On any given late summer day, for the last decade, you'd find Anne Mueller sweating and spinning her stuff in the South Park Blocks as part of Oregon Ballet Theatre's annual display of outdoor dance, "OBT Exposed!"
But not this summer. That's because Mueller has taken her tutu on the road with the Trey McIntyre Project.
On any given opening night, Mueller-30 years old and about to begin her 10th season with OBT-is still like a kid on the first day of school: riddled with insecurities.
In a single breath, this Holly-Go-Lithely rattles off questions one would scarcely believe still plague a ballerina of her maturity: What is my skill level? How does that match up with people elsewhere? What could I work on more?
This year's back-to-stage jitters, however, were tempered by the response she and fellow longtime OBT vet Alison Roper received during their summer vacation dancing in Colorado, Georgia and back east, at the prestigious Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival, as part of McIntyre's dance lab.
Trey McIntyre Project consists of 10 professional dancers brought together by the internationally recognized balletomane who once held the post of OBT's choreographer-in-residence in the late '90s. He was also recognized as one of People magazine's Most Eligible Bachelors in '03.
Mueller and Roper joined McIntyre for his inaugural season with other dancers from such renowned troupes as Alonzo King's Lines Ballet and Joffrey Ballet of Chicago.
It's been an easy fit. Since first meeting McIntyre seven years ago, Mueller has always had her artistic eye on the man whose work she describes in one word: "Genius."
McIntyre's unique brand of choreography is characterized by action-packed movement, physicality that exploits extremes, like rigidity and limpness. It's also sexy as hell. Roper, 31, believes this aesthetic is born of McIntyre's tendency to strictly direct certain parts of the body but not others, creating wholly unique movement phrases.
"Working with Trey, sometimes I'll say, 'Do you like what my legs are doing here?'" says Roper. "And he'll say, 'Well, that doesn't matter because I'm only watching your neck.'" He works like a puppet master whose string holds an elbow firmly in place while the arm dangles freely.
Both dancers agree that working as McIntyre's marionettes gives them more freedom than the puppet metaphor implies.
First and foremost, that freedom is of the financial variety. "[Summer] is a really difficult time [for dancers] because you're not receiving your salary. You're eligible for unemployment, but a dancer's career is short: I prefer to work," says Mueller who, at her age, knows the end of her own professional career is not far off.
Mueller and Roper cling most dearly to the artistic and spiritual rewards of their summer experience. "As dancers we spend all day looking at ourselves in the mirror," Roper says. "We develop this very critical internal dialogue. This summer I was able to let go of that, and it felt really good."
McIntyre's oddly liberating brand of choreography and the perspective gained from working with dancers outside OBT have given these golden girls a new lease on their professional life and a healthy dose of much-deserved confidence.
Mueller can now say without a hint of regret, "You never achieve technical perfection."
For a ballerina, that's not just a big step, that's a grand jeté.
OBT Exposed! South Park Blocks right behind Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall between Main and Salmon Street. 227-0977, www.obt.org . 11 am-5 pm Monday-Friday and 10 am-3 pm Saturday, Aug. 29-Sept. 3. Free.
For more information regarding Trey McIntyre Project, visit www.treymcintyre.com . McIntyre returns to OBT this December to work on a world premiere that will be part of the company's winter program.