Trey McIntyre on His World Premiere The Big Hunger for San Francisco Ballet
February 7, 2020—This month San Francisco Ballet will perform the world premiere of choreographer Trey McIntyre's The Big Hunger, set to Prokofiev's Concerto No. 2 with costumes and sets designed by Thomas Mika. Trey McIntyre sat down with Michael Phelan of BayDance.com to discuss what The Big Hunger is about and how he's been working on it with the SF Ballet dancers.
Michael Phelan: Tell me about The Big Hunger. I understand the idea comes from the Kalahari Bushmen?
Trey McIntyre: It's from a Korean film I saw about the Kalahari Bushmen. One of the characters cites this story that they have two hungers in life. Little hungers, literally hunger for food, but I take it to mean, and I extrapolate, it's about an iPhone, a career, romantic love. It's really a lot of things that we made up. Whereas the big hunger is the hunger for meaning, the thing that exists outside all of it, that gives us purpose. So what I wanted to explore in this piece, and something that I found in the score, especially at this moment in history, our over-investment in the little hunger. Things become more and more important. The more we need those things, the more natural destruction comes from it. You can push the lust for status or money only so far before that collapses.
There's so much complexity built on top of complexity in Prokofiev's score that it sort of winds itself up into this destructive force. So those things really felt aligned. I worked with the piano score in the studio because I had to. I had the notes in front of me, and there were certain sections where I absolutely couldn't associate the note with the sound until I realized I just couldn't believe how many notes were crammed into one measure. I didn't think it was possible to play that. (laughs) I had to have a little paradigm shift. I truly love it. It's one of my favorite pieces of music. I had not heard it until it was suggested by the musical director at Queensland Ballet when I was in Australia. I always ask people what is the dance piece you always thought somebody should choreograph, what music. He's a pianist, and that's the first thing he thought of.
MP: So that's how you decided on Prokofiev. You're a classical pianist yourself.
TM: Well, when I was very young. I haven't touched the piano since then, but it informs my understanding of music now. It certainly informs the way I approach music and my relationship with music and, I think, also my respect for music. I don't think I would ever choose to work with music if I didn't feel I had something additional to say with it. I'm not satisfied with merely aping the music or simply illustrating what's already there. If I don't feel that I have at least something in the attempt to add, then I won't approach it. That really comes out of respect for other artists and what they've already made.
MP: In an interview with you about your piece Pass, Away you said
that you stay away from choreographing classical music because it can
make you lazy. It's just too easy to fall into the music and create a
credible dance that just follows the score.
TM: It certainly can be for sure. I tend to focus on pop music because it's pretty much always a very simple kind of arrangement. So it requires, for me at least, a very detailed construct. I think what was maybe interesting about this classical piece was there's just sooo many layers to it. In some ways it's the opposite—how do I filter all these layers into two people on stage? How do two people express the gravity of certain moments of what's happening? That was part of the challenge with this piece.
MP: The Big Hunger has how many dancers?
TM: Fourteen. Eight men and three duets. Three pas de deux.
MP: Prokofiev's Concerto No. 2 is pretty wild.
TM: It's so soothing to watch Yekwon perform. He's so confident in front of the piano and adept.
MP: How did you connect with Yekwon Sunwoo?
TM: Through Martin West, the Music Director here (San Francisco Ballet). He's conducted Yekwon before. If I'm not mistaken, it was Prokofiev's 3rd Piano Concerto.
MP: The San Francisco Ballet web site describes Prokofiev's 2nd Concerto as "fiendishly difficult." It has rapid, complex passages. The pianist has to have rapid dexterity. It's frenetic and serious at the same time.
TM: You'd think it would be a showy thing, but there's such complexity to it you never feel that it's complex for the sake of complexity.
MP: How challenging is that for the dancers?
TM: I thought it would be more challenging. For making choreography, not at all. I did work differently in terms of phrasing because I knew that there are long solo passages where the pianist is at liberty in terms of phrasing. Knowing that going in, I also left a lot of room for the dancers in their own phrasing because I knew it would be different from show to show. And so deciding what the right thing was was different, in a way, from what I normally do. So I thought there would be a lot of adapting that would need to happen once Yekwon got here, but almost nothing. It was so easy. I mean I had some nerves about it, for sure. He asked me for notes, but I really didn't have anything. He plays with such clarity and consistency that it's been great. And the dancers are quite inspired by it. He's such a thoughtful and emotional performer.
MP: Did you give the dancers a lot of latitude and freedom of expression?
TM: Yeah. I'm quite specific in the creation of movement until I feel the dancers understand the big picture and the why of the movement. As long as they have that in mind, they can make any choice they want along the way to get there. I'm not collaborative in terms of creating movement so much. I don't prepare any movement coming into the studio. I do it all myself in the moment. But I will react to what a dancer may do when I give choreography. When I'm watching what they're doing, somehow that tells me what happens next. It's not giving them exercises so they will give me choreography. It's "oh, it's interesting the way they did that." And we'll see where we can take that further. Collaborating in that way. In personalities it's collaborative. For example, I cast Dores André and Ben Freemantle in the first pas de deux, which is, I think, the most sustained and complex musically. And they're both so like pedal to the floor every day in rehearsal. They are meant to exhaust themselves in the pas de deux. They really stayed with me, continuing to push themselves every day in rehearsal. They were kind of joking, because we made it in October, and they put it away all these months. Ben told me they were laughing when they went back into the studio. They said they couldn't believe they let this get so hard. But they can do it.
MP: How many sections?
TM: There are four sections in the piece, but three duets. It's kind of structured: a duet, then a second section with all the corps men, then a duet and a duet. The corps men kind of weave their way in and out.
