There's a documentary quality about choreographer Dianne McIntyre's new work, Just Yesterday, commissioned by GroundWorks Dancetheater. At a December preview performance at the City Dance Studios, McIntyre told the small group of guests about her process: She had interviewed members of the company, asking them about stories they remembered from their childhood. From there, she and her collaborator, jazz guitarist Olu Dara, began to piece together the dance. The result unfolds a little like a Ken Burns documentary, assembling scraps of memory into a portrait of American experience.
"I asked the dancers to tell me something about their parents or grandparents as children," says McIntyre. "I taped what they shared, transcribed everything, which came to about 30 pages single-spaced. I could have hired someone to do all that typing, but it was good to do it myself because as I was listening to the recording, I could hear nuances in their voices. There were things that came out in the energy as they spoke that were as important as the words."
McIntyre grew up in Cleveland, studying dance here and at the Ohio State University before moving to New York in 1970. There she founded her own company, Sounds in Motion, in 1972 and had a career choreographing for film, TV, Broadway and dance companies, including Alvin Ailey's. She moved back to Cleveland in 2003 and has collaborated with Dara on occasion for years.
Dara used the word "choreo-drama" to describe their work together. In the case of Just Yesterday, "choreo-bio" would also be accurate. It doesn't have a narrated storyline that follows the course of a life, but in a collection of the dancers' own snapshot memories — both of significant life experiences like immigration and things that were once routine, like extended family gatherings around food — it creates an image of how life has been for many American families.
"They did speak a lot about their family get-togethers," says McIntyre. "They knew there was a time in past generations when there were these big family gatherings — not just every holiday, but every weekend whole families would get together."
As she pored over those transcripts, in addition to looking for memories she could retell in movement, McIntyre excerpted lines to be spoken by the dancers. As the dance develops around the common themes, there's a conversational quality — not just in the speaking parts, but in the way the dancers respond to each other's memories by contributing their own.
Representing life in this realistic way is a departure from the mainstream of modern dance of the past half-century. McIntyre says that's partly the result of her work as a choreographer for theater.
"I don't try to avoid story or narrative," she says. "Probably in my early training, there were certain periods in modern dance where it wasn't that cool to have anything to do with story or narrative. Being in the theater broke me out of that."
She has worked with GroundWorks in the past, including a fall 2008 workshop, and she says she's enjoyed watching the company's work over the years. "I could see that they were very open to do whatever the choreographer asked of them. In the workshop I could see these people really go for it."
She credits choreographer and dance advocate Kathryn Karipides with getting her the GroundWorks commission.
"I was at a meeting with Kathy and [DanceCleveland executive director] Pam Young, and we talked about a grant I had to do workshops in different places on dance and music connections, and how I translate that to other people. They said 'You need to work with GroundWorks,' because they love to work with live music." Then she and GroundWorks artistic director David Shimotakahara "just talked about it until we saw the right time."
When Just Yesterday premieres this weekend at St. Ignatius High School's Breen Center, Dara's hypnotic score for two acoustic guitars will be performed live by Dan Wilson and Phillip Smith. The program includes two other dance works: Zvi Gotheiner's Delayed and Shimotakahara's Polarity.
McIntyre says another thing she learned from the theater is how directors continually tweak their work. "I've found I am not so wedded to how I do something in the beginning," she says. "I allow myself to be more experimental." She adds that Just Yesterday "continues to evolve," which means that those who saw it previewed in December will see something slightly different this weekend.
"You really don't know what you have until you have that first audience," says McIntyre.