By Karyn D. Collins
The announcement in January by the Trey McIntyre Project that its performances June 25-29, 2014, at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival would be the company’s last sent both shockwaves and shrugs through the dance community.
The shockwaves were because despite the company only being a full-time entity since 2008 (it had begun in 2005 as a summer pickup company); it seemed to be a model of success in a dance world that is constantly searching for new blood.
When The New York Times sent a reporter to the McIntyre Project’s home base in Boise for a week in 2010, it marveled at the almost rock star treatment the company enjoyed there. “Imagine an alternative universe where dancers are treated like celebrities: recognized in public, lavished with gifts, fawned over by fans. They even have cocktails named after them. Now get out your atlas and locate Boise, Idaho, where the skies never seem to cloud over, the people are disconcertingly friendly, and Trey McIntyre Project is the toast of the town,” the story said. The city of Boise named the company its first cultural ambassador and Boise State University renovated its theater for the troupe’s performances.
To be certain, the company’s January announcement that it was shutting down as a full-time performing troupe drew plenty of congratulations from some circles. But there was also a good deal of consternation about what this would mean for the folks in Boise.
Wrote one fan on Facebook: “I’m not cool with this. What TMP gives me, through dance, is something that I have not seen elsewhere. Not even close. So I will feel the loss as though the loss of a great musician from whom new songs will never come.”
But there were also a good deal of shrugs from a dance world that has seen this act before — talented young dancemakers who have started companies, seen those companies become the toast of the dance world, then seemingly abandoned those entities to return to the nomadic life of a full-time freelancer.
“If he wants to do something else, then fine,” said Robert Johnson, dance critic for the Newark (NJ) Star-Ledger. “I feel sorry for the dancers. I feel sorry for the people in Boise who had an institution that improved their quality of life. I feel sorry for the people who had an emotional investment in the company and his work. But if that’s what he needed to do for himself as an artist, then fine. What are you going to do?”
Choreographer and business consultant Sydney Skybetter said the news was sad but normal within a business context in today’s world. “Most organizations and institutions have an end date. The only question is whether or not the ending is discussed,” Skybetter said. “In the for-profit world, having an exit plan from the very beginning is a strategic imperative. It’s only in the non-profit world, and I’m generalizing horrifically, that we have this expectation of any longevity. We assume the thing will sort of go on forever.
“I think what [the Trey McIntyre Project] did here was something that is very standard outside the not-for-profit community. They executed a beautiful pivot toward the interests of the founders.”
For his part, McIntyre, 44, said the decision to end the company as a full-time entity was always part of his overall plan, hence the decision to call the company a “project.” Indeed, the choreographer said that even before he started his company as a summer pickup project in 2005, he knew that once the troupe blossomed into a full-time entity it would only be for a limited time. The decision to stop operating as a full-time company was merely a matter of when he felt the timing would be right.
“The dance company actually went on longer than I had intended. But things were going on really well and I felt it was important to see it through to its fruition and explore every possibility,” McIntyre said. “For me personally, as an artist, it was the end of what I thought I was capable of in the structure of a full-time company. I have reached places I didn’t think I was capable of.
“But I always knew there would be an end. Internally, we’ve been talking about this for the last couple of years. We had been doing a lot of big picture thinking, from the dancers to the entire administration, talking about what [not being a full-time company] might look like.”
McIntyre said once the company stops performing full time his focus will turn to a series of creative projects, including two feature length documentary films – one on the Preservation Hall Jazz Band in New Orleans, for which he has already done some interviews and the other on his own company. “The second documentary is about the first 10 years of Trey McIntyre Project, painting the picture of what it was like to do something really big and different,” he said. “I’m also working on finishing up some photography projects I’ve been able to do alongside the dance company and looking at what the culmination will be, whether it’s a gallery show or a book.”
“We’re seeing some very established companies fold, like Merce
Cunningham. When you put all of that together it does raise
concerns.” — Robert Johnson, dance critic, Star-Ledger
McIntyre added that he will remain in Boise and continue to do freelance choreography projects while also putting together a pickup company of dancers to produce an outdoor multimedia project in Costa Mesa, Calif. He has also said he would utilize dancers from the company to help set his works on other companies.
