DanceTheater is drawing on personal histories to make choreography called ‘Just Yesterday’ 

Creating a brand new piece with choreographer Dianne McIntyre, dancers with GroundWorks DanceTheater have been reaching deep into their personal histories.

Just Yesterday, which has its genesis in stories passed down to the dancers by their parents or grandparents, will receive its premiere as part of a program Friday and Saturday at the new Breen Center for the Performing Arts at St. Ignatius High School in Cleveland.

GroundWorks, whose six dancers include four former Ohio Ballet members, commissioned the piece from McIntyre to enrich the company’s repertory. Cleveland native McIntyre, well known in the modern dance world as founder of the former Sounds in Motion dance company in Harlem, has choreographed for Broadway, film and TV in a career spanning four decades.

Just Yesterday was created over three weeks with McIntyre and her longtime collaborator, composer Olu Dara of New York. The creative residencies were supported by the Cleveland Foundation and the Kulas Foundation.

The piece is a departure from GroundWorks’ usual dances because it relies heavily on both spoken narrative and singing by the dancers.

”I’m always looking for work that’s going to expand our range, hoping to get into creative territory that we’d never done before,” said GroundWorks artistic director David Shimotakahara.

At a recent rehearsal at Shaker Square in Cleveland, the dancers created a cacophony of voices as each excitedly proclaimed his or her ethnic background. The dance segued into a section depicting hard physical labor, the back-breaking work that the dancers’ immigrant ancestors embraced to pave the way for future generations.

”That’s what your people had to do so you could be here in the studio dancing,” McIntyre told the artists.

Italian. Japanese. Hungarian. Spanish and Turk. German, Austrian and French. The voices of earlier generations at times blend together, but at other moments are brought into individual focus in Just Yesterday.

High-energy sections range from the daredevil, whole-hearted play of an earlier time and the ritual of family gatherings to the struggles of immigrant ancestors. There’s plenty that’s light and fun. But the dance also has its darker elements.

McIntyre, a history lover, interviewed the dancers about stories that stuck out in their memories about their kinfolk, capturing the emotional energy of many of the tales to create the dance’s narrative.

”Some kind of energy in the piece draws me like a magnet and says ‘go here next,’ ” McIntyre said.

GroundWorks is used to a tightness, working together on an intimate level like family. That’s part of what originally drew McIntyre to the dance troupe. McIntyre was also impressed by the company’s technical prowess and versatility, calling these collaborative dancers ”a gigantic contribution to what the whole creative process is.”

The dancers, in turn, said McIntyre was both genuine and generous in their creative collaboration. At rehearsal last week, McIntyre related in a philosophical way to the youthful imaginings of dancer Sarah Perrett’s grandmother.

”I used to see whole worlds in our driveway, in the gravel,” she mused.

Later, she encouraged Perrett to commit fully to a movement in which the dancer mimes rubbing mud all over herself in a segment as they sing about ”gettin’ dirty” during playtime.

”Even if you are improvising, it has to have a clarity,” McIntyre said. ”It’s like ecstatic fun!”

Movement stories

Shimotakahara said McIntyre, who moved back to Cleveland seven years ago to be with her mother, is a fantastic resource for local dance professionals.

”I think I was initially attracted to the fact that she

[McIntyre] had worked so long with new music,” said Shimotakahara, whose company also is committed to premiering new music.

Shimotakahara praised McIntyre’s ability to create stories through movement — theatrical dance pieces that he calls choreodrama. McIntyre’s choreography comes out spontaneously, he said: She gives dancers direction for a move and then takes what they’ve done and molds it.

Just Yesterday‘s movement runs the gamut from folk dancing to the evocation of a cool crowd of motorcyclists.

The music is varied also. Some sounds like folk music, while the rest defies categorization, McIntyre said.

Guitarists Dan Wilson of Akron and Phillip Smith created the music through an improvisation process directed by Dara in close relation to McIntyre’s movement. In this organic process, Dara also was tuned in to how the movement felt and what the underlying emotional message of the dance was.

McIntyre and Dara met in the 1970s, following each other’s work in New York while she was a dancer and he was a jazz artist with the Okra Orchestra. Dara is a Mississippi-born guitarist and trumpeter whose roots-based music style combines blues, jazz, gospel, R&B, Caribbean and African rhythms.

The pair made their first dance-music piece together in 1984, outdoors at the Lincoln Center.

”We read each other’s minds,” McIntyre said.

McIntyre’s work these days is split between local and out-of-town projects. In the last year, McIntyre has done everything from Broadway choreographic work in the revival of August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, to creating a dance for Firestone High School students in Akron, set to the Black Keys’ All You Ever Wanted.

The choreographer, winner of a 2007 Guggenheim fellowship for dance work and research, has used interviewing techniques as a launching pad to create dances in the past, some based on historic events and others based on her subjects’ experiences with race. Her autobiographical dances also extend to a piece about her father’s upbringing in Cleveland and her mother’s days as a pioneering female aviator.

McIntyre hopes her theatrical style of choreography can help draw everyday people into dance.

”I like to do things that connect people in the heart,” she said.

By Kerry Clawson / The Beacon Journal Arts writer