s worked out like almost every year. It wasn’t like I had some kind of position or work; it was a family. I’ve known a number of people in recent times that have gravitated back to their hometown to help their parents.

Time Out New York: Why, when you were growing up, was Cleveland such a modern dance city?
Dianne McIntyre:
I actually found out more about why when I returned to Cleveland. Michael Metcalf, a dancer who used to work with Cleo Parker Robinson’s company, returned to Cleveland to start his own company even before I came back. He invited me to create work for his company, and one work he wanted me to choreograph was about Marjorie [Witt] Johnson. At the time, she was in her mid-nineties, and she actually initiated a lot of the modern dance here in Cleveland in the 1930s. She studied modern dance at Oberlin, but she settled in Cleveland. There’s a theater here, the oldest ongoing multicultural-arts organization in the country called Karamu House. It established modern dance in Cleveland, in different pockets.

Time Out New York: It really took hold?
Dianne McIntyre:
Yes, and it wasn’t like a side thing that was very esoteric—modern dance was really a centerpiece in Cleveland. When I was nine, dance was offered in after-school programs, and it wasn’t just, “Let’s babysit the children and have them do something,” it was very strong modern-dance training because our teacher was a Karamu dancer. She was a professional dancer, a beautiful dancer named Virginia Dryansky. I studied modern dance with her, and when I went to high school, I had a modern-dancer teacher who was actually a graduate of the Ohio State University dance program. I saw modern dance throughout my growing-up years. When I went to Ohio State, I was really shocked that I was one of the only people—if not the only person in that freshman class—who had studied modern dance. The other people were brilliant dancers. They had studied jazz, ballet and tap; that’s what you get around the country mostly—young people get that in their dance studios.

Time Out New York: It’s still like that, right?
Dianne McIntyre:
[Laughs]. It is. But I didn’t know why that was until I knew more of the history. I didn’t know that Cleveland was unique in that way. There was an organization called the Cleveland Modern Dance Association; it’s now called Dance Cleveland, which is the major dance-producing organization in this part of the country, but it started back in the ’50s. At that time, they did some producing, but they also brought in a lot of guest artists, mostly from New York, to teach classes, do workshops and set choreography. It’s quite a long history of modern dance in Cleveland. I just caught that bug as a child.

Time Out New York: Why did you catch that bug? Did you see a performance?
Dianne McIntyre:
My parents said I danced just as soon as I could walk. I remember dancing in the living room and hoping that the cars or the people walking by would think that it was a dance studio, even though I don’t know if I knew what a dance studio was. When I was four years old, the Metropolitan Opera Company came to Cleveland; they did Aida, and in that production was Janet Collins. I remember we were way, way up in the balcony, but I was totally mesmerized. I can still remember it. I remember her doing all these fouettés. I was like, Oh my goodness, she is so beautiful! Maybe I can do that. I was four. It just really grabbed me, even though over the years I fooled myself that it was just a dream in the back of my mind. I wasn’t really going to make a career of dance because, as you said [before the interview began]: “I’m from Ohio; I’m practical.” [Laughs]. That longing was always there, and [Collins] was the first image I had that really captivated me. Later, I learned more about her and saw she was the first African-American woman with the Metropolitan Opera as a dancer. She was the first, in many ways, in dance, as a black woman. Some years later, I got to meet her. She’s Carmen De Lavallade’s cousin. I got to tell her I was so inspired by her. Somewhere along the line, while I was at Ohio State—in those days, you could take the dance-major program without declaring it right away.

Time Out New York: What were you studying?
Dianne McIntyre:
I was studying French. I thought I would work for the United Nations or something. I wanted to be a linguist, but I took all of the dance-major courses. In my third year, I said, I have to stop fooling myself. This is what I want to do, and how I came to that understanding was when I was studying dance history with Shirley Wynne. Some of the dance history we studied came from the understanding of what people today do throughout the world who are living in cultures where dance is still a part of the society. Not in an entertainment way, but as worship and as part of the foundation that’s for the well-being of the entire community. So I said, If dance has such a strong purpose like that, then I can dance. The dance-history courses really shifted me to say, Yes—go for it if that’s what you want to do.

