The views and opinions expressed by speakers and presenters in connection with Art Restart are their own, and not an endorsement by the Thomas S. Kenan Institute for the Arts and the UNC School of the Arts. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Described by The New York Times as “one of America’s most peculiarly original dance poets,” choreographer Trey McIntyre has made a habit of defying expectations throughout his career. A graduate of the UNCSA School of Dance, he went on to the Houston Ballet Academy whereupon finishing his training, he was given the position of Choreographic Apprentice at the Ballet, a post created specifically for him.
As his freelance career started to take off, he did something completely unexpected. Rather than tether himself to a large coastal metropolis or a European capital, he decided to settle down in Boise, ID, where he created Trey McIntyre Project, a vibrant dance company that quickly garnered the world’s attention, spending up to 22 weeks a year on national and international touring. Then 10 years later in 2014, at the height of the company’s success, Trey decided to fold the company and return to freelancing.
He continues to be an in-demand choreographer around the world — just before the pandemic he created works for Queensland Ballet, San Francisco Ballet and The Washington Ballet — but lately he has also been diving into a new artistic passion. He has a photographic practice, creating kinetic and often erotic tableaux of the human body, that he supports through a network of fans via a Patreon account. In 2018 he also directed “Gravity Hero,” a documentary about his journey with his Boise-based dance company.
In this interview with Pier Carlo Talenti, Trey discusses why and how he has always pushed himself past comfort zones in order to feed his voracious curiosity and wonders what it will take for dance companies to remain equally curious and nimble in the digital age.
Choose a question below to begin exploring the interview:
- Can you talk about diving into the digital world during the pandemic and creating the online dance series “FLTPK”?
- What made you want to shut down Trey McIntyre Project in Boise?
- What propels you now? What feeds your creative juices?
- What are you learning from your students in 2022 that is different from what you were taught as a student?
- Have you found that your teaching experience has influenced the way you choreograph?
- Can you talk about how your relationship to fear has changed over the years?
- What do ballet companies need to look like? What do they need to be?
- What skills or interests do you think up-and-coming dancers need to cultivate in addition to their dance talents?
- What projects on your plate coming up are you most excited about?
Pier Carlo: The pandemic was of course a time of reinvention for so many artists. You took that opportunity to really dive into the digital world and created the online dance series “FLTPK.” Can you talk about that?
Trey: Yeah. I was in Houston actually. I’d made a new premiere for Houston Ballet called “Pretty Things.” It was all David Bowie music, big cast, bombastic, all men, very, very flashy show. There was so much buildup. We were so excited about it. And the theater closed down on opening night, so we didn’t even get one show.
I decided it was probably not the best time to come back to New York because this was ground zero for infections, so I just got an Airbnb in Houston. I was stranded out there, and my mind, “All these available artists!” That’s the first thing I’m thinking: “What can I do with this time creatively?” And I have to say the original first six months were maybe the happiest period of my life because there wasn’t any expectation out there in the world. Everything stopped. So I had to figure out, “What’s the creative impulse that exists only in me? It’s not a commission. It’s not anything.”
I also immediately wanted to bring that to and share that with other artists who were in the same boat. I had a Patreon account for my photography for many years, and that seemed like a match to maybe experiment with “OK, could this work with dance?” The development of this was that a choreographer somewhere in the world would put together a dance film with whatever resources were available to them at the time where they were and in a way that they could do it safely. Then I would work on creating the audience that would subscribe. Basically whenever a premiere was released, whatever was in the till got divided up, and the rules were that it had to be divided up equally between each artist involved.
Part of that too was just an experiment to look at equity and also what continues to happen culturally, to see, “OK, well, what does that feel like, choreographer, that everyone’s getting paid the same as you?” I really enjoyed doing it, if anything to get to meet all these artists that I wouldn’t have had the chance to meet otherwise.
