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, which McIntyre thought was auspicious. “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, to get to know him.” The portal idea led to the ballet’s structure of two solos, danced by the same man, bookending the “eclipse” section, which could be read as vignettes from the grandfather’s life. The solo man is the grandfather, but so are all the men, conceivably. For McIntyre, the eclipse is potent because 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.”
Two aspects of his grandfather’s life give the ballet its emotional tone—death and dementia. “There is a 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.
The ballet’s ending, though, comes from a specific memory. McIntyre’s grandfather had dementia late in life, “and I remember one story of him walking around the neighborhood in his underwear,” the choreographer says. What he liked about the story 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.”
The ballet’s 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 instills an undertone of loss. “You learn happiness because you have it in contrast to the sorrow that you’ve had,” he says. “I like having those elements all in play at once.”
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. It’s an approach that accommodates introspection. McIntyre, imagining looking back at life after death, says “it would be pure empathy for every moment.” 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.”
Header image: Isabella DeVivo and Steven Morse in McIntyre’s Your Flesh Shall Be a Great Poem // © Erik Tomasson