I’m going to tell you my idea.

dancer Michael Wells

I’ve been in San Francisco for a week now, working on a new piece for San Francisco Ballet. My process has been typical in that I received a surge of adrenaline over the weekend, which led me to a cocktail of sleeping pills, which led me to 3 days of no sleep and so I choreographed from a delirium of rapid-fire ideas. I have always imagined a new work as something that exists directly behind me. Something that already exists that I am doing my best to intuit and to make manifest. In this particular case, the pieces have smashed against my bones on the way through. I’m floating. I’m exhausted. It has been good.

The work is almost finished. I’m now taking a slow down of deliberateness. The end of the story is quiet and I am building it brick by brick instead of in giant, aggressive strokes on a mural. We have more conversations in the studio. It’s like first a tidal wave and then drying off in the sun.

I’m typically very secretive of the origins of any given piece. Sharing my thoughts in the concrete too early brings it into too fixed of a position and requires me to backtrack and undo more than morph and discover. And I don’t want the dancers to act my ideas for me; I want the idea to be so intrinsically in the movement that they can’t escape it. But my idea for this dance left so much room on its insides that I have been sharing SOME of the information with the dancers from day 1.

I feel hesitant to share even with you now because it will still change. I will discover new ways of telling the story more fully that could even entirely change the premise…but as of today, this is my idea and this is where it will always have begun:

When my father died a little over a year ago my sister started sending me scans of old photos she was discovering. One of the photos in the mix was of my grandfather in a football uniform from the 1920’s. I have almost no memory of either of my grandfathers because they each died when I was very young. This is somewhat odd for me because my memories of early in life are generally quite vivid, so there is a hole in this part of my experience.

My grandfather was quite tall, 6’3” I think. On some level I have felt that there might be a secret kinship between he and I, linked in the perspective of seeing the world through the treetops.

The first day of rehearsal was the eclipse. I imagined the alignment of the moon and the sun opening up a portal…a portal through which for one day my grandfather could step through and be seen…that I might be able to understand the ways in which we are alike. I projected onto him and his era, my internal world, my struggles, my joys and ultimately, the thing that binds us most is what prevented us from knowing each other: the inevitability of an end.

I imagine being with him as he surveys his life, loving both the joy and the pain. Viewing from the outside, it is impossible to feel regret, only longing and awe for the great drama of life.

The only concrete memory I am including, is a story I remember of him from late in his life when he was suffering from dementia. I don’t know if I overheard it as a child or if I dreamed it and have made it real, but the story is that he would wander around the neighborhood in his underwear. There is a feeling of returning to a childlike mind, of knowing less, of forgetting your life, going back to where you started. I wonder if it was scary, if it was effortless. I wonder if it was sublime to forget the tightness of having to wear clothes when you leave the house. I wonder if from that place he was more able to see the infinity of consciousness or was he lost in the bleakness of existential dread.

Another week has passed and the piece is done. I sleep for as many hours of the day as I can, repaying the debts I accrued in the beginning. Making this piece was a flash. It needed to be said in one emphatic statement with an open heart and with resolve. I got very lucky to work with a group of dancers who were with me every step of the way. They have been quick and focused and generous.

In some ways I feel ashamed because I do not feel entitled to my family’s history. I was the youngest of everyone for as long as I lived at home. So much of our story was something I did not participate in. It was something I was told, something that happened in spite of me. It was something that the adults did. It feels bold and even dangerous to make it into my own art. I’m realizing how important this part of the process is in making art: risking the offense in asserting one’s own perspective. There are so many mirco-decisions along the way that are compromised by the belief that to speak one’s own truth could be an offense. I don’t mean the truth of opinions; I mean the truth that even I don’t want to know.

I made a piece. This is who I think my grandfather was.

10 Comments

  1. I think it is remarkable that you can share your process and hopefully others benefit from your willingness and vulnerability in being open and honest about processes that occur in many creative situations!

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