Thursday August 9, 2012

BECKET -- Over a span of eight decades, Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival has offered a platform for dancers to perform both the established and the new ideas of the world’s choreographers and a place for audiences to absorb these expressions of movement.

But the Pillow also can be a garden in which to sow the seeds of fresh dance, as John Michael Schert, the executive director of Trey McIntyre Project, discovered two summers ago during the company’s engagement here.

Following a performance, Alan Alda, an actor familiar to stage, screen and television audiences, arrived backstage seeking Schert and McIntyre.

"He was so blown away by Trey’s choreography and the emotional narrative," Schert recalled.

He said Alda was accompanied by some of the team responsible for "Free To Be ... You and Me," a 1970s record album and illustrated book of poems and songs that morphed into a successful television and after-school special starring Marlo Thomas, Alda, Rosie Grier, the teenage Michael Jack son and others.

In developing the original idea, Thomas sought to teach her then young niece about life, and in particular to encourage her to refute or reject the obvious gender stereotypes in many children’s books.

Schert said Alda and his group offered the show’s concept to McIntyre for a dance project, and McIntyre expressed immediate enthusiasm.

"I was a big fan," Schert quoted McIntyre as replying, "I was a ‘Free to BeĆ You’ kid."

"(The show) was a huge influence on Trey’s upbringing -- it was very much about these ideals," Schert confided.

The result of that initial conversation with Alda, "LADIES AND GENTLE MEN," is on display this week in the Pillow’s Ted Shawn Theatre.

The gestation period for dances can be long, and Schert said McIntyre went to work immediately.

"He spent a lot of time concepting -- thinking about it emotionally, musically, the meta phors," Schert said. "He doesn’t create a single step in the choreography until he is in the studio with the dancers, so he comes very prepared. He then steps into the studio and usually has four weeks to create the piece and prepare for the stage."

Schert said the music on the original and the TV series provided the stepping-off place on scoring -- songs like Carol Hall’s "It’s All Right To Cry," performed by Rosie Grier, the football hero; Sheldon Harnick’s "Housework," sung by Carol Channing; and "William’s Doll," Mary Rodgers’ and Harnick’s provocative tune, performed by Alda and Thomas.

"We also had some of the music re-recorded by contemporary artists -- the Tune Yards, Off Montreal -- and Alan Cumming, the actor, recorded one of the poems," Schert said.

Some of those involved in the inception of "LADIES AND GENTLE MEN" are expected to be on hand during its premiere engagement week, among them Alda, Thomas and Gene Wilder.

Schert, who helped found the company and is among its nine dancers, said this year’s program will include the first ballet McIntyre created for his full-time company, "Leatherwing Bat," set to music of Peter, Paul and Mary. "Bad Winter," a new short work for three dancers -- two female, one male -- explores relationships in a very emotional manner, Schert added.

Trey McIntyre Project, Schert said, has developed a strong national base.

"And I’m told that we are often one of the Pillow’s best sellers of the summer," he said.

Ella Baff, the Pillow’s executive and artistic director, first invited the company, then a pick-up group, to perform at the Doris Duke Theatre in 2005.

"I thought (McIntyre) was really talented, and I knew what he had been doing as a free-lance choreographer, but he wasn’t well-known to the public," she said.

The invitation began what Baff characterizes as "a very nice relationship."

McIntyre’s group was invited back in 2006 to the larger Shawn stage, made its full-time company debut in 2008 and returned in 2010.

Baff said she believes audiences feel included in McIntrye’s work: "I feel that they really un derstand what he is trying to say. Even though his dances can be abstract, people feel that there is always a very human story inside, and they really connect with that. Not to mention that the dancers are terrific. He always works with the highest-level dancers, and the highest-level dancers want to work with him."