I think the paywall was ultimately pretty tough. I just feel like for the amount of investment it would take to build an audience to make it really worthwhile for dancemakers, it felt like building another dance company. So that’s actually why I changed it to the website now. Treycool.com, it’s called. It’s basically a free way for me to help promote other artists.
Pier Carlo: I wonder if I could take you back to your time in Boise with Trey McIntyre Project. You’re probably sick about discussing the shutting down of Trey McIntyre Project, but to me it’s still so interesting because in so many ways you had the brass ring. Not only were you still working as an artist, but you were also being a leader. What made you want to shut down the company at that point? What really was getting in the way of your artistic spirit and expression?
Trey: Well, I’m not sick of talking about it because I think it’s such a big subject. The more that we talk about it, the more I certainly discover and the greater depth it provides and also informs me as I continue to move forward.
I think Trey McIntyre Project in particular was lauded for its sense of innovation and really being — it’s an overused word — a disruptor in the dance world and doing things in a different way. I think we were really successful at that. We were successful in solving a lot of the problems around creating context for a dance company and the why does a dance company exist in a particular community. I think we addressed those things head-on and came up with great solutions.
But I think when a large part of your expectation is that innovation, you’ve got to keep doing it, and there was never really a space to sit and truly focus on art. That part of it was nonstop. Even as a successful dance company — we did great — you’re still constantly in a position of begging and asking. We need to exist and we need to ask people to help us do that. That’s relentless. I still to this day outrun this feeling of “I must always be working.” That was 10 years where it was, wake up and work till you fall asleep. I took one vacation in that whole entire period and just kind of spent it staring at the wall. I didn’t know how to do anything differently.
And so to think about that then creatively, how do you step into a studio and unencumber yourself of all of that? I think it would take a superhuman person. There’s plenty of people who are capable of that. I’m not one of them. I think for me, the creative headspace to actually be in that place where I’m being my best artist is such an, for lack of a better word, immature place to be. It’s got to be boundless. You can’t think about logistics or anything. Or even just being a human in certain ways. Creativity is really about breaking you through to the other side, whereas being a leader is very concrete, it’s very adult and it must be.
Pier Carlo: Some performing-arts companies are using a co-leadership model these days. Do you think it would have been helpful to have a co-leader?
Trey: I don’t know. [He sighs.] I don’t know that I’ve seen it play out in that way in a dance company. I know it was just announced that Julie Kent is going to be doing that with Stanton Welch at the Houston Ballet, and I’ll be watching with a lot of curiosity to see how that happens.
Yeah, if my role could have been relegated to really what is a full-time job, which is steering the artistic vision of a company, maybe. But I will say you’re still in a leadership position and dealing with the interpersonal every day. And as much as I did my best to craft a different culture than this, when you’re in a leadership role, you become symbolically a father. No matter what. People just can’t help it. Those things get foisted on you. Those expectations get foisted on you, and those were the things that really were counter to how I wanted to work artistically. In the end, it just caused too much internal conflict for me, to be quite honest.
I had a great sense of that in the beginning. When we were just a summer-pickup company, it really felt off. Creatively, I loved it. I was working with some of my favorite artists on the planet, but something was just so upsetting. And if I’m being totally naked in this conversation, I think it was ego more than anything that propelled it forward. It’s like, “Oh, this thing is successful. People like me for this, so I’m going to follow it.” It didn’t really come from a sense of, “Ah, this is what I’m on this planet to be doing.”
Pier Carlo: So there was a sense of, “This summer pickup was such a success so obviously I should be doing this year-round. This is what is expected of me”?
Trey: Absolutely. Yeah. That’s the messages coming in from every direction, and that included just practical things. For instance, we had some early success with presenters of summer festivals, but there’s only so many and we can’t have a company every year going back to the same places. There were presenters who said, “If you became a full-time company, we’d love to present you.” That seemed like an opportunity that would be dumb to pass up, so that’s kind of what propelled me in the beginning.