While McIntyre busies himself with his future plans, many observers outside the company are pondering what, if any, greater meaning this has for the dance world at large. “I think a lot of people in the dance community are very concerned, and rightly so, because the situation does seem to be changing and all change is not necessarily positive,” Johnson said. “It’s not just a question of progress. It’s not just that there are young choreographers who have decided they would rather freelance than have their own companies.
“But we’re also seeing some very established companies fold, like Merce Cunningham. When you put all of that together it does raise some concerns,” he said.
As if answer to some of those concerns, choreographer Paul Taylor announced earlier this month that he was reshaping his company to expand and encompass a center dedicated to preserving and performing modern dance masterworks.
Jacob’s Pillow’s executive and artistic director Ella Baff, who learned of McIntyre’s plans just before she was about to announce this summer’s 2014 season, said the nature of art and artists means that not everyone should or could focus on sustaining an arts institution indefinitely.
“There is no one way to start a dance company or to sustain one. I think that artists should do what they want to do, what they need to do and what they will find creatively and developmentally fulfilling at any time throughout their careers. And we have to realize that can mean different things for different artists at different times,” she said. “I don’t think [dance] artists should have to have a dance company. The rules and conventions don’t apply to everyone or under all circumstances or for all time.” Every generation does not need to replicate institutionalization the way George Balanchine and Martha Graham did, in perpetuity.
Wendy Perron, Dance magazine’s editor at large and author of Through the Eyes of a Dancer, said she sees the McIntyre situation as being part of a new wave in the dance world. “I don’t know if there are young kids who are saying, ‘I want to have a company’ anymore. Maybe the new trend is to have more of a collaborative group,” she said. “For someone like Trey, and someone like [Christopher] Wheeldon — people who are sought after and probably had to say ‘no’ to a lot of companies that have wanted them to come choreograph –having your own company comes with a huge amount of responsibility. It’s not just choreographing, but cultivating dancers and the financial responsibility, which is huge. Not everyone wants that. I think it’s a sign of the times that people are saying, ‘I’m sorry but this is not what I wanted.’”
Johnson agreed, adding that the bigger picture beyond the closing of Trey McIntyre Project is what it may say about the structure and demands the current economic, business and funding climate places on those trying to sustain dance companies in this country.
“The way we have things set up in this country for sustaining arts organizations just doesn’t work. The way we fund the arts is completely dysfunctional in this country,” he said. “The system is broken. Really, I don’t think the system ever really worked properly. We have to figure out a new way to fund the arts in my opinion.”
“I think it’s a good idea for people to have their own companies and have a space where they can work undisturbed and have time and relationships with dancers,” Johnson continued. “But there are people who don’t want to deal with all the rest of what you have to do. They just don’t want to deal with it anymore.”
Skybetter agreed. While McIntyre has his own reasons and plans going forward, Skybetter said the situation puts the onus on the dance world to come up with a better model to support its artists. “I think this gets to the heart of the traditions we’ve accepted in the dance world. If you don’t have a dance institution, then what? If it’s not a 501(c)3, then what? If you’re not an artistic director, then what?” Skybetter asked. “We have to talk about this fabric of the dance world that hasn’t yet been ushered into being. I think we have to talk about a new kind of organizational structure and new ways to think about how to catch up with this always-on, instant-access culture.“
“This is an intermediary moment,” Skybetter said. Baff said that doesn’t mean the field needs to invest in expensive studies or extended sessions of hand-wringing. Instead, she said, it’s time for the dance world to let evolution take its course. “I think the healthiest thing in any field is for all of this to be allowed and none of it to be a trend one way or the other,” she said. “Everyone needs to relax and let it roll. That’s what makes the field invigorating and truly creative.”
Karyn D. Collins has been a journalist for 30 years. A native of Chicago, Collins specializes in feature writing including dance, fashion, entertainment, and diversity. Her work has been published by the Associated Press, Jet Magazine, New Jersey Monthly, Dance Magazine, Inside Jersey Magazine, Nia Online, The Root, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Newark Star-Ledger, Dance Teacher Magazine, Life and Beauty Weekly Magazine, InJerseyMagazine, and the Asbury Park Press. She is an adjunct professor at Bloomfield College in N.J. and a faculty member at the King Centre for the Performing Arts in Wanaque, N.J. She is a former chair of the Dance Critics Association and the founding chair of the National Association of Black Journalists’ Arts and Entertainment writer’s task force.
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