Dancing around her father

CATCHING UP WITH ... DIANNE MCINTYRE

Dianne McIntyre's 'Stop on a Dime' is not conventional theater, but its message is universally understood.

May 02, 1999|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,sun theater critic

It's not a play. It's not a revue. I'm thinking of a term called 'dancescape theater,' " Dianne McIntyre says, trying to zero in on a genre for "I Could Stop on a Dime and Get Ten Cents Change," the show she conceived, choreographed and directed. Based on the stories and reminiscences of her 84-year-old father, F. Benjamin McIntyre, a member of the black middle class who grew up in Cleveland, the show opens Wednesday at Center Stage.

If McIntyre has trouble categorizing her theatrical production, it's probably because she approaches theater from the perspective of a dancer and choreographer, not a playwright. She has choreographed plays before, including four at Center Stage, most notably the 1989 production of "Miss Evers' Boys," a play she subsequently choreographed for HBO. But "Stop on a Dime" is her most extensive original theater piece to date.

The show has had several incarnations over the past few years. The original version debuted at Theater of the First Amendment in Fairfax, Va., in 1995; a subsequent production was staged in McIntyre's hometown at the Cleveland Play House two years later.

Scott Kanoff, of the Cleveland Play House, who is serving as dramaturg and directing consultant of the Center Stage production, first saw the work in Virginia. "I was moved by how universal it felt, how it was a piece very much out of the African-American experience that totally transcended a particular culture," he recalls.

To relate her father's history, McIntyre constructed a script from transcripts of her taped interviews with her parents. She then cast an ensemble of seven performers, who play multiple roles, and a four-person on-stage band, which performs period songs as well as original music composed by Kysia Bostic (whose credits include the music for the off-Broadway production of "The Colored Museum").

A schoolmate of Jesse Owens, with whom he ran track, Benjamin McIntyre held a number of jobs, but spent most of his working life with the U.S. Postal Service, including a stint with the Railway Mail Service. In 1942, he married the former Dorothy Layne, one of the first African-American women to earn a private pilot's license through a program administered by the Civil Aeronautics Authority.

An evolving title

The title, "I Could Stop on a Dime and Get Ten Cents Change," is an oft-repeated saying of McIntyre's father. Its meaning has evolved with each production. Her father told her he first heard the expression on the radio and understood it to mean, "Don't worry about me. No matter how fast I'm going, I could stop on a dime." So in the first version of the show, McIntyre says, "Those words to me implied speed."

For the Cleveland production, McIntyre developed a signature movement to represent the title. Demonstrating this in Center Stage's mezzanine lounge before a recent rehearsal, the lithe dancer raises her left arm and lowers her right, pointing a finger on each hand. "It's an attitude," she explains of the gesture, which seems to say, "I'm cool. I can deal with whatever life dishes out."

In an even broader sense, the title refers to getting the full worth out of every moment. It's an interpretation that would appear to apply to both father and daughter. "She carries so much around in her head that it's a challenge to keep up with her," says Kanoff. "It's grueling, but at the same time, it's inspiring."

"Dianne brings a certain sensibility into a room, a creative sensibility that is somewhat mystical and spiritual as well as being a hard-driving choreographer," says Center Stage artistic director Irene Lewis. "She is very open and at the same time, after she's experimented around, she knows what she wants."

McIntyre started taking dance lessons at age 4, but says, "My parents said I always danced -- even before that." She also began creating her own choreography as a child. But, she says, "I didn't believe in my mind that I would make [dance] my career."

She majored in French for three years at Ohio State University. The university, however, had a distinguished modern dance department, and when she graduated in 1969, her degree was in dance.

After graduation, she spent a year teaching at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee before moving to New York to further her dance training with mentors including Gus Solomons Jr., whose company she danced with before forming her own company, Sounds in Motion, in 1972.

Sounds in Motion toured the United States and Europe for the next 16 years with works ranging from a salute to the late Eubie Blake to a tribute to her pilot mother, titled "Takeoff From a Forced Landing." Despite the troupe's success, McIntyre disbanded it in 1988.

"You are totally absorbed in keeping the existence of the entity going," she says of running the company. "I was using a lot of energy making sure other people could be creative, but you haven't developed more yourself. So I felt I needed the space for that."

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