Pouring Passion into Dance
By Lisa Traiger
Dianne McIntyre has been a leading contributor to the performing arts world for more than 40 years. As a dancer/choreographer/researcher/mentor/director/dance-driven dramatist, she travels in many circles. Her arenas include concert dance, theater, film and opera. Next month, McIntyre receives the Dance/USA Honor Award at the 2019 Annual Conference in her native Cleveland for her outstanding achievements in the field, her extraordinary leadership and exceptional contributions over her long career. Previous Honor Award recipients include Martha Graham, Agnes de Mille, Merce Cunningham, Katherine Dunham, Paul Taylor, and Alvin Ailey.
Originally from Cleveland and graduating in Dance from The Ohio State University, McIntyre made her New York choreographic debut in a solo, Melting Song, at Clark Center’s New Choreographers Concert. The following year 1972, she launched her company of dancers and musicians – Sounds in Motion. By the mid-1970s the company was touring extensively and running a studio/school in Harlem where numerous dance artists and community folks were nurtured and mentored. Her "Studio Works" series presented dance, music, poetry concerts and Sounds in Motion became a popular hub where artists gathered. McIntyre and her companies have collaborated with countless musicians including: Olu Dara, Hannibal Lokumbe, Cecil Taylor, Ahmed Abdullah and Onaje Allan Gumbs.
Her recent activities include Time is Time, honoring James Baldwin, and we carry our homes within us… for New York Live Arts; creative residencies at Baryshnikov Arts Center in New York and Dance Place in Washington, D.C. She has created commissions for Dance Theatre of Harlem; Dance St. Louis; Cleveland State University; Verb Ballets; and GroundWorks DanceTheater. She has choreographed productions of Porgy and Bess in London and Amsterdam. On film, she has choreographed Hal King by Steve Wallace and a vignette clip for Lauryn Hill. On screen her work is featured in Beloved (Oprah Winfrey); Miss Evers’ Boys (Emmy Award nomination); and for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf (PBS). McIntyre’s signature dance works include: Take Off-From a Forced Landing, Life’s Force, Mississippi Talks Ohio Walks, Eye of the Crocodile and How Long, Brethren? recreated through research on Helen Tamiris’ work. Her theater-dance crafted from interviews includes I Could Stop on a Dime and Get Ten Cents Change (based on her father’s stories) and Open the Door, Virginia! (school civil rights).
McIntyre has served as guest faculty at numerous universities and at American Dance Festival, Bates Dance Festival and Jacob’s Pillow, where she was the 2018 co-director with Risa Steinberg of the Hicks Choreography Fellows Program. She was the 2015-16 Distinguished Visiting Scholar at Spelman College. Other awards/distinctions include a 2016 Doris Duke Artist Award; John S. Guggenheim Fellowship; three Bessie Awards (1989, 1997, 2006); Ohio Creative Workforce Fellowship; Helen Hayes Award for theater (Washington, D.C.), two AUDELCO Awards (NY Black Theatre); honorary doctor of fine arts degrees from SUNY Purchase and Cleveland State University; ADF Chair for Distinguished Teaching; Teer Pioneer Award from National Black Theatre; and numerous grants and fellowships. She recognizes her mentors: Gus Solomons jr, Vera Blaine, Elaine Gibbs Redmond, Helen Alkire, Louise Roberts, Virginia Dryansky and Rick Davis.
Dance/USA: You’ve spoken many times about how you always danced. Can you share a particular memory you have dancing as a young child?
Dianne McIntyre: One thing I remember, maybe even from before I went to dancing school, is dancing around the living room. That was in the 1950s. I don’t know how little I was … but I would dance in front of the big picture window we had in the living room. Music was playing and I had this hope that people thought that [our house] was a dance studio or a theatrical place. I wasn’t performing but I would hope that people in the cars passing by would think, “Oh, that must be a dance school or dance studio.”
Years later I had a dance studio on 125th and Lennox in Harlem – the Sounds in Motion studio -- and we had these three gigantic, huge windows and … people could see us dancing from the street. I love that the dream I had as a little girl came true!
D/USA: Your hometown, Cleveland, is a city with a long history of dance. Were you aware of that as you were coming of age?
D.M.: When you grow up in a place, everything just feels normal. You feel that it’s like that every place. I realized how much dance there was [in Cleveland] later. One thing that I did realize was, when I went to school at Ohio State, I was the only person in that freshman dance class who had any modern dance training at all. The other people were very fine dancers. They had trained in ballet and jazz. What we were calling modern dance back then -- we didn’t use the word contemporary -- was brand new for everybody except me. That’s because I came from Cleveland, and Cleveland had a long history of modern dance training, and not just for adults.
As a child I had modern dance classes … at Karamu House, which is the oldest African American cultural arts center or theater in the country. It was established in 1915 and is still going strong today. Karamu always had classes in modern dance. They had big theatrical productions. It was multiracial … so all the theater and dance classes were mixed race.