Trey: Well, for example, besides being a choreographer, I’m also a photographer and have invested quite a few years now in that. Working as a photographer is a very different process from working in the studio. It cultivates a very different interpersonal way of working with artists that really stretches me and helps me grow.
Photo shoots are much more diverse than each time I walk into a studio. In a studio, there’s a certain ethos and a certain way things play out that’s recognizable from company to company. A photo shoot’s not that way. It’s a whole new world every time. I tend to really just work with one person at a time, and so it’s whatever that person brings into the room. That stretches me enormously.
I’m incredibly curious. I just evolved my website to be one that’s less about presenting my work and more about curating what’s happening out there in the world digitally. Because I love that. If I find an artist where I think, “This is so great,” I want to tell as many people as possible. The relationships and the friendships that I have are generally with people who have that same level of curiosity. We’re talking about either the finer points of what’s going on in the world, not so much in the nuts and bolts of it but maybe psychologically what’s happening in the world or breaking open different artists that we’re seeing and seeing how that fits in with the timeline of what’s happening on the planet. That’s pretty much how I spend all of my time.
I would add to that, most recently that’s evolved into teaching. It was something I didn’t think I was that interested in, but I’ve had some opportunities recently. It’s mind-blowingly fulfilling, especially in this time. Especially working with young people at this moment in history, it’s just such a change in what they bring into the room, and there’s so much to be learned from it. There’s a huge gift that if I can be in place as a teacher of receptivity and learning from the person I’m with — what they really need versus what I think I have to give — there’s a tremendous amount of growth, I’m finding, that’s coming from that.
Trey: Well, I just saw a quote on Instagram yesterday. I’m sorry, I don’t know who to attribute it to. It was about how from day one in dance training, it’s a culture of fear. It’s authority. You’re motivated by absolute authority in the room. As generations progress, that becomes less and less acceptable. I think that asks the teacher then to say, “Well, then how do you stand in your authority if it’s not about scaring this person or having some dire consequences over them?”
It’s not a big shift to find out that it’s coming from a place of mutual respect but also surety in what you’re communicating. As a dancemaker and someone who’s been in the industry for, let’s see, 32 years now, I do know what I’m talking about, and I’m not sharing it from a place of I’m better than you. I’m sharing it from a place of “I actually authentically care about you and want you to have this information, so how do you need to hear it? And how can we both get there?” And not being in a stuck place, even if it’s like, “You’re not listening to me.” Well, OK, let’s bring that back on me. Why are they not listening to me? What am I not conveying? What’s missing in what I’m saying and what this person needs? That’s so exciting. I just love that in the room because there is an end point for that. There is an answer to that question. I approach it with as much humility as one can muster, getting over these 32 years and what that makes me. Who cares? All it is is the information I have available. How lovely when you find that way to impart it in a way that sticks and feeds that person.
Trey: For sure, maybe not in the way I might shape choreography but in the way I communicate.
At the professional level, I think one of the hurdles that one has to — overcome is the wrong word — shape in their career is that there are a lot of creative egos in the room. I don’t mean ego in the negative puffed-up meaning; it’s a colorful, fully developed person who has their own needs and wants, and they’re on a professional track, and the stakes get much higher. It’s really helped me to see that as not the hurdle that I maybe used to see it but really as just the same thing. There’s certainly a temperature to the entire room, how the company feels as a group and knowing that and getting with that first, but also there’s paying attention in every interaction. Who’s this person I’m talking to specifically?
At the same time, the authority comes from the fact that I showed up prepared, knowing the dance that I want to make. I am the authority on this, and I want to give this to you, and I want you to be the best possible person to fulfill this role. But I’m just not doing it from a place of trying to scare everyone. I mean, I just think that’s the generation I was brought up in for sure, and it didn’t make me the best artist I could be, I’ll tell you that much. I responded to the very few teachers I had in my time who really cared about me getting to being the best dancer that I could be.
