When Trey McIntyre was a kid in Wichita, Kan., in the 1970s, he thought ballet was "square and dull."
So one day, he sneaked out of dance class and started making up moves of his own in the parking lot. His wise teacher, Carol Iwasaki, saw him and invited him back in, saying, "Why don't you teach those steps to the rest of the class?"
"Ever after, I thought of myself as a choreographer," says McIntyre, who brings his young troupe, the 3-year-old Trey McIntyre Project, to UA Centennial Hall on Saturday night.
McIntyre, 41, is a rising dance star in the dance world. His contemporary ballets have been hailed by critics as fresh and innovative, and his inventive musical choices range from the Beatles to Beethoven, from bluegrass to folk.
The three pieces on the UA program are danced to old-time rock 'n' roll, and to classic New Orleans jazz.
"In New Orleans, pleasure is given a value," says the choreographer, who made his first trip to the Big Easy at the age of 7 on a road trip with his dad. "It's unique in our Victorian culture. People want you to be happy and live a good life. But death and pleasure are intertwined."
McIntyre set the dance "Ma Maison" to the bluesy wail of Sister Gertrude Morgan and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, recorded on old LPs. The work for eight focuses on the place of death in the mixed cultures of New Orleans, where people "celebrate death in a unique way as the finality of life."
"The Sweeter End," a full-company dance, brings on the triumphant horns of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. Premiering last month in New Orleans, the sweet piece seesaws back to the city's pleasure principle.
Ballet Memphis commissioned "In Dreams," a smaller work for five dancers. The dance is set entirely to songs by Roy Orbison, whom McIntyre considers "one of the most emotional rock 'n' roll singers. It's nothing but bare, honest pain."
McIntyre danced early in his career, putting in six years onstage with the Houston Ballet, but "I never had a passion for dancing myself." At 20, he was made a choreographer apprentice to Ben Stevenson, Houston's legendary artistic director, and then went on to become the choreographic associate.
In 1995, he struck out on his own as a freelance choreographer. "Things happened fast," he says, and before long, he was creating dances for the likes of New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre and Stuttgart Ballet. His current tally: 80 dances.
He still makes works for other troupes, but in 2004, he started the Trey McIntyre Project. At first, the troupe just danced in the summers, but three years ago, he took the project full-time. When it came time to select a home base, McIntyre went against the grain, settling on the bracing Western town of Boise, Idaho, a "gorgeous" city in high desert in the foothills of mountains.
Boise had no dance company, and "I loved the idea of going to a city where we can be the pioneer."
Even so, the young troupe of 10 dancers is frequently on the road. The day after he spoke to the Tucson Weekly, the company was off on a six-week tour, to Europe and through the United States.
McIntyre hasn't forgotten his days in the parking lot in Wichita. He regularly brings his dancers to out-of-the-way places to perform. He calls these happenings "SpUrbans"—for spontaneous urban dances—and films them for online viewing.
In New Orleans, the company located the late Sister Morgan's property in the Lower Ninth Ward, and danced on the slab of her former house, which had been washed away during Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath.
And in Tucson, McIntyre promises, the project will be dancing outside on Thursday and Friday, March 24 and 25. The locations remain undisclosed, but Darsen Campbell of UApresents suggests that viewers "keep an eye out" on the UA campus, Fourth Avenue and downtown.
Tucson's Safos Dance Theatre returns to the stage this weekend with an ambitious second concert.
Devoted to borderlands themes, the troupe started up last year—among the worst financial times ever for local dance companies. Nevertheless, founder and artistic director Yvonne Montoya says, "Things are really good. We have a great board and great interns."
Fusions, Saturday night at the ZUZI's Theater, is Safos' first major concert since its debut last spring. The show will feature live music and three dance premieres in multiple styles, including modern dance, salsa and a melding of the two. The company is committed to tackling serious issues, and this concert looks at ethnicity, gender roles and migration.
Guest artist Thom Lewis was brought in to rework "Their Souls Swallowed by the Sun," last year's stirring mixed-media piece about the deaths of migrants on the Tohono O'odham Reservation.
The live music comes courtesy of Avatara, an "ethno-psychedelic" band. Avatara performs a half-hour before the concert begins; its five musicians also play for the first section of "Delenguadas," a new dance by Montoya about language loss and its impact on identity.
"It's based on oral histories I collected for my thesis," says Montoya, who has a master's in Mexican-American studies and now teaches as an adjunct at the UA. Montoya interviewed women in northern New Mexico who had been punished as children for speaking Spanish in school; she found that even years later, they still suffered from the humiliation. The modern piece is danced partly to the live music, partly to silence and partly to spoken word.
Guest choreographer Laura Reichhardt created "Suddenly Arab," about "her experience as an Arab American after Sept. 11 and in the decade since." The duet for Montoya and Renée Blakeley is set to recorded Middle Eastern music.
Blakeley's new work "No Estoy Sola" explores the delicate balance women maintain between independence and personal relationships. Likewise, the movement goes back and forth between salsa and modern dance. It's danced by company members Sofía Martínez, Montoya and Blakeley, and Tucson High student Dina Mathis.
Lewis has worked with nearly every modern troupe in Tucson, but at the moment, his own company, Thom Lewis Dance, is on hiatus. Besides reworking "Souls," he cast his experienced eye on the three new works.
"He has come to almost every rehearsal and given us his expertise," Montoya says. "He's our mentor."
The revamped "Souls" takes up the entire second half of the concert. Divided into four parts, it features choreography by Martínez and Montoya. Montoya added a brand-new solo for Blakeley, "informed by" the death of the real-life Josseline Hernández, a 14-year-old girl from El Salvador who died alone near Arivaca in 2008. (Editor's Note: The death of Hernández was brought to the public's attention by Margaret Regan and her book, The Death of Josseline.)
The finale pairs a dance with a video playing on a backdrop. In the video, Tohono O'odham activist Mike Wilson recounts the disappearance of a pregnant migrant on the reservation.
Her sister came north to search for her body, Montoya says, but the missing woman was never found. The show closes, Montoya says, with a duet for two dancers, honoring the separated sisters.