Even though the [public] school I went to, which was a few blocks away, was very integrated, the ballet school I went to was primarily black …. I realized when I was older that that school existed because we could not have gone to the white [ballet] studio. I didn’t know that when we were little [the other ballet studios were segregated]. We had everything in our neighborhood. We got all the best training. It wasn’t like we were looking for something … or missing something.
D/USA: At Ohio State, you started as a French major. What happened?
D.M.: Even though I was a French major, I began to take class with the dance majors, so I was on the same level as the people who were starting the dance major as freshmen. I changed my major to dance in my third year. At that time, I became part of the University Dance Company. Its members were the people I was looking up to. They were amazing dancers … and were doing some things that were very avant garde and that just drew me in.
I always had the passion for dance, however, I didn’t think I was going to make a livelihood of it … mostly because it was not a practical way to go. Not that French had practicality to it. But French was not an art and the arts seemed so impractical. That was the only thing holding me back.
D/USA: After graduation you moved to New York and formed your own company by age 25.
D.M.: I wanted to follow some of the guest artists I studied with at Ohio State. So when I went to New York I studied with Judith Dunn and Bill Dixon -- they were a duo and part of the Judson Church movement … I was totally taken with what they did. I also studied with [Alwin] Nikolais at the Nikolais school and with Viola Farber and Gus Solomons, because I always admired his work
D/USA: What inspired you or made you feel it was time to start your own company?
D.M.: I had been taking some classes at Clark Center at 51st and 8th Avenue and I saw a notice that there was going to be a concert for new choreographers. I auditioned for the concert and performed a solo. That was my first choreography in New York -- January 1971. After that, because I had always been choreographing for groups – ever since I was about seven -- and I loved doing that, I talked to the director at Clark Center about doing a concert with a group of dancers. She told me, “Just put up a sign and have an audition.” I said, “Why would people come to the audition? They don't know me. I’m new.” I’ll never forget what she said: “People will come because they’re hungry to dance.” And that has not changed. At the audition, I wanted to see if the dancers could relate directly to the music in an improvisational way, in a musical way. That was what I was interested in.
I did a shared concert with another choreographer. After, I said, “Wow, that turned out well and it was so much fun.” Somebody said that if I started a company I could get money. This was the early 1970s, when a lot of companies were beginning.
I had a boldness and a clarity about myself in those days. So I just made an appointment with the head of the modern dance association, sat down and said, “I want to start a dance company. What do I do?” He told me step-by-step what to do and how to set up a nonprofit and connected me with Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts. For my next concert, which was a few months after the first one, I had a whole evening work. That was my first time that I called my company Sounds in Motion. That was June of 1972.
D/USA: Sounds in Motion performed and toured successfully for more than two decades. What surprised you about running a dance company?
D.M.: One thing that surprised me about running the company is that along with being a skilled director in terms of expressing to people what you have in mind and choreographing, the company director must also be a psychologist. That was new. You can be a very fine teacher for college students or in a studio, but those people are not really like your family. In a university, the people will graduate. In a studio people come and go. However, with a company it’s like a family; you work together for years. And there are emotions that rise and fall. There are clashes and there’s love and all kinds of things in between. I didn’t expect that. I just wanted to make dances …. So, for people starting a company, you should have some lessons in psychology to work with people .
D/USA: What are you most proud of over your very long career?
D.M.: Well, maybe that’s what I’m proud of: my long career. Back in the early 1970s, when I was touring as an Affiliate Artist, which brought artists to communities around the country for long-term residencies, the director introduced me as the youngest woman in the country who had her own company. I guess that was true, at least on a professional touring level. And now all of these years later, I am doing the same thing. So I’m proud of my longevity.
D/USA: Is there something you haven’t done yet?
D.M.: I’m working on ideas for new pieces. I’m working on something I call “dance-driven drama.” I create these works from interviews with people. I record people speaking about a certain theme or certain parallel experiences that they have had with other people and I develop it into a theater-dance work. I have done maybe five of these over the years. Usually they’re done in regional theaters, Equity theaters and sometimes in colleges and universities. I want to develop this on a larger scale so it could run in a theater for some time, maybe it could be an off-Broadway production with dancers, actors and singers in a dance-driven drama, with a theme that touches people’s hearts. They will see something in themselves through the dance, music and spoken word.
D/USA: What keeps you going?
D.M.: You have to keep proving yourself in the dance world. But the joy and the passion for the dance, that is what keeps me going.
Lisa Traiger edits From the Green Room, Dance/USA’s online journal, and writes frequently on dance and the performing arts for publications, including Dance, Dance Teacher and Washington Jewish Week. An award-winning arts journalist, she is a former co-president of the Dance Critics Association and holds an MFA in choreography from University of Maryland.
1st image: Larry Coleman
2nd image: Sounds in Motion - Dianne McIntyre with Dorian Williams in back - A Free Thing - June 1972 Washington Square Church NYC. Photo: Joan Patterson
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