Oct. 25--It's the moment sought by artists and audience alike -- when all the creativity, rehearsal time, music and emotionality come together in performance. In theatrical parlance, it's called a showstopper.
While it's not something you necessarily can manufacture, it is an idea you can explore, says choreographer Trey McIntyre.
"I wanted to create a piece that would be a good ending for an evening," McIntyre says. "And I was uncomfortable with that, because I don't want to have an agenda. I want to make a piece that is as truthful as possible.
"So, I went into it seriously asking, What does an audience seek to get out of the experience? What does it mean to be moved by dance, to want to jump out of your seat? And what does that do for us as humans, as a culture?"
That led McIntyre to the music of Queen, a band known for its highly theatrical songs of the 1970s and '80s, most of which were penned by its flamboyant lead singer Freddie Mercury, who had one of the most distinctive voices in rock.
"It's showbizzy," McIntyre says. "It's rock but there is so much reference to English music hall and music theater. There's also kitsch built into it, and the music walks the line perfectly between the two."
The trick is to not try to tell a story. The music does that already, he says.
"I had to make sure that we were getting to a new way to hear this stuff," McIntyre says. "Otherwise, it would be a waste of time."
Mercury's voice soars in the rehearsal studio at Trey McIntyre Project Headquarters as the company dancers throw themselves into a run-through of McIntyre's "Mercury Half-life," a choreographic epic to 15 of Queen's greatest hits.
It starts simply: A focused light illuminates dancer Brett Perry as Mercury's voice rings out in a jazzy a cappella version of "Bring Back Leroy Brown." Then Perry breaks into a riff of something that is rare on the concert dance stage -- American tap dance.
Perry steps deeply into the music rather than skimming the surface. His shoulders hunch forward as he beats out intricate rhythms, in a flat-footed style of John W. Bubbles and Savion Glover.
Using tap dance in the piece came out of seeking a way to go further with the music and into a stance where a person is a showing off like a peacock, McIntyre says: "Tap dance is a very showy art form."
Perry's arms react naturally, counterbalancing his effort below. The rhythms choreographed by McIntyre are fast and furious -- bass drum, snare and hi-hat working simultaneously.
Both Perry and McIntyre grew up tapping. Perry started his training as a competition dancer at his home studio in Indiana. He brought home a silver medal from the World Tap Dance Championships in Reisa, Germany, when he was a sophomore in high school, but put away his handmade tap shoes when he entered Juilliard's dance program.
This is the first time he's performed tap on stage since then.
Tap was the reason McIntyre started dancing in the first place.
"I would endure 45 minutes of ballet in order to tap. It's what kept me at the school," he says. "I have this OCD where I'm constantly doing the tap rhythm from a routine I learned when I was 12. I tap it out with my fingers and my feet all the time."
The two pulled their tap shoes out of mothballs and worked together. It turned out McIntyre choreographed every step.
"There's been this very precise tap dance that's been waiting to get out of me all these years," he says. "I was very meticulous in crafting it and pushing Brett to the ends of what he's capable of."
Perry was surprised when he walked into the first rehearsal and McIntyre started pulling out all the tap jargon.
"I didn't know he knew the lingo," Perry says. "Flaps, shuffles, cramp rolls ... he was right on top of it."
There are three tap sections in the work: The first is the most pure, with intricate rapid-fire steps and syncopated heel work that seem impossible. The second is more integrated into McIntyre's choreographic vocabulary. The third is pure Broadway pizzazz.
Although most dancers have done a few shuffle-ball-changes along the way, Perry has been working with the other dancers -- refreshing their tap memories -- to hone their skills for this piece and beyond.
"When we retire from being concert dancers, we'll walk into a Broadway audition and need to know a time step," he says.
As he was working with the music, McIntyre began researching the word "mercury," the chosen surname of Farrokh Bulsara, who became Freddie Mercury in 1970.
A half-life refers to the way radioactive isotopes decay -- only by half over a certain number of years, and then half again, seemingly into infinity.
Freddie Mercury died too soon (at 45 of AIDS in 1991), but his music lives on, McIntyre says.
"His life was cut short, and to apply a human life to the idea of half-life -- at some level every person's existence is here forever. Just by being here we change the experience of everyone around us. When I think about Freddie Mercury and the impact of his music, I think he will always be here."
During rehearsals, "Mercury Half-life" took on a life of its own.
"I was about a third of the way into it and realized I didn't have the music to do what I wanted ... and lo and behold I discovered an album I missed -- oddly it was 'A Day at the Races.' "
With new music, the "Half-life" started growing. As McIntyre discovered more, suddenly the piece became 50 minutes -- his longest work to date -- filled with some of Queen's most iconic songs, including the sports anthems "We Are the Champions," "Another One Bites the Dust" and "We Will Rock You," the wildly operatic "Bohemian Rhapsody," and the 1950s-style rocker "Crazy Little Thing Called Love."
It does not contain "Somebody to Love," the Queen song that ends McIntyre's "Wild Sweet Love" -- a piece that also is a great closer, largely because of that song, he says.
McIntyre has always incorporated his wide-ranging tastes and love of popular music into his work -- from Antonio Carlos Jobim's and Vinicius de Moraes' "Girl From Ipanema" to the Partridge Family's "I Think I Love You" to Nancy Sinatra's "Bang Bang." But this is taking it to another level -- and that's largely because Queen's music brings with it a kind of cultural weight. Much of the mystique of the band and its songs revolve around Mercury.
"I would never have dealt with this music if I didn't have something to add. My reason for doing this is to discover something about having a positive effect on an audience," McIntyre says. "I didn't want to arrive at that by simply doing tricks because I think there can be a prejudice that going for the happy can somehow be bad. I think to have that emotional experience is just as valid as any other."
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