Knowing When to Fold ‘Em

Courtesy Trey McIntyre
Courtesy Trey McIntyre
Courtesy Trey McIntyre

Within minutes of the press release I started getting emails from people in the industry asking what all the drama was about. The Trey McIntyre Project disbanding? What’s the gossip? Aren’t they the great, last, golden hope of American ballet?

They are, there’s isn’t any, and they were. In their 10 years, TMP has been a perpetual case study and role model for dancers and dancemakers across the country. Their insane relocation to Boise (rightfully considered a catalyst for the dance world’s obsession with “creative place making“), their oddball outreach and marketing (which so many of us gleefully ripped off), and their cultivation of unprecedentedly diverse revenue streams despite the most depressing economic milieu of recent memory, inspired those of us who sought to create sustainable artistic practices for ourselves as well as arts nerds bored with decades-old not-for-profit theory. From beginning to the end, TMP was different, mystifying, and flagrantly disregarded how ballet “should” be done, all while enjoying year-over-year budget surpluses and international touring. For a company that did everything wrong, it seems they did something right.

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Why would an apparently successful dance company shut itself down? Such a move appears sudden, and already there has been speculation blaming the economy, lack of gigs, fallout between Artistic Director Trey McIntyre and Founding Executive Director John Michael Schert, and unsustainable business practices. Such reflexive blame is misplaced here. There were ample signals that TMP’s disbanding was a planned for — and not feared — inevitability. Consider the company’s willingness to end “successful” programs, such as their Spontaneous Urban Performances, or SpUrbans, which TMP created to promote shows and as a paid service for corporate clients. SpUrbans garnered an incredible degree of public interest and generated substantial revenue, yet TMP shelved the program in favor of dedicating more energy to other work, knowing that it could be revived at any point. (Not unlike the dance company facet of the Trey McIntyre Project, I might add, which is the only aspect of TMP that is being disbanded.) By way of contrast, when was the last time you saw a not-for-profit let go of a successful program that made money?

They called it the Trey McIntyre Project. They didn’t call it the Trey McIntyre Dance Company, the Forever Reign of Trey McIntyre, or the Trey McIntyre We’re Going To Keep This Going For As Long As People Write Us Checks. They called it, simply, the Trey McIntyre Project, sewing a time delimitation into the very title of the entity. They were not conspicuous about planning the dance company’s ending, because, of course, it’s not what funders want, it’s not what audiences expect, it’s not what dancers demand, and is, in short, simply not how it’s “supposed” to happen. To this day, choreographers are trained in the model of Balanchine: to create an endless repertory and foster institutions that exist in perpetuity. If your company doesn’t last forever — let alone if you’re not even trying to last forever — then by the mytho-logic of the dance world you’re not taking the art seriously, and thus have failed. That dances vanish at the moment they come into being has long been the bane of the dance, and so we compensate for our artistic transience with institutional infinitude. If our dances can’t last forever, the fossils of our 501(c)3s just might.

TMP stayed ahead of the dance world for 10 years. We followed as they received funding through unprecedented means, cultivated audiences where it was supposedly impossible to do, and crafted digital strategies that made our social media “outreach” appear obviously simplistic. And now, the dance company is closing shop. It’s not because they’re broke, because McIntyre is a grandiva or because they couldn’t manage the business. They’re not disbanding because the experiment didn’t work. They’re disbanding because it did. What many in the dance world already see as certain failure, I see as a crowning achievement and a brilliantly choreographed pivot. I admire the boldness of the move, and congratulate McIntyre, Schert and the extended TMP family. I look forward to what comes next, and hope others continue to follow their lead.