Time Out New York: Did you gravitate toward modern dance because that was offered to you, or did you ever think about ballet? Did you ever feel that you couldn’t make it as a ballet dancer because you were black?
Dianne McIntyre:
When I was growing up, I studied ballet. My teacher’s name was Elaine Gibbs. It was a black ballet school, but I didn’t realize that until later. It didn’t dawn on me that all the people in the class were my color. Later, I realized even though this is Cleveland—a northern city—I wouldn’t have been able to go to a white ballet school. But we weren’t missing anything. People in the South knew those barriers. Often in the North, our parents didn’t make a thing of it. You had the best right here. So I was studying traditional ballet and tap. I had no jazz. I didn’t even know anything about what jazz was until later. I loved ballet, but there was something about modern dance…. I choreographed starting at age seven. As I went along in modern dance, I realized I had more liberty, more freedom as a choreographer. Ballet had more of a strict tradition in terms of what was allowed, at least at that time. It has become more liberal in terms of creativity, but I gravitated to modern dance because of the expression.

Time Out New York: Did you choreograph at Ohio State?
Dianne McIntyre:
Yes. In fact, they commissioned me at Ohio State. That was what also helped me have the nerve to go out and choreograph in the real world. In our sophomore year, we started our composition classes, and in our junior year we continued composition classes in individual choreography, and I was really pushed. I had a professor Vera [J.] Blaine, who still teaches certain courses there. She’s a dynamic individual. She wouldn’t let us get away with anything, so when it was time for us to have group composition, I was quite nervous. I had been choreographing since I was a child. Even though, as I grew up, people liked my choreography, now the test was going to come: Do I really have skill in this area? I started my first piece there, and I just was off. I mean, everything just fell in place. One time, my professor James Payton said, “Dianne, I don’t have any notes for you because what you’re doing and what you’re bringing to this is actually beyond what I do.” When he said that, I was like, Whoa. It wasn’t like he was boosting me up or anything, it was very matter of fact how he said it. I was quite moved. I was very humbled by the fact that he had that greatness to actually share that with a student. A couple of semesters after that, they invited me to do work. My choreography was on an evening with Lucas Hoving, Doris Humphrey and Anna Sokolow. It wasn’t a concert with student pieces; it wasn’t something that I built up like, Wow, this is amazing! It wasn’t, “Dianne you’re doing a great job.” It wasn’t like that, you know, because it was Ohio. [Laughs]. There were no fireworks or anything like that, but it was pointed out to me that they usually didn’t usually have student work on the evening. The next year they invited me to do a work, and faculty members were in my piece. I started out with a bang. Also, I had one wonderful workshop—one summer they sent me to Alwin Nikolais, and I really got a lot from that experience.

Time Out New York: Was that in New York?
Dianne McIntyre:
No, I was still a student and [Nikolais] was doing a residency at University of South Florida. When I went to New York, I gravitated to study at their school, too. I liked how they used the elements of movement in a nonmannerism way. Just pure.

Time Out New York: You moved to New York in 1970. Did you simply want to pursue dance here?
Dianne McIntyre:
Right, but I had a step before that. I was taking graduate courses. The head of the department, Helen [P.] Alkire, told me that there was a position in the University of Wisconsin and that she was going to put name up for that. I was hired by University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. It was a very tumultuous year.