MP: Somewhere you said that, "in choreography the technique and theory behind the artistry of dance is about making sense of the human body." How does your choreography in The Big Hunger do that?
TM: I think it's about what ballet technique is. As much as I want
to push myself as an artist, I keep returning to the language of
ballet because I think it's the system that does it the best so far.
In this piece I would relate it to what I was saying about the first
pas de deux. They need to push themselves to exhaustion in order to
do it well. It's an interesting puzzle, right? As a dancer all their
work is about being pristine and not showing that they're working. So,
how to push themselves to that kind of wildness, but still convey the
thing that they want to convey and how to be kind to their bodies in
the process. I think there's a real discovery from that. It's always
important to me that the dancers are having a real experience on
stage and not acting. So anything I can do to help them have that
real experience is great. If it's a moment of love on stage, to find
the love for their partner and not portray that. I think in
particular that the body must convey going beyond what's comfortable.
I think there's something wonderful that comes out of them when they
MP: Do you usually let dancers interpret a piece?
TM: Oh yes. Always. I was able to find words through studying the Meisner technique of acting. There was a quote that always stood out for me: Your experiences on stage should be real experiences in imaginary circumstances. I think there's a particular, a special version of that in dance because it's so abstract. It's imaginary in an abstract way. But there is also more primal access to those real experiences by sweating and breathing and touching and moving together. There is an access to a certain emotional plane or vibration that is quite real. In my opinion when we really respond to a dancer on stage it's when they're finding that.
MP: On your Patreon web site you said, "People often tell me that they enjoy my work because it's not sexual, but I will defend to the bitter end that it is indeed sexual." Is there any sexuality in The Big Hunger?
TM: Yes, for sure. I wouldn't say that the piece is a representation of sexuality any more than any expression of the human body is. I think that ballet in particular, and this is changing, certainly right now, is a restriction of that sexuality. Classical ballet is a hemming in of it. I think we're in a particular moment of change around that, which I think is wonderful. I would certainly argue that any time a dancer walks on stage their sexuality is a big part of it. There is a lot in the piece that deals with gender, though. There's a certain, not unisex, but there's a certain evening of gender in it.
Part of that comes from when I was in Australia with the designer Thomas Mika we were working on a different piece. I was saying the whole work needs to be rooted in some kind of symbol that we can all identify, that we've all given great meaning to. But it's really just an invention. Like an exit sign; it had a figure of a guy running. We all think we know what it means and we're passively made comfortable by it. We think it will save us in an emergency or get us out of the room. But we only think those things because we agreed to it and we made it so. It means nothing.
MP: Today was the first day you saw the costumes and sets. Are you happy with them?
TM: Yeah. Very. We made the set as a giant figure just kind of looming. The costuming is a variation of that. There's certainly gender delineation; women are in pointe shoes, as is the language of classical ballet. For example, every person on stage has a bobbed wig to make their head kind of round like the stick person on the exit sign. There's a section where men are in long trench coats, but they're cut so they're tight on top and flare out like dresses. The leotards are cut like women's leotards, so everyone's wearing the same even though there are variations representing different genders. There's kind of evening and industrialization of the way they're costumed.
MP: And the set?
TM: The set is also by Thomas Mika. The set changes and explodes and all kinds of stuff. It starts in a small room and pieces fall away so it gets more open and you get more sense of space as the piece goes on. I think it's quite beautiful. It turned out great. There's modifications that have to happen. The wigs for example. It's hair moving around. You don't know what it looks like until you see it on stage.
MP: What would you like audiences to come away with from The Big Hunger?
TM: Hmm. I have a lot of trepidation in expectations of what the audience should take away just because it's okay for people to get anything they want out of it. They could come and have the exhilaration of some very impressive dancing. The dancers look incredible. They really impress me in the work. I would love it if people would bring their own experience to it and hold it up the way you would look at a painting, without knowing a backstory, and see if they can find themselves in it. At the very, very best any reminder that our big hunger is the real thing and will bring us to a greater place of enlightenment. If I can give people a reminder of that in the piece, then that would be pretty great.
MP: What are you working on next?
TM: I'll go back to Houston to put a piece on stage with the music of David Bowie. Back to my pop roots. It's a piece for eleven men that Thomas (Mika) is also designing. And then I'm diving headfirst into a Youtube channel that I'm real excited about. It's the kind of thing I just do naturally, like when I had a dance company. I really like audience engagement. I like making people feel more bought in and more comfortable and more creative. I enjoy social media for that reason and only for that reason. On Instagram I would do stories. San Francisco Ballet had me take over their Instagram for a day. I did an epic! I ran all over the city! I produced films! It's kind of natural for me, so I want to share my creative adventures with people and give some insight while I'm here in San Francisco behind the scenes and try to be really vulnerable and talk about what's hard and insecure about choreographing. What's a good day, and what's a bad day. What are artists I'm really interested in and share insights. In the next two days I'm going to release the first episode of that.
MP: You're a busy guy.
TM: Yeah. I was up till two in the morning last night editing. But I like it that way. It also gives meaning to being a traveller. I'm fifty now and I started travelling when I was twenty. It took me a long time to get used to that and not feel anchored and to be okay with it. I think part of the Youtube channel is being out in the world and feeling more connected to people by sharing my experience.
MP: What's your big hunger?
TM: For me the spiritual path is detachment from all those little hunger things. For me it's in what ways can I be of service to the world. In what ways can I engender more love. It gives me confidence that there's more than making the best ballet I possibly can. Service to the world and to create more love. That's my big hunger.
San Francisco Ballet will perform The Big Hunger, as part of the
Dance Innovations program, from February 13-23. For more information see www.sfballet.org.