A distant hope entered Dianne McIntyre’s mind in early 2016.
The legendary choreographer was working with the dancers of the famed Dance Theatre of Harlem at their home studio in Harlem’s Sugar Hill neighborhood, creating her work “Change,” which sets the movement of three female dancers to recorded spirituals from the Spelman College Glee Club.
“Even as we were working on the piece, there was this dream that one day maybe, maybe it could be done with the glee club live,” says McIntyre.
McIntyre’s dream will come true this month when the Spelman Glee Club performs with the Dance Theatre of Harlem at the Cobb Energy Centre, bringing the two iconic African-American institutions together on stage for the first time.
For a choreographer like McIntyre, an iconic institution herself, the presence of live musicians for dance performance is no small thing.
“I’m in the business of doing works with live music,” says McIntyre. “If you’re dancing with a recording, the recording is always the same. With live music, it’s never going to be exactly the same, even if you have a conductor with a metronome in his head. There’s something about that live music. There’s a spontaneity to it that invigorates the dancers. It’s beyond anything a recording could do. It’s such a gift.”
The award-winning choreographer, whose work has appeared on Broadway, on the West End in London and on film and television, fell in love with dance at the age of 4 when she saw the pioneering African-American ballerina Janet Collins perform in a touring Metropolitan Opera production of “Aida” in her hometown of Cleveland, Ohio. After studying dance at Ohio State University, she founded the Harlem-based company Sounds in Motion, which collaborated with jazz musicians such as Abbey Lincoln, Cecil Taylor and Max Roach, among others.
“Change” was conceived when Virginia Johnson, artistic director of the Dance Theatre of Harlem, approached McIntyre with an idea.
“She wanted me to do a work that emphasized the forward steps that women of color have made,” says McIntyre. “She didn’t tell me how, but she wanted to make a celebration of those women in dance.”
At the time, McIntyre, 70, was a visiting scholar at Spelman College, where she attended a concert of the Spelman College Glee Club.
“I’m in love with the tradition of the spirituals,” she says. “It continues a legacy of black music. When I was sitting there hearing the Spelman Glee Club sing, I was thinking ‘these divine voices!’ I thought maybe I could use the music of the glee club because these are young black women with classically trained voices. The young dancers at Dance Theatre of Harlem, they’re trained in the classical tradition of ballet and at the same time they are black dancers. I saw that parallel: trained in the classical European style, and they carry on the tradition of black consciousness through these songs. That’s why I wanted to wed these two entities.”
Bringing the glee club on tour with the Dance Theatre of Harlem was cost prohibitive, so the group went into the studio to record the spirituals “By and By” and “Don’t You Let Nobody Turn You Round.”
Back in the rehearsal room in New York, McIntyre explored the spirituals’ multiple meanings.
“The song says: I’ll be so happy when I go on to my reward, when I cross over, when I leave these burdens behind and go on to that heavenly realm,” she says. “The other subtle meaning is: I’m not going to live forever under this system.”
The title of the piece was inspired by a conversation McIntyre had with the troupe.
“I asked the dancers to tell me some things about their own lives. They told me about times when they had doors closed in their face because of their color even though they have this amazing ballet technique and training. In this country, people feel there are so many problems because of race, but one of the dancers from Brazil told me, ‘The thing is, in this country, there has been change. In our country, in Brazil, we don’t feel that change. Here, even though it may be subtle and there’s still a lot of political oppression out there, there’s still change.’ She said that, and I said, ‘There’s the name.’”
For most stops on the Dance Theatre of Harlem tour, the dancers will perform “Change” with recorded music, but for the Atlanta performances it made perfect sense to bring the singers and the dancers together on stage.
Working with McIntyre was been a momentous occasion for the Spelman Glee Club, says director Kevin Johnson, who will conduct the performance.
”She’s such a detail-oriented, creative artist and thinker,” says Johnson. “Not much gets by her. She definitely knows what she wants, and she’s very particular about the intricacies of rhythm, which particularly impressed me. She was very aware of what was going on musically, even on the minutiae level. That’s what makes her great. When the students finally figured out who Dianne McIntyre was, they were blown away to be working with her. It’s fostered a lot of pride and appreciation.”
The piece also includes percussion performed by New York-based composer Eli Fountain.
“Hopefully, these dancers, performing with the music live, in the future they’ll carry forward that energy from having danced with it,” says McIntyre, who plans to attend the Atlanta performance. “It’s because you’re partners. They’re part of the same band when they’re performing together live. In my mind, the music and the dance are all part of the same orchestra.”