Dec 15, 2016
I had not seen Dianne McIntyre in more than 20 years. I often raved about her to my dance history students, who sometimes stared back at me with young, vacuous eyes. They have grown used to my enthusiasm, but remain somewhat amazed that I actually know some of the people I teach about in a history class.
So, I was thrilled when I got the message that Dianne McIntyre had called and wanted to speak with me about her residency at BAC. When I walked into the BAC studio and hugged her, the years melted away. I was back in the studio, an eager young student, waiting to learn more from this awesome young choreographer with the wiry but powerful body, the intense eyes, and the mystical connection with music. I was back in New York, where I began my career as a dancer and writer, enthralled by the work of this pioneering artist whose work Takeoff From a Forced Landing (1984) chronicled the experiences of her mother, a pioneering black female aviator: a female choreographer whose work was admired by musicians, visual artists, and writers alike whose work – like hers – was on the cutting edge and unlike anything we had ever seen before; artists who were redefining arts and culture on their own terms.
Watching McIntyre in rehearsal for her new work-in-progress, Speaking in the Same Tongue, I saw her put her young dancers through their paces: a jump reminded me of birds taking flight, upper body curved over and bent low; I was drawn by a leap with the legs flying like scissors beneath the body while the live music built up a series of jazz riffs and Nehemiah Spenser, the lone male dancer, navigated across the floor on his back. Even without music, the dynamic energy of the movement phrases was palpable.
At age 70, McIntyre remains a live wire: electric energy emanating from a taut body, her hair now a soft creamy color wrapped neatly atop flawless skin, her voice a contrast in gentleness. When directing, she seems to suggest, rather than decree, pausing from time to time, with her chin in her left hand to contemplate and adjust the vision that only she can see.
For sixteen years she directed a company called Sounds in Motion, and, although the company is no longer active, the title is still applicable to what she does with her kinetic recipes concocted of spoken word, poetry, live music, and movement. From her earliest days as a choreographic artist, McIntyre worked with musicians, learned to improvise from them. “I never count,” she says, but rather relies on pulse, on feel. The musicians are not accompaniment, she explains; “We are all part of the same band.”
During a break, when all the dancers have finally arrived for the final rehearsal before the BAC showcase, McIntyre forms a circle for prayer, giving thanks, offering a sacrifice of excellence. In her work, as in her life, she acknowledges the spiritual basis of creativity. Before the final run-through, there is a short improvisation with the dancers and musicians. Each dancer is called upon to “talk back” with the musicians, to make a connection. “You can relate to the musicians,” she advises, “but never be cute.” In another exercise to seal the connection, she had four dancers cross the floor on a diagonal, stretching their boundaries. She is not averse to stopping and asking the dancers or the band to execute a “do-over.” For a section of the work called “Scream” she had the dancers practice individual and collective wails, vocalizing with and without the musicians.
Most of these dancers had never worked together before, meeting for the first time for this brief residency. It was imperative for McIntyre’s work that they become a family. Just prior to the final rehearsal and showing, the dancers circled together one final time, making an offering to the creator and the ancestors. “You are divine beings,” McIntyre told them quietly.
Three weeks in the making, Speaking in the Same Tongue is the beginning of an evening length work of new movement and new music. The five sections created at BAC include “Totem,” a reverent and ritualistic work that incorporates spoken word. Dancer Theara J. Ward’s voice was at times too soft, but her full-out energy was exponentially more effective than what she showed during rehearsals. A “Silent Duet” composed of repetitive motifs increasing in speed is accompanied by footsteps and breathing as the dancers seek, search, and question. “Scream,” a trio, begins with a plaintive wail that is echoed by the saxophone player. For part of the trio the dancers sit with their backs to the audience, and when they fall back or to the side, it appears as if they are fighting unseen demons. Here is where the dancers are encouraged to let the silences speak. In “What?” the dancers ask, “What about? But What? I don’t know. . . maybe,” as they cluster, disperse, and regroup, going through phases of frustration and opposition. The work ends with “Freedom Speech,” a quartet with words and music that pairs each soloist with a different instrument. Somewhere in the middle, McIntyre herself magically appears from out of nowhere, pulling each of the dancers back in, one by one. Speaking in the Same Tongue is the start of a journey that strips away familiar language to reveal the music that resides inside each of us.
For Dianne McIntyre, the music and the movement seem to be drawn from a bottomless well that is watering a whole new generation. *Ase.
*Ase (or às̩e̩ or ashe) is a spiritual and philosophical concept of the Yoruba people of Nigeria which speaks of the power to make things happen and produce change. It applies to everything - gods, ancestors, spirits, humans, animals, plants, rocks, rivers, and voiced words such as songs, prayers, praises, curses, or even everyday conversation. Existence, according to Yoruba thinking, is dependent upon it.