Pier Carlo: I was watching a video with the chef Gordon Ramsay, and he was talking about his training. Of course, the chef’s world is completely ruled by fear. It’s militaristic. He was saying that you definitely need that to build a tough skin. I found it so interesting to me that in this day and age that culture is refusing to change. I’m glad to hear that in dance, it is changing.
Trey: Yes! And I totally disagree with him. You must because it is the culture, but it’s not the best way. I don’t think that’s how human beings thrive. I think we thrive through love.
Pier Carlo: I love that you brought up fear because I wanted to talk to you about fear. You’ve spoken about how part of your childhood was marked by violence and by fear. I would think that a person like that who is marked by fear would seek out security and stability, but you love to pull the rug out from under yourself. Can you talk about how your relationship to fear has changed over the years?
Trey: Yeah. I think really from the beginning, that had been my reaction, because I think I felt surrounded by a lot of adults who didn’t act like adults. The choice then is to recoil and be in a place of real danger or to become an adult.
I do think I have this instinct to “Get out of there as fast you can. First chance you get, get out when things don’t feel right.” As an adaptive way of dealing with it, great, but that’s something that’s had to evolve over time.
Pier Carlo: You mean the staying in the room rather than running away?
Trey: Yeah. And I don’t think I’m ever going to lose that impulse. I mean, I’m so inspired by newness — I think that’s quite natural — and I’m delighted by it. I’m not seduced by stability because I don’t think there is any. Things change. I mean, listen, if we didn’t all learn that from COVID, then what more lesson do you need? Things can change overnight, so you might as well lean into it. To do that with an open heart and just to fall into it and accept change has brought me nothing but gifts in my life. It just doesn’t feel that scary. Maybe I’m dumb for feeling that way, but I don’t know. Life is short. I think having new experiences and feeling inspired over what to me feels like a very dead sameness of security is just a no-brainer.
Pier Carlo: In those moments when you do feel insecure or anxious, what are your go-to resources, human or otherwise, to get your feet under you?
Trey: I’ve been very lucky in my life to have sought out and found a couple of different advisors. They don’t live in the same city as me, but they’re people I can check in with, and they’re people who I trust implicitly and who see me.
Aside from that, my go-to in those moments is to go within. If there’s anything I’ve learned over time, it’s that the real solution and the thing that I’m looking for is always inside. I’m still working on this practice to this day about how to keep going back to stillness and keep finding that.
During the course of having the dance company, for example, I had a real problem with drinking. The intensity of the workload and the pressure, I’m not sure I could have ever done it without drinking too much. But in the end, that’s only a Band-Aid and that’s only a delay of the inevitable point of life, which is to learn these things for ourselves and to learn these skills for our ourselves. I’ve had a lifetime of all kinds of distractions and delays of the process of growing, but my m.o. now — I’m certainly not there yet — but what is best for me is to withdraw, check in with myself and figure out what’s going on with myself.
Teaching is mind-blowingly fulfilling, especially in this time. Especially working with young people at this moment in history, it’s just such a change in what they bring into the room, and there’s so much to be learned from it.Trey McIntyre
In an interview — or it may have been in your documentary — you posed a question when you folded Trey McIntyre Project, which was, “Why have a dance company in America at this point?” Could you answer that question now? What do ballet companies need to look like? What do they need to be?
Trey: This is only going to be conjecture; I think I will probably be proven wrong with this. Let me put it this way, for me as an audience member, if I didn’t have a connection to this community, the structure and the way this work is presented needs to change drastically. I met with some dancers the other day who asked me, “We really want to be inspired by work. We want to do what’s groundbreaking. What company should I go to?” And I sat there with them and really couldn’t think of one. There’s a lot of amazing companies, wonderful choreographers who do great things, but in terms of being something vital that’s moving the form forward, that’s evolving with contemporary society in the way not just dance stans are but the way people are, I don’t know in which direction I would point for that.
