Oh, Inverted World

Rediscovering Oh, Inverted World


The opening work of the Smuin Ballet’s triple bill at the Joyce Theater on Monday provides evidence of one of the most singular choreographic minds working in ballet today. Trey McIntyre’s “Oh, Inverted World” — set to songs by the Shins — is a pop ballet, reminiscent of some of the best pop ballets of Twyla Tharp. Its subject, though, is one that I don’t remember Ms. Tharp tackling: the perplexity of young individuals amid the group.

It’s an odd, engaging, fresh piece; I find it irresistible. While the Smuin dancers are excellent throughout this bill, they’re at their finest here. The dancers wear simple sportswear; the men are bare chested, and the women wear soft shoes (no point work). “Oh, Inverted World” keeps up a nonstop tension between the language of classical ballet, with its grace and impetus, and a far more idiosyncratic vocabulary that suggests the conflicting impulses of youth. The tics of heads, shoulders, elbows, torsos, knees often recall the Tharpian dance language of yesteryear, but they’re far from dated; they look utterly as if they belong to these people right now.

A lesser choreographer might use the ballet idiom to indicate the conformism from which these eight young characters keep breaking away. Mr. McIntyre is much subtler than that.

Instead, he uses ballet to give these characters release and charm. Even in fleeting moments, the look of academic steps here appears artless, unorthodox, spontaneous. But these steps are interwoven with group pressure on the one hand and personal confusion on the other. These eight people are, up to a point, heterosexual — the men lift and support the women, with occasional moments of canoodling and nuzzling — but nobody has found Mr. Right or Ms. Right here; they’re still finding themselves.

In a final solo, or series of solos, John Speed Orr expresses all this in a marvelous nexus. Again and again, he comes to a pause, holding his hands near his face in mimelike gestures — except that his gestures don’t communicate; they serve only to reveal his need to shut himself off in private space. Others come and go; he stands there; then he dances again. The blend of fragmented impulsiveness and larger expansiveness is so thorough that you never know where it’s going. He’s like a young person you know; and in these dances it’s as if you’re in his head. The solo is among the finest made by anyone in years.

Jane Rehm also has several solos passages, equally striking. Curiously, she’s less vulnerable than he is; she’s adventurous, purposeful, happier. But, like everyone here, she’s dealing with the same peculiar vortex of formal and informal, private and social. I reviewed this work after seeing its world premiere in 2010 in San Francisco, where the Smuin company is based; the ballet looks even better now.

[...]These Smuin dancers are so skilled and attractive that I congratulate the troupe and wish it well for its future. But only Mr. McIntyre’s choreography here belongs to the present day, let alone the future.
-The New York Times

I don't hail "Oh, Inverted World," a premiere by the choreographer Trey McIntyre for the Smuin Ballet, as any kind of masterpiece, and I don't hail Mr. McIntyre as a genius. But this dance confirms the sense that he is now an important individual voice in ballet choreography. Having seen it once, I wish I could see it again soon, simply to come to terms with the surprises it springs in phrasing and structure.

When talking about it afterward with my companion, I found that each of us had been forcibly struck by felicities that had eluded the other. And we agreed that once you know how it ends, you want to see it again - to check how it got there. The audience at the Palace of Fine Arts on Saturday afternoon cheered it warmly.

"Oh, Inverted World" is set to eight numbers by the rock band the Shins (which released a 2001 album of the same title). The look is contemporary, casual. Men are in shorts and bare-chested; women are in simple but individual two-piece outfits, each with her own hairstyle, and (as is the case in much of Mr. McIntyre's work) nobody goes on point. Dancers often walk on their heels. When first we see them, they all trudge across the stage, huddled together, posture slumped.

The best phrases of Mr. McIntyre's choreography are action-packed. One of the most striking features of his style is how he asks his dancers to turn and bend the torso this way and that while they move their legs and feet in academic-ballet steps. The dancers, while jumping across the stage, twist their upper bodies so that their shoulders twist from profile to facing front and then back again before landing. These torsions aren't just for the shoulders; they come from deep in the waist. Coordination so complex and full-bodied recalls the idioms of Bronislava Nijinska, Frederick Ashton and Twyla Tharp, yet Mr. McIntyre doesn't seem indebted to them; he seems to have arrived at his own conclusions his own way.

He has, too, a remarkable sense of gesture. Though his dancers address one another in ways we can recognize, they also have a personal language that's expressive without being readily translatable. One woman vibrates her arms; a man stands with one hand placed to his mouth. What aspects of feeling do these suggest? You watch with heightened curiosity because you want to understand these characters better.

Little conflicts or changes of heart come naturally to his dancers. A woman engages in an athletic dance with several men, but as she's running brightly up one man's back with the assistance of another, she pauses and looks piercingly back at a third, as if only now did she know who was most on her mind, and yet even this is just a passing thought.

The variations of feeling and ambiguities of gesture reach their height in the stops and starts of the solo for Travis Walker at the end of "Oh, Inverted World": a solo full of not just apparent thoughtfulness (now looking at his left arm, now at his right) but also of complete stillness in between moments of action or while others pass. It's the inwardness of this final dance that makes you want to re-experience the whole work.

"Oh, Inverted World" was sandwiched between two other ballets, these by Michael Smuin. This choreographer (and former co-artistic director of the San Francisco Ballet) died in 2007, but his company still gives an impressive number of performances, here and elsewhere. It was startling on Saturday afternoon to find how vividly his "Brahms-Haydn Variations" reminded me of watching San Francisco Ballet some three decades ago when it brought dances from his version of "The Tempest" to the Edinburgh Festival.

In those days, in terms of finesse, the San Francisco Ballet looked a great deal below the international caliber it enjoys today. But the dancers were good at rapture and charm and individual personality, as are the Smuin dancers now. (Mr. McIntyre makes them look less exuberant but more focused.)
-The New York Times

Choreography strives to be innovative, but “accessible” can be a dirty word—particularly for ballet, an art form that traditionally courts an audience of connoisseurs. Innovation and accessibility can, however, coexist. For proof, look no further than Trey McIntyre’s 2010 ballet Oh, Inverted World.
-Dance Tabs

The piece is light-hearted and airy, refreshing in its innovative arm movements and directional changes—it seemed to be all about youth and its coming together and apart. There was something truly moving and visceral about this piece…
-The Huffington Post

"Oh, Inverted World" is a small masterpiece, and in some ways encapsulates what makes McIntyre's work resonate with so many people who wouldn't otherwise call themselves dance fans. Originally choreographed for Smuin Ballet in San Francisco, it uses simple athletic costumes by Sandra Woodall that accentuate the body, so you see and appreciate the movement. Then there are McIntyre's unusual moves -resting on the back of someone's knee, hooking an arm through part of a costume, partnering lifts that seem to come out of nowhere. They are arresting.

Then his music choice - Shins from their album "Oh, Inverted World" - is esoteric enough to be taken seriously but it plays on our popular sensibility. It is accessible without pandering.

Then there's the way McIntyre uses the music to drive the movement and underscore his narratives while never giving away if it's sincere or ironic.
-The Idaho Statesman


The Shins


Running Time: 27 minutes
Premiered: Oct. 3, 2010 for Smuin Ballet
TMP Premiere: Aug. 12, 2011


Costume Design: Sandra Woodall
Lighting Design: Travis C. Richardson


The restaging of Oh, Inverted World was underwritten by Katie Heil of Milwaukee, WI