By Cheryl A. Ossola
Trey McIntyre came to San Francisco Ballet knowing he would make a piece about his grandfather. What he didn’t know was how that idea would play out choreographically—but he always trusts his subconscious during the creative process. And when he finished his ballet, Your Flesh Shall Be a Great Poem, he saw that it was about loss and remembrance, pain and happiness—a mind-meld of sorts between grandson and grandfather in a family from the American Great Plains.
The idea for this ballet, McIntyre’s second for the Company, began percolating when McIntyre’s father died a few years ago. Among the family photos was a 1920s portrait of his grandfather in a football uniform of high-waisted trousers and heavy boots. McIntyre, a photographer and filmmaker as well as a dancemaker, was intrigued. “My grandfather was a giant like me. I’m six-foot-six and he was six-three, but that was probably six-six for the 1920s,” he says, laughing. “Even though I never knew him, I always envisioned some life perspective that he and I might have shared.”
That’s the idea he brought with him to SF Ballet. Then came the solar eclipse, coinciding with the first day of rehearsals on August 21, and he thought there was something auspicious about that. “How I pictured it,” he says, “was the sun and the moon lining up, creating this portal through time—that I had this chance to be with my grandfather, that I had this chance to get to know him, whether through intuiting that or projecting myself onto his life. If you’re thinking of a planetary cycle or a life cycle of just this period of time, maybe I get to be with him in the piece.”
The portal idea led to the ballet’s structure of two solos, both danced by the same man, bookending the central “eclipse” section, which could be read as vignettes from his life. The solo man is McIntyre’s grandfather, but so are all the men, conceivably; all of them wear pants based on that 1920s football outfit. What made the eclipse particularly potent for McIntyre is that recently he has begun to think that “all time is happening at once,” he says. “I always thought that was kind of woo-woo. But I thought of the piece in that way—[my grandfather’s] lifetime is happening all at once. It’s like looking through photographs—I can be with this one for a little bit, and this for a little bit, and I think of all of them as figments of his life experience.”
Two aspects of his grandfather’s life give the ballet its emotional tone—death and dementia. “There is a general picture I paint because he was an undertaker,” McIntyre says. “There’s a morbidity to living in a funeral home, in a way that resonates with me. I’m interested in the darkness of experience; I’m interested in the contrast of light and dark.” Images of death permeate the ballet, in lingering leave-takings, loving touches tinged by sadness. And at the end of a duet for two men, which McIntyre says is driven by “this notion of loving someone deeply with the knowledge of their impending death,” one of the dancers is carried out as if by pallbearers. “It is both literal and also the existential knowledge that everyone is dying.” Even some of the images he uses to describe his movement evoke death: “Think of a mushroom cloud,” he tells the dancers about arms that open to the side, curving downward in a gentle arc.
The ballet’s ending, though, comes from a specific memory. McIntyre’s grandfather had severe dementia late in life, “and I remember one story of him walking around the neighborhood in his underwear,” the choreographer says. As a child, he thought the story was strange and funny; later it seemed frightening. “But what I liked about it was thinking about life as reincarnation—going through life [from childhood], and in our old age returning to a childlike state,” he says. “Dementia underlines that even more because you lose the experience that you had. And so I wanted, especially in the final solo, to have it be my grandfather wandering around in his underwear and experiencing life in reverse.”
These serious themes are both supported and belied by the music, songs by Chris Garneau from his album El Radio. Some of the rhythms are bouncy, the melodies catchy; others lament, “We left too soon,” or “It drags me down.” “I wanted something that had some quietness to it,” says McIntyre. “I like how varied and interesting the instrumentation is; it isn’t just a bunch of ballads.” With these songs as a soundtrack, he fills the ballet with buoyancy, playfulness, charm—yet somehow manages to give everything an undertone of loss. “I think happiness, real soul happiness, is something that you earn, and that you earn it by experiencing your life,” he says. “You learn happiness because you have it in contrast to the sorrow that you’ve had. I like having those elements all in play at once.”
Creating minutely nuanced movement, McIntyre makes physical the delight and pain of remembering someone we’ve loved. The movement’s profundity may come in part from his interest in acting techniques. Paraphrasing a tenet of Sanford Meisner technique, he says, “The goal of acting is to have real experiences in imaginary circumstances. And so for me it’s ideal if the dancers can get to that unconscious place where they’re literally having that feeling in that moment. And as long as they’re having that feeling, every choice they make is correct.” These choices, of course, occur within the movement McIntyre creates, a personal style filled with surprises and contrasts that he says comes “from being awkward and being a giant. I’ve had to organize this—” he slaps his torso—“in a different way.” Always, though, he says he wants to use his “inheritance of classical technique, in terms of aesthetic, to be an effective communicator. But it’s more about the experience being created onstage. That’s paramount.”
Being a filmmaker has influenced McIntyre’s approach to transitions, and it has slowed him down. “There are probably more moments of quiet in this piece, and stillness, because of making film,” he says. He doesn’t mean pauses or inaction; the stillness is built into the steps. “Try not to use momentum to get to the next move,” he tells the dancers. “Try to find a moment of stillness in it.” It’s an approach that accommodates introspection. McIntyre, imagining looking back at life after death, says, “It would be pure empathy for every moment in your life.” That’s how he imagines his grandfather would see this ballet. “You realize that life is just this big, amazing experience and that the pain was just as valuable as the joy.”