Myles Thatcher, from the San Francisco Ballet, has described his mentor Alexei Ratmansky as “an encyclopaedia of classical ballet”. Thatcher, who embraces the this rigorous art form with both strict discipline and joie de vivre, was interviewed half-way through his mentoring year.
Rolex Arts Initiative: How did your interest in dance develop?
Myles Thatcher: The arts are a big part of our family. Everyone in my family is an artist. My mother frequently does mosaics and murals around the community and at local schools. My dad is a musician specializing in Renaissance music. He and I sometimes joke about how both of us wear tights for our job. Growing up, my parents were really supportive in allowing me to discover what I wanted to do. Ballet was the one thing I was willing to focus my energy on.
Why were you drawn to ballet, specifically?
It was clear to me from the beginning that in ballet you are never going to be perfect. That’s the allure of it. There’s never this point where you think: “It’s done.” There is no end. Of course, at moments you feel confined and constricted by this reality, but it forces you to focus on your strengths and on what you as an individual can bring to the art form.
When did you know you wanted to choreograph?
I remember when I was really young, choreographing in my living room. I was listening to The Nutcracker. I remember I could hear the oboe doing one thing and the clarinet doing this other thing, and I thought: “Wouldn’t it be interesting if I put different steps to go along with the different instruments?” I found this relationship fascinating. That was the first time I remember coordinating musical structures to choreographic structures.
How is choreography different from dancing?
The art of ballet is so important to me, I want to both preserve it and to help it evolve. As a choreographer, there is the challenge of working with other people. I think dancing is such an introspective and personal experience. It demands a completely different creative energy than choreographing. Part of what drives me as a choreographer is that it’s a shared art; you have to form bonds with your dancers in order to create something. It goes beyond just yourself.
Can you describe your first conversation with Alexei Ratmansky, after being nominated for the Rolex mentorship?
We ended up spending two hours chatting. The time just kind of flew by. It felt comfortable, but I also felt that neither of us was afraid to have differing opinions. One of the first questions we asked each other was: “How do you imagine this relationship working?” We were both clear that I shouldn’t be striving to replicate his process. We agreed that it should be more about connecting over the art form and finding ways to help me find clarity with who I am as an artist.
What are some of the ideas and values, regarding ballet that you and Alexei Ratmansky share?
I think Alexei Ratmansky and I share the idea that the whole body needs to be involved in ballet technique. Legs and feet are just one half of the tools at our disposition. There is so much richness in what épaulement – the twist of the upper body – and opposition can bring into classical dance. These days ballet can look a little flat. Sometimes we lose the actual sensation of movement, suppleness of the upper body, the use of the head and arms.
What have you learned from working with other choreographers in your time at San Francisco Ballet?
I’ve gotten in the habit of observing a choreographer’s studio manner and how they treat the space. Having so much new work created at SF Ballet gives me lots of opportunities to learn from some modern day choreographers. I love working with Christopher Wheeldon [choreographer and Artistic Associate of the Royal Ballet, London] because he’s very personal with the dancers – he’ll give us a starting point but also give us space to explore. Liam Scarlett [English choreographer] brought clarity to the studio. He’d create a step and right away define the head the port de bras. Val Caniparoli’s [choreographer and principal character dancer] approach is so interesting: he would give us some ideas and we did a lot of improvization that he incorporated into his ballet. I felt like there was a really big part of me in the final product. I find the psychology behind being a choreographer endlessly fascinating, and am so happy to be able to be exposed to so many different artists.
What has the experience of the mentorship been like so far?
This is the first time I’ve been able to step outside and watch someone else’s process without having to be involved in the work itself. Alexei sets a great example in communicating with his dancers and constantly editing to better clarify his ideas. It’s an ongoing process and I’m learning that you can’t be afraid to take the time to make sure something is right. It’s a delicate balance of having to be self-assured in what you’re trying to do, and having the humility to step back and let go of things or recognize when things aren’t working.
Now you’ve had a chance to get to know your mentor, how would you describe him?
He is extremely thoughtful, humble and perceptive. And hardworking. He is highly accomplished and yet willing to learn. I appreciate that in an artist of his calibre. That’s what in fact has made him an accomplished artist, the fact that he is open to learning new experiences. Also, he’s the nicest guy you could ever meet.
Working with Alexei as a dancer, I admire him not just for his work, but for the respect he brings in his approach to his dancers and his art form.
What have you learned from working so closely with him?
I think one of the most valuable things I’ve learned from him is that sometimes less is more. Sometimes the simplest thing is the most effective. This idea is ever present in his own work. These simple moments that he can create are so incredibly clear in what they communicate. He strips away all of the superfluous movement and forces us to focus on the truth he’s trying to say. It’s extremely powerful.
Mentoring is such a rare thing in ballet; what is this process giving you?
The thing about choreography, or any art form, is that you don’t really want to replicate anybody else. It’s entirely necessary to be yourself and stay true to your own voice. That’s what’s so interesting about this relationship. I feel like if I’d had this two years ago, it would have been hard to process. But now I’ve developed my own style and values, and have a sense of what I want to contribute to the art form. This mentorship is coming at just the right time because I feel that I’m confident enough in myself now to say: “No, that’s not what I want” or “Yes, that’s exactly right.”