It was a busy spring for the San Francisco Ballet dancer and choreographer Myles Thatcher. Over the course of just a few weeks in April, he put the final touches on his latest work for San Francisco Ballet (entitled Ghost in the Machine), debuted in a role in a ballet by Christopher Wheeldon on the same mixed bill and travelled to attend the New York premiere of his Body of Your Dreams. The ballet, which was created for the 2015 Rolex Arts Weekend, was later acquired by the Joffrey Ballet, who performed it at Lincoln Center as part of its first season there in 20 years.
On many nights, Thatcher sat in the audience at the San Francisco Opera house watching the dancers perform his Ghost in the Machine, ran backstage to give them feedback and then rushed to his dressing room to prepare for his own performance in Wheeldon’s ballet. “I think it’s a good exercise to switch focus like that,” he said recently, referring to the mental gear-shift required to go from choreographer to interpreter of someone else’s choreography.
At 26, he’s in the prime of his dancing career. But the desire to choreograph is equally strong, and opportunities are coming his way. His identity is split down the middle, though the two halves inevitably influence each other. Whenever he is working with other choreographers in the studio, his mind buzzes with ideas; when he prepares his own work, he draws from those experiences, while giving free rein to his own imagination. He likes the challenge of balancing the two sides of his creative mind. “I’m still at the point where I want to keep dancing,” he said from San Francisco during a break, “and it’s good to experience other choreographers’ processes. I learn a lot.”
With experience, too, comes focus. Since embarking on his Rolex mentorship in 2014, he has made or set ballets for three major companies: Manifesto, for San Francisco Ballet; Polaris, for New York City Ballet; Body of Your Dreams, for the Joffrey; and now, Ghost in the Machine, again for his home company. With each piece, he says, he comes closer to honing in on precisely what he is trying to say. Ghost in the Machine was a breakthrough in this sense, as well as a work with big ambitions: “A lot of it was rooted in the complexities of being a human being and dealing with that and how isolating it can be.” It is an abstract work, but one with emotional undertones, reflecting the polarized state of the country, and of the world. The title comes from a book by Arthur Koestler, a philosophical meditation on humanity’s self-destructive tendencies and the ways in which individual energies infect the larger group (like ghosts). The ballet progresses from combativeness to connection and joy.
“I’m still figuring out how to articulate my ideas in the clearest and simplest way,” Thatcher says, “I think this might be the closest instance so far.” He seems to have gotten his point across. Critic Allan Ulrich, of the San Francisco Chronicle, wrote that the ballet “explores a world of unease”; Janice Berman of San Francisco Classical Voice gushed that it displayed “musicality, artistic technique, and compositional style, but never at the loss of genuinely human rapport”. This desire to merge sophistication of form with psychological depth is one of the things that drew Thatcher to his Rolex mentor, Alexei Ratmansky, a choreographer known for his ability to imbue ballet’s formal, classical steps with deep emotional resonance.
“Seeing the care he takes with the simplest expression stuck with me,” says Thatcher. Even so, he recognizes that they are very different choreographers. Ratmansky is a classicist, whose work engages in a lively conversation with ballet’s past and whose talent resides in the ability to portray characters and hints of story through movement. Thatcher is more abstract, and more attuned to themes from our time, at least so far. (His Body of Your Dreams was about the American obsession with body image and fitness.) Their differences have made for a rich exchange, usually via Facebook Messenger, where they share clips of their work, suggestions, thoughts. “Sometimes we agree, sometimes we disagree,” explains Thatcher, “and that’s OK because Alexei is such an open and thoughtful person. It opens up a way of thinking about my work.” In fact, he believes that if his Rolex mentor had been an artist with whom he felt a closer aesthetic affinity, he might have found himself resisting the urge to emulate. With Ratmansky he has found a perfect balance of admiration, intellectual engagement and independence.
Right now, Thatcher is enjoying being exactly where he is. While he’s still in the corps de ballet, more soloist parts are coming his way. In the winter, he danced in William Forsythe’s Pas/Parts 2016, an updated version of that choreographer’s 1999 work for the Paris Opera Ballet. Forsythe is an idol of Thatcher’s; working in the studio with him was a watershed moment. Thatcher was also cast in new works by Arthur Pita, Yuri Possokhov and the Czech choreographer Jiří Bubeníček.
On the choreography front, doors are also opening. There are a couple of projects on the horizon that he cannot yet discuss, but one is confirmed: a new commission from San Francisco Ballet for 2018. Thatcher is also experimenting with dance on film, an interest that was whetted when he collaborated with the film-maker Ezra Hurwitz on a stylish trailer for his ballet Ghost in the Machine.” In this chic little film, we see Thatcher sketching out ideas while looking out over the San Francisco skyline from the roof of the opera house.
Inspired in part by the way Justin Peck, New York City Ballet’s young choreographer-in-residence, has used film to reach new audiences, Thatcher is embracing this new medium. “I think that as technology progresses and the way we communicate about art changes, there is really a space for dance on film — it’s important to keep people interested in the art form.” He’ll be using his summer break from San Francisco Ballet to pursue a few of these projects.
For now, it’s all about finding a balance that allows him to dance at his peak, develop new ideas and remain open to opportunities that come his way. The important thing is to remain true to his inner voice, and not to be afraid to push himself in new directions. As he put it: “I’m trying not to be afraid of a little irreverence.”