For more than three decades, Dianne McIntyre and Olu Dara have been making fervent artistic connections. The Cleveland choreographer and Mississippi-born composer are veterans of collaborations that give equal voice to movement and music.
Their newest creation spans generations in the lives of the six members of GroundWorks DanceTheater, the Cleveland modern-dance company led by David Shimotakahara. Based on interviews McIntyre held in the studio, “Just Yesterday” merges tales of the dancers’ parents and grandparents with music Dara composed on the spot.
The piece, also featuring guitarists Phillip Smith and Dan Wilson, has its world premiere this week at the Breen Center for the Performing Arts on a program with works by Shimotakahara and Israeli-born choreographer Zvi Gotheiner.
McIntyre, an acclaimed choreographer who lived in New York for 33 years before returning to her hometown in 2003, began devising the new piece in November, when she spent the first two days of rehearsal listening to the dancers share family reminiscences. They recounted adventures and misfortunes handed down through the decades or only revealed in recent years.
“Our stories are very life-changing,” said dancer Kelly Brunk during a joint interview with his colleagues, McIntyre and Dara.
McIntyre agreed, in typically serene and vibrant fashion, saying the work that sprouted from their discussions speaks of crossing into adulthood and understanding life.
“Their stories are so rich and juicy,” she said. “I tried to look and see what themes were there. I saw the unity in the family from way back. I want to show that the unity today is not quite like it was. I saw a theme of rugged individualism in the way parents and grandparents used to play.”
Playfulness is a key element in “Just Yesterday,” as it is in many McIntyre pieces. The dancers cavort, sing and speak as they celebrate their forebears’ carefree times, favorite foods and beloved hobbies.
As Long Island, N.Y.-born Felise Bagley evokes her father’s teenage zest for life; the dancers simulate images of Marlon Brando and company on motorcycles. Sarah Perrett’s recollections center on her father, his friends and delectable candy (“Jujubes, Jujubes,” the dancers chant).
GroundWorks artistic associate Amy Miller, whose mother was the last of nine children, focuses on crocheting (a tender Dara waltz) and guitar-making (with a guitarist taking part in the dance action).
Along with high spirits, darkness, loss and hope touch the dancers’ memories.
The Iowa-born, Montreal-raised Shimotakahara’s maternal grandparents spent part of World War II incarcerated in a Canadian relocation center for Japanese immigrants.
“These are stories I heard snipped about growing up,” he said. “But only in the last 20 years or so, maybe because of our age, my mother began to speak more freely about the experience there.”
Damien Highfield’s story also aches. Dancing to a Dara blues number, he recalls a youthful visit with his father to a Columbus slaughterhouse.
“I guess that was my rite of passage,” Highfield said.
In one poignant sequence, Brunk tells of his mother’s experience as the only white student in a black school in Virginia. The other kids bully her as she stands firm and wins their respect.
“Well, what are you going to like about me today?” the girl announces to her peers.
Even for the GroundWorks dancers, who are used to experimentation, the process of creating “Just Yesterday” with McIntyre and Dara was fresh.
“I knew little about her work and was really wondering how we would do with her, as I do with all our guest artists,” Shimotakahara said last week.
“It was an amazing experience, I have to say. Dianne and Olu are such pros. They just let things evolve, and they guide the process.”
Their process is the result of ample teamwork. McIntyre met Dara working on the Broadway-bound “The Last Minstrel Show,” featuring Della Reese and Gregory Hines, in 1978.
The show never made it to New York, but McIntyre and Dara struck up a creative relationship that has resulted in numerous dance and theater pieces. Their artistic kinship is so close that Dara — a revered jazz trumpeter, guitarist and composer — usually doesn’t have to ask McIntyre what she wants.
“We’ve been doing this so long, it’s like horse and carriage, love and marriage,” said Dara, who lives in New York.
“I see a dancer’s face, personality, movement and I come out with a song — boom! It doesn’t matter what the style is. It comes out of the story. I think Dianne is one of the best musicians I know. She has sensitivity.”
McIntyre’s seamless melding of art forms has graced Cleveland several times in recent seasons. She created “Sweet Radio Radicals,” a survey of popular 20th-century songs, for five feisty female members of Dancing Wheels in 2008.
Last year, McIntyre’s “In the Groove and Over the Top,” which she terms “a conversation of music and dance,” was a hit for Verb Ballets and jazz guests at the Cleveland Play House’s FusionFest.
For the dancers of GroundWorks, “Just Yesterday” could take a place as the most personal work in their repertoire. McIntyre said “this group gives everything when they dance,” reflecting both their professionalism and their willingness to connect so openly with their pasts.
Many of the dancers’ stories, said McIntyre, abounded in emotional content marked by a keen sense of yearning.
“That’s something that’s hard to put in words,” she said, “so I put it in the dance.”
By Donald Rosenberg
The Plain Dealer
January 17, 2010
Photos by Lynn Ischay