Philadelphia’s svelte 10-member contemporary ballet company, BalletX, returns to The Joyce this week with a program of recent works including Finnish choreographer Jorma Elo’s 2014 Gran Partita, and two New York premieres: Show Me by BalletX co-founder Matthew Neenan, and Big Ones, by Austin-based choreographer Trey McIntyre. I sat down with McIntyre to discuss Big Ones, which is set to the music of the singer/songwriter Amy Winehouse, who died of a drug overdose in 2011.
What inspired this new work? Did it start with the music?
Trey: It started with seeing the documentary Amy (2015), honestly. I was so taken with the film. I was taken with the things that I identify with in her life, or at least my projection of what I saw in the documentary maker’s version of her life.
What parts in particular did you connect with?
Trey: What I saw and felt was that her demise was really about being great. She was so special, and not just an incredible singer. She reinvented what that kind of jazz vocalist could be and made it completely unique. You cannot listen to her voice and not be taken to a place. [Her talent] was in some ways natural; it came out right out of her. She grew up in this working class life, and I think that the people around her didn’t know how to handle it. I think it’s easy to be judgmental. Her father doesn’t come off great in the documentary. But, how do we know what it is to have a child who is suddenly a mega superstar?
She channeled such deep emotion. How do you encounter that every day?
Trey: How does any parent of a creative child know how to give her what she needs? I also think that, at her essence, she wanted to be connected and loved, and she wanted to be with other people. It made her so lonely, irreconcilably lonely. Those are the moments I really identified with. When you are trying to get at truth that is so unique to you, you can’t connect with other people.
Right. Also, in going deep within yourself in order to release your artistic expression later, you never give and receive emotion in real time. You’re never getting back the love you request in the moment you request it. Maybe you get it later.
Trey: That’s right. And it may never be reciprocated. And if it is love, it might be exploited, it might be misunderstood. So, I wanted to explore that idea as an artist.
You worked with the lovely Reid & Harriet on the costumes. The dancers wear large black bunny ears on their heads in the work. How did you come to the decision to costume the piece in that way?
Trey: I wanted to create a puzzle that I couldn’t back out of as a choreographer, so I chose to have the dancers possess this element that was larger than life. It came out of a vision of them in these superhero outfits with these protrusions. Originally it was going to be elk horns. I was at a friend’s house where there was this wooden wine rack, and I put it on and it made this giant headpiece.
And then you said, my work is done.
Trey: This is the piece. [laughs] I also thought of it as an extension of the spine.
I was wondering if it was antennae.
Trey: That makes great sense. I knew that it was absurd. There’s an element of that with Amy Winehouse. She was this outrageous figure. So, I wanted to see if I could do that somehow with the costumes and have the audience take that choice seriously.
And you didn’t want to present a parody of Amy.
Trey: That’s right. I didn’t want the ears to be a joke. It’s part of a puzzle that the audience has to figure out in its own way. So, it’s not a ballet about Amy Winehouse’s life.
Does it tap into her work emotionally?
Trey: Absolutely. I think I really shared that with the dancers, too. I’m moving more toward sharing with them. I never used to do that.
Why didn’t you share that before?
Trey: I didn’t want the dancers to approximate an idea that I had. I wanted them to authentically arrive there, and the movement needed to do it.
You didn’t want to see them acting, you wanted to see them becoming.
Trey: Exactly. I have found a way to trust them with more information. Especially if it’s the right dancer. These are very alert performers.
Is it through intimate communication that you find that trust?
Do you think that you’ve just gotten better at communication?
Trey: Yes, and I’ve become more trusting. I’ve become more conscious of doling out [my intentions] to the dancers. I see that it can really enhance the performance and help the work develop.
It’s a way of giving notes.
Trey: Right. I don’t mean to call out one dancer because they are all really great, but the lead in piece, Chloe Felesina, is just a once-in-a-lifetime dancer. She just has such depth and bravery, and so any information she got colored her performance in an authentic way. She would eat it up and identify with it, and be it, as opposed to act it.
Trey: But, no matter what, dancers are physically intelligent above all. Sometimes you don’t need to add to that.
Well, the physical realm is incredibly deep.
Trey: It is. And its remarkable. That’s what’s super heroic about dancers.
You mentioned having a vision of dressing the performers as superheros earlier. Where did that idea come from?
Trey: It’s what we’ve been talking about, this special quality of an artist. And superheros always have a brokenness.
And there’s always a Kryptonite.
Trey: And they are always lonely.
BalletX runs through August 21 at The Joyce. Joyce.org for more info.