Time Out New York: Why?
Dianne McIntyre:
I loved working with the students. I choreographed there. However, the behind-the-scenes with the administration—it was the year when students across the country were going on strike. It was a very revolutionary period. The administration of that department was very conservative. I said, Oh my goodness, if I can survive Milwaukee, I can survive New York. [Laughs]. Nothing could be more intense than this. We had wonderful guest artists at Ohio State, so I wanted to find those people in New York and other people and study more with them—like Viola Farber. I was a really dedicated student of Viola’s. I also studied with Gus Solomons. I did a workshop with Anna Sokolow and the Nikolais people, and Judith Dunn and Bill Dixon. They didn’t choreograph on us, but we had composition and improvisation classes with them. I loved their concept of the dance-and-music connection. I was really taken by that. I really had planned that I would go to New York and then come back to the Midwest and start my own company. What happened though was that I became so connected with music, which at that time was called new jazz or avant-garde jazz or new music, free jazz. It had a feeling of that time in the Black Arts Movement. Many of us artists who were black, in whatever our particular field, we had a consciousness about what our work was saying for the moving forward of the consciousness about our race and our place in the society. That was in the air, and this music said that to me. I would go hear these musicians in different clubs and lofts. I was a student of the music, just absorbing what these musicians were doing. I actually went to their rehearsals and taught myself how to move like their music sounded. There was a group called the Master Brotherhood, and they had a rehearsal every week at a day-care center in Brooklyn. They had a little platform where they rehearsed intensively. It would be 6pm until midnight. I would go into a corner, and didn’t really let them see me, although, they allowed me to be there. They called me the Cancer Dancer because I was born in July. [Laughs] So I would want to move like the saxophone—the saxophonist would make very, very fast runs, but it was very articulate and very clear with every note. I was like, Whoa, how could I do that in my body? Let me try that. The trumpet had a sound and the piano and the bass. I wanted to put all those things in my body. Eventually, I invited some of those guys to be a part of a concert that I had.

Time Out New York: Was that your first time performing with live jazz music?
Dianne McIntyre:
Yes. That was our first concert, which I called “Sounds in Motion.”

Time Out New York: And that became the name of your company?
Dianne McIntyre:
Right. I said, That’s a good name; I’ll call the company that. The first concert I shared with another choreographer. It was all brand-new, so I only had a couple pieces that I had created.

Time Out New York: Was there a lot of opportunity to show your work in the early ’70s in New York? Was it a good time to be a dancer?
Dianne McIntyre:
It was fantastic. It’s hard to decipher whether I was bold or ignorant of how there could be obstacles. [Laughs] I knew the right people to ask about how to do this or that. It wasn’t even that hard. I wanted to have a concert because I had choreographed my whole life. My first piece I did was a solo at Clark Center. I talked to Louise Roberts, the director of Clark Center, which was an amazing center for dance in New York. She said, “Put notices up around that you’re going to have auditions.” I asked, “Why would people come to my auditions? They don’t even know me.” She said, “If you’re specific in your notes—tell if there is any pay, and even if there is no pay put that up there, put the specific dates of when the concert is; people will come because they are hungry to dance.” And that was true. People came out for the audition. Besides doing my more traditional modern-dance style that I had been developing, they also had to be able to hear this new music and be able to spontaneously connect with that music in a conversation. I did another concert after that at Cubiculo and at Washington Square Church. I can’t remember how I knew; I just went to those people and said, “I want to do a concert here.” I had a part-time job at Lincoln Center [library] in the dance collection. I used my own money at first, and people said, “You can start getting grants.” I became an official organization. It just was kind of like falling off a log. There was also a lot of money in the ’70s, early ’80s, and we were on a National Endowment dance-touring program. It was very high time for dance and for the arts in general. A lot of people started their work in that era; I would say that the plus for today is all the social networking.

Time Out New York: What do you mean?
Dianne McIntyre:
Social networking allows you to market yourself and get all of that out there. We had something that was equally as strong even though it didn’t work in that same way. It was in the air—somehow we could get audiences. It was a full and very fertile time for the dance. We would all go and see each other’s work. I’m not in New York, but when I get there I try to read about it, of course, and see works. A lot of things are not as centralized in New York City as they were before. People are doing a lot of things around the country.

