Spellbinding jazz, dance

Feast for eyes, ears: Footloose style of New Orleans music blends with highly choreographed ballet

April 8, 2011 

Wild parties, dancing in the street, bright colors, jazz and an undercurrent of the macabre. New Orleans is a gumbo of celebration and sadness, and a touring dance-and-jazz production on stage tonight at Pantages Theater delivers that spicy mix.

The famous Preservation Hall Jazz Band and 10 dancers from the Trey McIntyre Project contemporary ballet troupe fuse old jazz and modern dance in a visual Mardi Gras of colorful skeleton costumes that channel the city’s spirit.

“New Orleans has been a big city for me since I was 5 or 6 years old and my dad would take me there on vacations,” said McIntyre, a renowned choreographer who recently started his own company based (unexpectedly) in Boise. McIntyre, who grew up in Kansas, made his name dancing and choreographing for the Houston Ballet, where New Orleans was just a few inviting hours down the road.

“I would drive to New Orleans whenever there was a layoff (break in the ballet schedule),” he said. “I had a bigger group of friends there than in Houston.”

So when the New Orleans Ballet Association chose McIntyre for its first commissioned work, he knew he wanted to do it. The NOB wanted to use traditional jazz to reflect their city’s heritage, and for McIntyre, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band – the traditional jazz group that sees lines stretching down the block for its nightly shows in their French Quarter venue, and which has played with legends such as Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong – was the obvious choice.

“They do a good job of presenting historic jazz with a contemporary setting and meaning,” McIntyre said.

The band allowed McIntyre to choose from its entire library of recordings and current repertoire, and he also spent time in the city researching ideas and community. As McIntyre said, “New Orleans people don’t have a high tolerance for inauthenticity.”

The result was “Ma Maison” – in French, “my home” – a series of ensemble and smaller pieces where the lithe ballet-meets-street choreography gives a nod to the 1920s, and where McIntyre’s dancers are clad in skin-tight, black-purple-green costumes with skeleton masks. New Orleans loved it.

“An artistic triumph,” raved the Times-Picayune critic of the February 2008 premiere, likening “Ma Maison” to a Mardi Gras come early – not the tourist version but a “dark revel that only makes sense when you’ve gone through a hurricane season and buried a few friends.”

McIntyre is gracious about the praise for the show, which has since toured the country. “All I can do with any work is show my own perspective, that’s the most honest place,” he said.

But that’s just the first half of tonight’s show at the Pantages. The second half is “The Sweeter End,” a similar new work that premiered just a month ago. This time, McIntyre worked with the band on new music, taking in regional Louisiana influences.

For both halves of the show, the band is right there on stage behind the dancers, sometimes – as in the duo with just banjo and clarinet – interweaving with the dancers.

But jazz is known for improvisation. How does that work with a choreographed ballet?

“It’s been a stretch for me as a choreographer, making choreography that’s bendable when there’s different things happening with the music. There’s a certain amount of structure ... but I wouldn’t want to do it with any dancers but my own,” McIntyre said.

And his own favorite part of “Ma Maison?”

“I like the moment when the dancers really find themselves,” said the lean, blond dancer. “When they fall into a place where they have ownership – that’s really satisfying.”

Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568

Ma Maison

What: Preservation Hall Jazz Band and dancers from the Trey McIntyre Project perform

When: 7:30 tonight

Where: Pantages Theater, 901 Broadway, Tacoma

Tickets: $39-$79

Information: 253-591-5894, www.broadwaycenter.org

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