Personally, if I’m the audience, there’s not longevity for dance companies remaining as they are. I think culturally, they tend to be set up to self-perpetuate, to keep doing what they’ve been doing and cultivating the audience that looks for a thing. I don’t see that as a recipe for long-term success, but this might be long-term as in hundreds of years.
We are just so used to interfacing with screens. I do think that there is something so special about the live performance, and I think if we’re not using that to really blow people’s minds and show what’s so incredibly special, then I don’t see it.
I’ve been going to see a lot of shows. I just saw one the other day a Broadway show that used video projection mainly as the set piece. And in my opinion —
Pier Carlo: That can often be so lazy.
Trey: Yes. It felt like, “OK, I’m watching a bad TV screen.” Because it’s going to be dim compared to the performers. It just felt like, “Well, we have this accessible to us and maybe it’s cheaper.” I don’t know what. But it really undermined what was exciting about the live performance. I don’t know. I feel like I’m kind of rambling with this question because I don’t know the answer.
Pier Carlo: If somebody were holding your feet to the fire and were forcing you, “Trey, tomorrow you have to lead a new dance company,” what would be the first two new things you would implement to change the way the company related to its audience and its community?
Trey: Hm. Well, it’s a matter of process, right? It’s not a conclusion. For TMP, people kept asking us, “What’s the formula?” The formula is to know what your audience is after, even if they don’t know yet. What works in Boise, ID, what that community is, is not the same as Albuquerque. For me, the first thing is to really listen and understand.
A choreographer is given a lot of power. It’s the artistic vision of one person. In certain ways that’s amazing because it’s not diluted. What you see onstage becomes a clear vision that came from one person. But at the same time, you’re not God, and so the adherence to one person’s artistic vision in conflict with the community around them, I don’t really see what’s that reason for existence. So that’s the first one: a deep dive in that way.
But for me it would also be a deep dive internally like, “OK, that’s a lot of big talk, Mr. McIntyre. What is the answer for you?” And that would include stripping it down to the bones, not starting with any assumptions about a dance company.
Pier Carlo: And who would be involved in those discussions?
Trey: Well, I would start certainly with the people whose opinions I really respect and know that they come from a place of not just the known. These are people who I know who are really curious and paying attention to what’s happening in the world. I’d start from there because I think it’s just not out there yet. The idea that moves the sport, it’s not out there yet. We’re still in a little bit of — getting back to fear — a poverty mentality like, “Oh, we have to survive, we have to survive, we have to survive.” Which is a reality. That’s absolutely true about dance companies, but it’s self-fulfilling in that way because you’re only focused on survival and not on the thing that makes what you do so special and makes you not have to be in survival mode. So that’s what I would do.
Pier Carlo: So what did you end up telling those dancers you were talking with?
Trey: I said, “Do it yourself.” I said, “If you really want to be in that place where you’re that inspired, you’re going to figure out what that is.” And they’re like, “Uhhhh, this, that, this, that.” They suddenly go into poverty mode. But it’s like, “OK, well which is it? Do you want to be an accountant, or do you want to be inspired in your work?” And that’s the risky part.
Trey: I think two things, I would say. First is curiosity about the world because all those other things are what informs a great artist, not just having this myopic path. It certainly takes up a lot of your time, but really be curious and learn about the world and know all those things make you a richer dancer.
The other would have to do with the interpersonal. There’s not a lot of training that addresses the transition from thinking like a student to thinking like a professional. So I would encourage dancers as they move into the professional realm to really learn about themselves and “What am I really trying to get out of this? What’s my conflict with this rehearsal director or this artistic director?” Learning what’s really going on. Because otherwise I think you can really kill a lot of time in conflict in ways that you don’t need to. You just need to learn how to work with people.
Pier Carlo: You mean like a psychotherapeutic process?
Trey: For some, yeah, yeah. It could just be psychotherapeutic, or it could just be like a life-coach kind of thing.
Pier Carlo: You’ve been talking about it as a transition from being a student to a professional. I wonder if in the final years of education, it becomes part of the learning process. Could it be built into a curriculum?