Time Out New York: You trained with Viola Farber and Gus Solomons, who both danced with Merce Cunningham. Did you ever think about auditioning for him? Or was this work not as interesting because of his musical choices?
Dianne McIntyre:
[Laughs] I took a few classes at the Cunningham studio when I was first there. It wasn’t like an either-or [situation]. It was in the air. Everybody was at Viola’s studio. That was the place to go. You know how they say so-and-so was the golden-child choreographer of this or that era? Her studio was the golden studio. The place was packed! They had classes in the daytime, in the evening. Her company would be in the front of the class, and you would try to make yourself look like them. And Viola would do a combination really fast; over time, your eye would be able to pick up what that was. Sometimes she would do it more than once and it wouldn’t be the same, so you’d look to those people in the front. I think it was her work and also Gus’s work that, for me, had a bit more what I would call movement freedom. The lines were clean; Cunningham, for me, was a little more contained. That has to do with the dynamics, the lines and the use of space. I love Viola and Gus. They would make us eat up the space as we traveled through it. That was a place for several years. I used to see [current editor of Dance Magazine] Wendy Perron always. Viola was a dynamic lady, and Gus too. I learned so much from Gus. He helped hone me as a performer.

Time Out New York: What is the history of Life’s Force?
Dianne McIntyre:
It’s from ’79. Somehow Sounds in Motion was in a residency for about a week, and during this time I decided to create this new piece with Ahmed Abdullah. The dance doesn’t have a narrative, but some of my works do have more dramatic themes. I also have pieces that I call “dancey dance” connected with the music; this is one of those. Life’s Force was a signature piece of ours for many years, and then I just stopped doing it because it was like, hasn’t everybody in the world seen that piece? Let’s move on. [Laughs]

Time Out New York: What is the structure?
Dianne McIntyre:
It’s a piece with thematic movements that flow back and forth across the stage in a kind of unison line—almost like a celebratory type of energy of the dancers going this way, and then you see them come back across the stage that way, and then they come across the other way. It breaks out into little vignettes, which are a combination of set choreography and spurts of places where there are spontaneous connections between the dance and the music. We have improvisational elements. My concept is that the dance is not accompaniment for the music. The dance and the music are all part of the same band, so that you can see the music through the dancers’ bodies, and you can hear the dance in the musician’s music. This piece captures my basic philosophy: Dance is music moving.

Time Out New York: And that’s where the title of your company comes from?
Dianne McIntyre:
We are dancers moving as music. Usually, there were six people in it. For this piece, I had the idea that one day I wanted to do something with dancers who had worked with me in the past all the way up to those who had worked with me through to the present time. Also, that there would be kind of an osmosis that would come stylistically from the dancers who had worked with me before. Even though they are of a certain age—because this goes all the way back to the ’70s—that style and that connection with the music is still in those people’s bodies. I wanted the younger people to absorb that. That’s what we are doing in this concert.

Time Out New York: Who are some of the cast members?
Dianne McIntyre:
One person, Dorian Williams Byrd, was from my first company in 1972, up to a woman who is doing my choreography now, Yusha-Marie Sorzano. She’s a 2012 person. Then, there are a number of people in between. There are actually 21 of us all together for a piece that we usually do with six people. [Laughs]. We’ll do some wonderful vignettes. Some of them know each other, but most of them don’t; they will be meeting [for the first time] because they are from different eras. Some people have heard the names of these people from an earlier time, but they’ll all meet here in this period.

Time Out New York: That’s amazing. It’s going to be so incredible to see generations of dancers.
Dianne McIntyre:
Yes. I’m excited about it. We are just working out all the logistics. We are going to have a few rehearsals that week. We have some people you would be familiar with like Jawole Willa Jo Zollar and Marlies Yearby. There are people coming from different parts of the country: California, Florida. Malik [Lewis] is from France. It’s going to be fun.

