If those choreographed moves looked better than the average flash mob, it was for good reason. The welcome crew was made up of dancers from Trey McIntyre Project, the acclaimed Boise-based contemporary dance company.
Though at first startled, the three women — Chang An-lee, Lee So-jin and Kim Tae-hee of the Korea National Contemporary Dance Company — enthusiastically joined in. (You can watch it all on YouTube.) “That was exactly the desired outcome,” Mr. McIntyre said with a laugh recently. “We were just batting around ideas of how to make them feel really welcome.”
The guests were arriving for three weeks of intense work with the McIntyre company, leading up to the premiere of a collaborative piece, “The Unkindness of Ravens,” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Wednesday. (The evening will also include separate performances by the McIntyre company and a larger contingent from the Korean group.) The collaboration is the final segment of Trey McIntyre Project’s yearlong involvement in DanceMotion USA, a cultural-diplomacy program of the State Department and the Brooklyn Academy of Music, which took the company through Vietnam, China, the Philippines and South Korea in May.
Though three other companies participated in DanceMotion this year, Mr. McIntyre’s is the first chosen to continue its relationship with one foreign troupe through a residency based in the United States.
“In most of the other countries I had seen almost exclusively traditional dance, and for the most part it’s what I saw in Korea too,” Mr. McIntyre said. When the tour started, he assumed the piece he’d make create in Boise “would really focus on an ancient form, and finding a way to contrast that with what I usually do as a choreographer,” he said. “But somehow it wasn’t the right thing.”
With the Seoul-based Korea National Contemporary Dance Company, Mr. McIntyre said, he “felt this kindred relationship right way.” Only two years old, the company is the country’s first state-supported contemporary-dance troupe. Mr. McIntyre was impressed by its talent (and the European influence he saw in two works rehearsed during his visit), but he was most encouraged by the dynamic he saw among the dancers and the artistic director, Hong Sung-yop.
“He was very exploratory and seemed to create a really safe environment for his dancers to develop as artists,” Mr. McIntyre said. “And they seemed to take that charge seriously.” The pieces he observed in rehearsal were remarkably different — one narrative, the other “much more about beauty of movement” — and that breadth appealed to him as well. “It’s a more adventurous spirit,” he said.
Mr. McIntyre returned for a four-day trip in August, but because of the Korean company’s tour schedule he was only able to meet with Ms. Chang, Ms. Lee and Ms. Kim briefly. The women were assigned to the residency purely by chance — unlike many American dancers with year-long company contracts, they are obligated to their dance company on a per-show basis, and had the free time. Mr. McIntyre was perfectly pleased to know in advance that he’d have to create a piece involving at least three female dancers. “I loved the idea of having some parameters set up,” he said.
As a rule Mr. McIntyre creates in the studio without prior preparation, and he prefers not to overexplain. “I don’t enjoy imitating the dancers,” he said. “The content, for me, should be apparent in the choreography.”
But the language barrier required a change of approach. While the Korean women speak basic English, the in-depth dialogue of rehearsals required an interpreter, Ben Chon. “I felt like I had to be the most obnoxious mime,” Mr. McIntyre said with a laugh, “and over-articulate to show what I was trying to get at.” Mr. Chon “has kind of turned into a ballet master. He really has to get in there and demonstrate.”
The dancers had to make adjustments too, including the use of direct eye contact. “In Korea we are not to express dramatic facial expressions, but here it is what is expected,” Ms. Chang said through Mr. Chon. Ms. Kim said, “It is uncomfortable to look at someone you know and make eye contact at first,” adding, “I’m learning that especially in the kind of partnering I do, eye contact is very important.”
Brett Perry, one of the McIntyre Project dancers, recalled a recent day when, going into a lift, Ms. Chang “looked at me, and I was like, ‘I’m not going to drop you, I promise.’ And she was like: ‘I trust you. I know you’re going to take care of me.’ It was a big moment for me and her.”
In “The Unkindness of Ravens” the Korean women will perform with two of the company’s dancers, Mr. Perry and Ryan Redmond. The score features sounds Mr. McIntyre recorded on his second trip to Seoul: the chanting of women at a Buddhist temple, praying for their children to perform well on academic tests, which Mr. McIntyre said reminded him of an American Indian chant and inspired him to meditate. “I ended up kind of recomposing that 10 seconds of music and running it on a loop,” he explained. “And I’ve used recordings of the sounds of ravens as percussive instruments.”
Mr. McIntyre’s fascination with the birds, particularly what he termed their use of play as a survival mechanism, originally inspired the work, but he has expanded that idea to exploring “the more animal aspects of the human experience.”
Between different cultures humor “is something that really does not translate,” Mr. McIntyre said. The artists shared jokes and attempted to explain their meaning in different languages. Mr. McIntyre tried repeatedly to explain the many iterations of the “how many such-and-suches does it take to screw in a light bulb” joke to Ms. Lee, and was ready to give up when she told him with a smile: “No, I get it. It’s just not funny.”
Ms. Lee’s good-natured jab is indicative of how, in a short time, the Korean dancers acclimated to the different artistic environment. (For the record the women love Boise. “We like the fresh air and the colors of the leaves,” Ms. Chang said.)
“I’m sure the first week was just a bomb of new ideas and ways of working, but I never got the sense they were backing away from the challenge,” Mr. McIntyre said. “It’s a great illustration of real bravery: to not feel confident about something, but to make the choice to do it anyway.”
It’s also a great help to the choreographer: Mr. McIntyre finished “Ravens” a week early.