Saturday evening’s performance by the Boise-based Trey McIntyre Project was a fitting, if bittersweet, closer to the Rialto Center for the Arts’ 2013–14 season. After six years as a full-time dance company, TMP is set to disband in June with a final performance at Jacob’s Pillow, an annual dance festival held in Beckett, Massachusetts. For Rialto director Leslie Gordon, who met McIntyre at the same festival seven years ago and booked the new company on the spot, TMP’s closing marks the end of a fruitful relationship with “an artist we love and trust.”
First on the double bill was “The Vinegar Works: Four Dances of Moral Instruction,” based on the work of writer and illustrator Edward Gorey and co-commissioned by the Rialto. Thematically, the subject matter comes at a perfect time: a gothic, childlike take on death’s absurdity and inevitability parallel the end of McIntyre’s company.
But after a promising opening solo danced by the incomparable Brett Perry and set to a ghoulish narration by actor Alan Cumming, it quickly becomes apparent that here McIntyre’s choreography is too conventional for the strange world of Edward Gorey.
All the elements are there. A haunting score by Dmitri Shostakovich sets a macabre, vaguely Victorian tone. Bruce Bui’s grayscale costumes and Raquel Davis’ minimalist lighting combine to create an uncannily two-dimensional environment; it is as if Gorey’s iconic images have been plucked straight from the page. And the larger-than-life props and puppets, designed by Michael Curry and Dan Luce, fill the proscenium and instill a sense of childlike wonder we see echoed through Perry’s boyish character.
Though McIntyre and his design team beautifully translated Gorey’s images and tableaus to the stage, the end result is more imitative than creative. The design elements steal the spotlight, as the movement — mostly classical, well-executed ballet and pantomimed narrative — takes a backseat. Clean lines, symmetry and verticality feel out of place in Gorey’s dark and quirky world.
Two notable exceptions are John Speed Orr’s Beastly Baby and Chanel DaSilva’s Miss Squill in “The Disrespectful Summons.” As the pudgy, grotesque baby, Orr rolls, bounces and creeps, instigating mayhem wherever he goes. DaSilva is equally convincing as a terrified woman in comic distress. Both dancers convey the essence of Gorey’s characters: they are imagined, but we feel for them because they possess human emotions and behaviors we recognize.
After the rigidity of “The Vinegar Works,” TMP looks like a different, much better company in “Mercury Half-Life.” Here the choreographer is back in his element with a 50-minute tribute to the musical genius of singer Freddie Mercury set to excerpts of 16 Queen songs. Though the movement is still balletic with a heavy emphasis on quick turns, high legs and virtuosic leaps, the dancers let loose and respond to momentum.
Unlike his literal interpretation of Gorey’s work, McIntyre smartly abstracts Queen’s lyrics and doesn’t attempt much of a narrative. Instead, he honors Mercury by timing the movement to musical phrases and detailing every moment with wrist flourishes, head rolls and quirky body ticks. McIntyre deftly moves the viewer’s eye around the stage, crescendos and decrescendos of action as a dancer slides down another’s body and another is tossed in the air.
Though some of the transitions between songs are too abrupt, “wow” moments abound, and each section is a satisfying gem. DaSilva and Perry are standouts again with a series of duets that include both gasp-inducing catches and tender images such as her flexed foot pressed against his chest. Solos to “Another One Bites the Dust” and “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” highlight the company’s biggest technical strength: a mastery of dynamic shifts. In one moment a dancer flies across the stage with wild abandon, and the next she turns with measured precision.
At times, the constant tricks and showmanship feel like overkill. But then one remembers that this is Freddie Mercury and Queen, a superstar rock band that redefined eccentricity and outrageous style. Both the costumes — white undergarments under a formal white jacket lined in red — and the set — six vertical columns of blue light — evoke a stripped down version of Mercury’s flashy flamboyance. So in context, the nearly comical attitude, obvious setups for big lifts and abrupt transitions are forgivable. Like the music of Queen, it’s hard not to love “Mercury Half-Life.”
Despite a few choreographic missteps, Trey McIntyre is a gifted crowd-pleaser and his company members are at the top of their game. “The Vinegar Works” and “Mercury Half-Life” prove the Rialto’s bold claim: “Nobody makes people love dance like Trey McIntyre.” His company will be missed.