Modern dance’s beam of light
By Nancy Wozny
A lone dancer swaggers onto the stage, initiating a conversation with the five-piece jazz band at the side of the stage. In a sinewy gesture he reaches skyward and the band responds. More dancers enter and their exciting dialogue with the musicians seamlessly unifies movement and sound.
These dancers, from Dianne McIntyre’s sound-and-music class at the 2008 American Dance Festival (ADF), performed that piece, Invincible Flower, just two hours before McIntyre received the festival’s highest teaching honor, The Balasaraswati/Joy Ann Dewey Beinecke Endowed Chair for Distinguished Teaching. The award is one of the most prestigious dance education awards in the United States, and in receiving it McIntyre, 62, takes her place alongside such dance giants as Donald McKayle, Pearl Primus, and Matt Mattox. Her collection of awards includes a National Endowment for the Arts Three-Year Choreographers Fellowship, a 2007 Guggenheim, and two Bessies, but this is the first one that acknowledges her contributions solely as a teacher.
McIntyre’s beginnings in dance predate her setting foot in a dance studio. She remembers, as a youngster in Cleveland, dancing to music from the radio in front of her living room window. “I hoped that people driving by would think that there was a dance studio in my house,” she says. “I don’t even know if I had ever been to a real dance studio.” At age 4 she began classes with Elaine Gibbs, the most prominent local dance teacher for African American children. “I did not know then that dance schools were segregated. We were satisfied and content,” she says. “There was something about how my parents elevated what we were; I never wondered why there were no white children.”
Teaching and dancing merged early in her life. “When I was 9 I would help out with the younger ones. That’s how it is in a small dance studio,” McIntyre says. “Part of what you do as a dancer and choreographer is sharing with other people. I took those qualities from those teachers over the years even though I didn’t consciously know I was studying them.”
As a child and young teenager McIntyre studied modern dance with Virginia Dryansky, a member of the Karamu Dancers at Karamu House in Cleveland, one of the nation’s oldest institutions dedicated to African American culture. “Virginia helped us develop our own choreography. We danced to some songs by Odetta. That was some strong dance for 10-year-olds,” McIntyre says. “I loved the expressive element of modern dance. Back then I thought modern dance was primarily an African American dance form. I think I even thought Martha Graham was black.”
McIntyre’s work with Dryansky prepared her well for the dance program at The Ohio State University, where she studied with Helen Alkire, Vickie Blaine, James Payton, Lucy Venable, and guest artists Anna Sokolow and Viola Farber. “I was one of the few dancers [there] that had any modern dance background,” McIntyre says. She remembers every detail of one incident with Blaine. “She would crack the whip in a loving way; she wanted to make sure you were getting it right. I remember one choreography study I did for her. She never raised her voice or scolded, but I knew I wasn’t going to sit down until I gave my whole heart and soul to that [rehearsal].”
During the summers McIntyre returned to Cleveland to teach modern dance, using the same methods she was learning at Ohio State. By 1970 she had headed to New York City and begun dancing in Gus Solomons jr’s company. Then she heard a second calling. In 1972 she started her own studio and company, Sounds in Motion, in Harlem. With packed classes, the studio became a hub for aspiring African American modern dancers, including Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, founder of Urban Bush Women.
But by 1988 McIntyre felt that Sounds in Motion had reached a threshold. “We were on the verge of becoming a larger institution and I felt that my creative energy was being drained.” She decided to fold the studio and company and began working as a freelance artist.
McIntyre has worked in television, theater, and film, including as a choreographer and consultant for director Jonathan Demme and Oprah Winfrey on the 1998 film Beloved. Her television credits include 1986’s Langston Hughes: The Dreamkeeper and 1982’s for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf. She received an Emmy nomination for the award-winning 1997 HBO movie Miss Evers’ Boys. In addition to creating numerous works for her own company, she has choreographed for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and Repertory Ensemble, Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble, and Dayton Contemporary Dance Company.
‘I was ecstatic to be working with her. She has the most tremendous spirit in such a little body.’ —dancer DeAngelo Blanchard
McIntyre is a leading authority on the work of modern-dance pioneer Helen Tamiris. In 1991, she reconstructed Tamiris’ 1937 epic How Long Brethren?, which has been performed by numerous professional and college dancers at ADF. Her daring dance career, chronicled in Dance in America: Free to Dance in 2001, continues to define itself.