Trey: How great would that be? I went back to UNCSA when Susan Jaffey was the Dean to do Intensive Arts. That’s the workshop I did: career transition. I worked with seniors. I didn’t go in with any curriculum. I just sat down the first day like, “OK, what do you think a company’s going to be? What are you scared about?” And finding out where those holes are, explaining it from my experience, but then also developing exercises to work on it.
It could be really practical. This one young woman said, “I’m so scared about auditioning because I’m slow picking up choreography. I’m going to get behind, and they’re never going to see me dance.” OK, great enough, and that was an easy exercise. I said, “OK, well I’m an artistic director. I could easily be someone you’re auditioning for, so it could be easy to imagine me in that position. Let’s have an audition. I’m going to teach choreography, and I’m going to teach it fast. You’re going to get lost.” The next question is, “Well, what happens when you start to get behind?” And she was like, “I get out of breath, I start panicking, and I’m stuck in this moment.” I said, “OK, great. When that happens, when you get that feeling, just stop where you are. We’re all going to protect you and dance around you. Just close your eyes, put your hands in your solar plexus and just breathe until you feel that calm. Then once you feel that calm, come out of it and continue.” And she said, “But I’m going to be so far behind in the choreography!” And I’m like, “Yeah, I figured. That part’s not the point. Yes, you’ll be behind, but you’re going to pick up right where we left off.” Just that practice of training —
Pier Carlo: Instead of practicing to be increasingly frantic and terrified.
Trey: That’s right, yeah. And just to have a moment of, “OK, it’s not imaginary anymore, me picturing myself freaking out. I actually had the experience once and learned a way to deal with it.” That was such a joy to work that week. It was really lovely and emotional, and I really feel like we really got somewhere by the end of it. That was a fun time.
Trey: The big one I’m working on right now — this is the rest of my year — is I’ve moved into medium-format photography, which means I can make ginormous prints that are hyper-detailed. I’m working on a series of 10 images, and they’re all re-conceptions of male archetypes meant to free men from the traditional expectations of what it can mean to be a man. It’s not a way of emasculating; it’s really about looking at, “OK, well, what does it mean at least archetypically to be a man, and what could be a more generative way of looking at this in today’s culture?”
I’m staging each one kind of like a tarot card. It’s a human image floating in a black surround with all this very heavy symbology around it. I want to do these 10 gigantic portraits, so I’m working on crafting those right now. I’m spending my time studying traditional archetypes and learning their origins and seeing how those things apply.
Pier Carlo: You’ve already selected the 10?
Trey: I have. And I’m doing them one at a time.
Pier Carlo: And is it one model per archetype?
Trey: Yes. I like the idea — this has always been my process with photography — of being really collaborative with the person. I start with the conversation, “OK, what does it mean to you to be a man? Or what do you struggle with? What are the conflicts you come into?” Such a beautiful exploration can come from that. And learning from that person, part of this symbology starts to surface based on their experience. So that’s been super fun to work on.
Pier Carlo: Finally, your bio ends with this wonderful sentence: “His main focus has been adding more love into the world. He loves you and doesn’t even know you.” How are you planning to add love into the world today or this week?
Trey: [He laughs.] Well, this seems like a contradiction in a certain way, but it’s a thing I’m learning for myself: to first get right with myself and to make sure as often as possible that I’m living from a place of openness and not just projecting myself all over everybody that I come into contact with.
I continue to stay delighted by people. That’s another great thing about being in New York City. You can just sit outside, and just the people are so wonderful. I want to embrace them. I mean, I was talking to a guy at the subway stop today who told me he had met the Prime Minister at this very same stop this week. [He laughs.] Yeah! I was just like, “Let’s go deeper with that!” He told me the whole story, and I thought, “That’s incredible. That’s just incredible.” I’m just going to keep approaching the world with an open heart and accepting what comes my way.
November 28, 2022