Time Out New York: What is your intention for this event?
Dianne McIntyre:
It is to celebrate my history with Sounds in Motion. When [American Dance Guild president] Gloria McLean asked me to take part—they are honoring Elaine Summers and myself—she wanted me to do a solo. I’ve been doing solo work in recent years. I said okay, but then it popped in my head: We had two signatures at Sounds in Motion. That and another piece called Deep South Suite. I said I would like to do Sounds in Motion just to mark that 40 years ago this kind of energy was the jumping-off of my vision of dance and music. I would like to bring that back. A lot of people on the scene today don’t know about it. They’ve seen some of work maybe here or there, but they haven’t seen this, which was the essence of what that company was about. A lot of things are not written that much about me; it’s only my own fault. [Laughs]. I haven’t really been on it to really put my work out there like I should, even though I’ve never stopped choreographing and having my own groups. I thought, I have to reveal this is what this was. One dancer, Mickey Davidson, mentioned it yesterday. We’ve worked together for years. She said she saw a woman doing choreography with some jazz music and it was just not happening; she said that what we did really has been lost. We studied the science of this. We’d work with these musicians every day. I wanted to make that connection with the dance and live music influencing each other. That’s why I started that type of expression in my choreography; I wanted to make that link back in time.

Time Out New York: Are you working on a new piece now?
Dianne McIntyre:
  I had a new piece that I did in February, and I’m continuing with it. It’s called Why I Had to Dance, and that piece includes the poetry of Ntozake Shange, the author of For Colored Girls [Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf]. She’s a Sounds in Motion person too; some of the original people in For Colored Girls, she met them at the Sounds in Motion studio. She was in dance class before she did For Colored Girls. She calls her piece “a history of black dance herself,” and she tells how she was inspired by dance from her childhood. She starts with seeing Carmen De Lavallade and Miss Katherine Dunham on TV, to the dances her parents would bring back from Cuba and Haiti when she was a child. Then she goes all through the whole dance scene, particularly the black dance scene in New York in the ’70s and ’80s, and she shares what all of those brilliant choreographers were doing. All of that inspired her as a writer; she doesn’t separate the dance from her writing. In this piece, the dancers are speaking the poem, and at the same time they dance all these different styles. It’s quite colorful. We have a set. I don’t know if it’s great or if it’s a problem. [Laughs]. I hope we bring it to New York at some time in the near future.

Time Out New York: Why do you think dance has held your attention for all these years?
Dianne McIntyre:
One of the reasons—this might not be the overall reason—is that I get excited when I see people in front of me dancing. Say I am a guest artist and I stand in front of this group of college students, and I’m giving them some of my movement. Just what they do with it and their faces and their turns and their jumps is so exciting to me. For me, dance is at the center of the universe. I can’t remember when I first understood this, but there’s a figure you can see of Lord Shiva, and it’s called Nataraja. It’s very familiar in Indian sculpture. When I learned that our whole existence is the Dance of Shiva—the universe, the world, all of this is Shiva’s dance—I thought, That is how I feel. That is a very high way of seeing the whole world and the whole universe: that it’s all a dance of God. For me, when the dance is always going on in my body and in my choreography—in me even seeing the dance—that’s when I feel most myself. I don’t feel whole without being a part of the dance. Something about me is missing. It makes me very healthy; it makes me more fulfilled. Even if I were doing something else I would have to dance.
I have a friend from Columbus who just passed away named Nancy Deckard. We were roommates in our last year in college. We were in touch over the years—not a whole lot, but she would send different e-mails to people that she knew and told how much she appreciated them in her life. She had a terminal illness. She also wrote to us about those books and those experiences that helped her be fine with this—that she was in a very serene state. When I went to visit her, she said, “I’ve let go of all the hurt, the anger, the remorse, the sadness. The only thing that makes me sad is that I can’t dance.” Dance was the center of her life. I asked her, “How will I know that you’ve made the transition?” She said, “You’ll get an e-mail. I’ve put the e-mail together and my nephew will send it to everybody.” Sure enough, her e-mail came June 4, and it was as uplifting as all of her other communications. It was just amazing, so very beautiful and uplifting. I hadn’t felt about someone passing like I had with her. Now, Nancy is dancing in the light.
The American Dance Guild Festival is Sept 6–9 at Ailey Citigroup Theater.

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