Equally comfortable in theater, McIntyre has choreographed more than 40 plays and recently worked on two new choreo-dramas, including Peaches, Plums and Pontifications with jazz musician and longtime collaborator Olu Dara. “I like that in theater you get longer runs,” McIntyre says. “That allows the artists to grow through performances. We don’t get that too much in modern dance.”
When ADF asked her to teach a class in dance-music connection, McIntyre jumped at the chance, eager to bring her unique take on music to college-age dancers. “There was also a gap for me, in that, although I work with live music in my choreography, I wasn’t doing it consistently in my teaching,” she says. At ADF, she could start to fill that gap.
Interacting with live music had been a regular part of life at Sounds in Motion. “We had a group of musicians who were part of our studio. They were not just accompanists; there was a strong tie to everything we did together. We learned as much from the music as we did from our own dance backgrounds,” she says. “It was not just from the quality and the dynamics, but the way the musicians interacted and supported each other. There was a lot of power in that for me. They were categorized as jazz, but they had a broad background and all kinds of music came through in their playing.”
Over the years McIntyre has worked with such notable artists as Dara, Lester Bowie, Max Roach, and Cecil Taylor. “It was two-way exchange—we benefited from watching how they worked so well together, and they learned from the dance and developed innovative ideas from what they saw us do.” She had some concerns about how the loss of live music in dance classes was affecting the development of musicality. “At a recent performance I wondered if the dancers were actually listening to the music,” she says.
McIntyre started her classes at ADF from a basic place of learning how to listen. During the first week she worked with one dancer and one musician at a time, developing a “conversation.” “The musician would do a phrase and the dancer would respond, repeating exactly what they heard,” she says. “This exercise developed [the dancers’] hearing.” Gradually they moved toward a call-and-response, alternating being the leader. The other students learned by watching. “It tuned their ears,” McIntyre says. “They could see the musician and the dancer getting closer.”
Later, she added a rhythmic component, layering dancing and making music into a conversation between the dancers and the drummer. Eventually the exercises became increasingly complex so that the dancer became like a solo instrument. The dancers learned to move inside and out of a rhythm, flowing over the top of it or going underneath. “This is the way a jazz musician improvises, connecting to a certain harmonic,” she says. “As time went on, the structure became looser. But if the dancers were fuzzy they got a [correction], because the music was never fuzzy.”
McIntyre’s assistant, Shireen Dickson, says that watching the teacher at work in the ADF classes proved a learning experience for her, even though she has been working with McIntyre for 10 years. “I was amazed at how professional our final showing was in the amount of time we had to get it ready,” says Dickson, 34. “Dianne uses her voice in such a way that it guides the students to listen better. It’s more about accents than counts.” She also appreciated McIntyre’s unconditional confidence in her students. “She puts the material out there and fully believes they will get it, and they do.”
Dickson is amazed by the breadth of McIntyre’s work. “She crosses over to so many different arenas and is successful in all of them,” she says. “I am astounded by her passion for dance, young people, and teaching; it’s inspiring to see the love and dedication that come through; even within frustration and impatience, the love is still there. The students feel that and they love her for it. She has their best interests at heart. She’s not afraid to be vulnerable in the classroom.”
Dancer DeAngelo Blanchard, 21, a senior at Ohio State, started and ended Invincible Flower at ADF. “I was ecstatic to be working with her. She has the most tremendous spirit in such a little body. The way she would let sound become her movement was very impressive.” Describing how McIntyre stood with her arms stretched up and eyes to the sky, Blanchard says, “You couldn’t help but emulate the very idea she was after. She loves music, and so do I, so it was very easy to understand physically what she wanted from the dance. She wanted the dancer to be the music and the music to be the dancer, so there was no worry about being distracted by either.”
On the day McIntyre received the award at ADF, she closed her remarks with a story: While teaching at a college dance program she found herself with a group of talented but listless dancers who didn’t give their all to the movement. She remembers inwardly asking for some kind of help with these students. She heard an internal voice saying, “See them as light.” “I didn’t know what it meant; however, I was carrying this message with me as I prepared for class,” she said. “Seeing them as light seemed to have translated into my loving them, and my heart just opened up to them.”
From the first reach of her hand skyward the entire class transformed before her eyes. “When I saw them as light I came to love every one of them. I loved everything about them. A love for them overtook me completely. In that moment I cared about nothing but them, and to give them the love I have for dance.” Her students sensed her transformation and danced that day like they never had before.
The audience at ADF that day knew exactly what she was talking about. By the end of her impassioned tale, they were seeing her as light.