Trey McIntyre Explores New Spaces

In a recent blog post, Trey McIntyre wrote in anticipation of his unusual experience of doing back-to-back pieces with San Francisco Ballet and Smuin: “This time is different. The ramp up into the performance [with San Francisco Ballet] is simultaneously the ramp up into beginning something brand new [with Smuin]… I do not know where I will land.” McIntyre’s artistic life has been full of new experiences since he closed his company. The World Dances spoke with the multifaceted artist as he began work on his new piece with Smuin about his evolving creative process, new projects, advice for dancers, and more. Tickets for the Smuin premiere, upcoming in May, are available here.

How have you been feeling since describing the challenge of transitioning between commissions so immediately?

I’ve learned quite a bit from the experience. The generation of creative angst has been really helpful. It’s led me to an even more creative space than I would normally have and made for a really great first week. I would definitely do it again.

I used to really fight against this space. You want to feel good at the end of the day, but I also know I don’t create as well unless there’s something I’m running up against. Some people create negativity in the studio to drum that up. I want to have a positive experience in the studio so I’m realizing that stirring up my own internal world is helpful. I saw an interview with Sally Fields years ago in which she was asked how she prepares for a role and she responded, “I just rub myself raw.” That’s sort of how it feels.

No state of mind is better than another. No process is better. There are so many days where I feel like I’m having the worst day. Today I hated what I was making. Then I actually had the foresight to walk away for an hour and I really liked what I’d done. It was a really valuable process to realize how you feel at the time just doesn’t matter.

With my blog recently, I’ve wanted to be very open about the creative process and the ugliness of it. With the San Francisco Ballet piece I really wanted to write a blog every day. It was so hard! I had to just force myself to write, and it was transformative for me to be transparent in that way. I had to deal with things that I normally hide. I think it probably changed the way I communicated with the dancers. I was probably more transparent about my process with them. It made me realize I could be more open as a person and I discovered things about myself. I found it incredibly liberating, in the studio and just as a person, to be okay and honest with the ugly parts. It’s one thing to know that conceptually, but to live it as a person is something else.

What are some of the ideas against which you’re rubbing?

The feeling is clearly pain! I first had this realization in the studio recently on a day when I was just feeling really bad. I was listening to the music for the Smuin piece and all these ideas just kept coming.  I thought, “I’m in pain and that’s the head space that these ideas are coming from.” The big metaphysical lesson was that all the different states of mind are so valuable. It’s an inaccurate value judgment to say that happiness is good and pain is bad. It’s all part of those frictions we experience and live life for. Having the realization that I need that was important. Don’t fight it; just succumb.

How is this headspace influencing the creation of your new work? Is the piece sad?

It’s not mournful, no! The piece is about the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love, which was different for everyone who participated in it. I’ve been talking with different people who were there and they all have such different stories and perspectives. The music, for example, is evocative of a time period with high highs and low lows—similar to now in terms of tumult. It’s now affecting me in a more emotional way, whereas before it was just affecting me intellectually.

You’ve been focusing recently on making your documentary, Gravity Hero. What drove you to work on film?

I’ve always been a filmmaker in spirit. When I was a dancer with Houston Ballet, I made my first movie by talking my way into the public access station and using their equipment. I’ve always made choreography in a very filmic way. I just finished Gravity Hero. It’s an autobiography, very much about the closing of my company and getting to the point where that was the right thing to do. There’s dance in it, but I really tried to make it accessible to a broader, non-dance audience.

For my first documentary, I’m not sure I could have come up with a greater challenge. It’s impossible to be objective or to know how someone who doesn’t have my perspective might take in information. I don’t think documentaries will be my thing, long-term. It’s so much harder than making a feature. In a feature you can really build your idea ahead of time. With documentary you have to try to capture an event and discover a story within the materials you have. The challenge has taught me a tremendous amount about narrative, though, and I’m really excited to start on a fiction project. I took the last six months off from choreographing so I could finish it. I didn’t think too much past that, though, and I’m just now figuring out the world of film festivals and how to distribute it.

How have you been feeling since deciding to shut down Trey McIntyre Project, and how have you changed artistically?

I’m so happy! It’s been just wonderful. I wouldn’t trade that experience of having my company. I learned so much, got so much, and became a new person. But after having that experience, I did what I needed to do and I don’t look back. I was a freelance choreographer before I started the company. At that time, I felt so unmoored and like I had no sense of place. But now I love it! All I have to do is show up and make a ballet. It’s such a privilege and I can make better work because of it. I feel like an artist again.

It’s not like it was before my company, though. I have a greater ease and mastery with communication. I can go into a studio with a new group of dancers and get to where we need to go in a much more confident way. Before, I didn’t know how to communicate as well and I’d get frustrated. Now I enjoy being impacted by different kinds of people. It makes me change and stretch and grow with each company. Every work becomes a different piece because of the people involved and I like it very much. I love change and new experiences.

Is your creative process collaborative?

It’s not co-creative. I have a certainty and fullness of vision that is undermined by that kind of work. But the certainty doesn’t extend to knowing something has to be this one certain step. I understand something full that I want to communicate and get at, and I’ll work on some movement ideas with a dancer with that in mind. There might be something about how that person moves that will inspire or lead to a step or an approach. I’m not asking them for material, but it is very inspired by what’s unique about the dancer.

What do you look for in dancers?

There are so many things!  I definitely like a dancer with a basis of a fine, classical technique, but one who’s not afraid to go anywhere with it. I also like dancers who are able to pick up movement quickly. I work quickly and I don’t like to stop and figure things out. I like dancers who can go for it in the moment with fearlessness, someone who will dive right in with openness of heart and trust. 

What advice would you offer aspiring dancers?

Be everything as a dancer. Do everything you can do. Have the best technique and base you can possibly have. But also have life experience that colors your work. Having another physical discipline, or acting, or anything that makes your mind work in different ways is really helpful.

Also, for a dancer to understand how to occupy the metaphor or archetype of being a muse can be very helpful. It’s so easy as a dancer to personalize creative relationships with choreographers. If you can shift that to being a muse, where your job is to delight and inspire this person and to draw out the best of the choreographer—to understand that makes you invaluable as a dancer. I got to that understanding when I started thinking about the people with whom I really love working.

A really basic part of that is positivity. Sometimes the choreographer is having a bad day, or maybe they’re just mean. That negativity can take the whole process to a really dark place. But to meet that in a positive way—and I can’t stress enough how incredibly hard a thing this is to ask a person to do—but to meet that with openness and love can only make everything better.

Photo: Trey McIntyre  Photo credit:  Otto Kitsinger