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Trey McIntyre has the perfect story; he just won’t tell it. I ask the choreographer if he recalls a resonant moment during the creation of his latest work, The Unkindness of Ravens. He chuckles, then pleads the Fifth.
He has a great example, “but it gives away something in the piece,” he says. “The ability to surprise is really important to me.”
In 2008, McIntyre surprised the dance community when he decided to base his then touring-only company in Boise, Idaho. (The 42-year-old Kansas native avoided New York, San Francisco and Chicago in favor of a “grassroots” feel.) Instead of spilling the creative beans, the 6'6" McIntyre speaks generally about Ravens—one of the premieres during the Trey McIntyre Project’s debut at the Harris Theater on November 30. (TMP performs a separate program for families on December 1.) The work deals with humor as a survival mechanism, inspired by the behavior of the titular black bird.
“If a wolf is eating a carcass, a raven will come up, hop around, fall on its butt and play dead,” he says. “The wolf will [exasperatingly] be like, Oh, God. It disarms them, and the bird will sit there and feed off the same carcass. All because of humor.”
The acclaimed choreographer may be mum on the details, but the story in question involves his chosen collaborators: three female dancers from the Seoul-based Korea National Contemporary Dance Company. In May, the Trey McIntyre Project traveled to China, the Philippines, Vietnam and South Korea—part of a State Department–sponsored tour of Asia with DanceMotion USA. The experience led to frequent conversations with McIntyre’s colleagues, and a challenge: “I wanted to find a common sense of humor with an entirely different culture whose ideas of humor are remarkably different,” he says. “What’s the cultural significance of us coming together? I think it’s learning from each other and what constitutes humor with each of us.”
The concept hit home for both McIntyre and the women of KNCDC, who worked together over three weeks along with McIntyre’s company dancers. Despite the help of an interpreter, verbal communication became a daily challenge. The common language was dance. A leg or a shoulder inched a certain way, and McIntyre—who bases his creations on his movers’ personalities—seized the opportunity. He began to mimic his guests and their respective styles, using the raven as the link.
“I don’t look to a dancer for vocabulary. I feel like that’s my job. But I’m very much responding to them energetically and how they approach movement,” he says. “This is not only different people, but people who have never been to the U.S. That’s definitely affecting what’s coming out of the movement.”
One of the best aspects of creating a piece like this, McIntyre says, is reinforcing a fundamental principle and universal communicator: body language. “I would never approach a piece like this with some grand idea, some political or obvious choice like being at war with this country at some period in time. I don’t have a lot to add to that,” he says. “I’m more interested in what our emotional life is—the detail and nuance of living. I think I have a better chance of finding that in dance.”
The Trey McIntyre Project performs The Unkindness of Ravens November 30 at the Harris Theater at noon and 7:30pm. Get tickets at harristheaterchicago.org.