Alexei Ratmansky and Myles Thatcher

A year of mentoring

Overview (Chapter 1 of 4)

Classical ballet is not frozen in the past but is a living, evolving art – this conviction provided a shared faith for mentor Alexei Ratmansky and protégé Myles Thatcher. They found time in their busy schedules to observe each other at work on both east and west coasts of the United States and in Munich, where the Russian choreographer was preparing a new production of Paquita. Thatcher was well rewarded, not only observing and admiring Ratmansky’s friendly but firm direction of dancers but also assisting his mentor. Ratmansky, eager to provide feedback to his protégé, visited San Francisco where Thatcher was rehearsing dancers for a new piece of choreography.

Alexei Ratmansky and Myles Thatcher

A year of mentoring

First impressions (Chapter 2 of 4)

May 2014

The pursuit of perfection

Myles Thatcher’s commitment to the rigorous discipline of classical ballet is marking him out in a highly competitive milieu. The 24-year-old choreographer and dancer with the San Francisco Ballet explains his hopes for his mentoring year as dance protégé to Alexei Ratmansky, artist-in-residence at the American Ballet Theatre and one of the world’s most sought-after choreographers.

I had my first ballet class at the age of nine. I was auditioning for musical theatre with no previous dance experience. The woman who later became my teacher said to my mother: “This boy should dance.” So I went to my first ballet class, and I hated it. I was the only boy. But I kept going back. At 13 or 14, I realized this was what I had to do.

Classical ballet was my introduction to dance. Once you catch the bug, there is nothing that can compare. I appreciate the challenge of the technique and the aesthetic and purity of classical ballet.

Classical ballet is hard work. Because it’s my art, I want to say it’s the most demanding. It’s quite structured in terms of technique and discipline. You’re never fully pleased with what you’re doing. You’re always aiming for perfection. That’s what is alluring to me. All the hard work pays off when you’re performing.

Twenty-four-years-old is relatively young for a choreographer. I feel lucky to have received opportunities to choreograph at my age, especially also being a full-time dancer. Many people might find these later in their career when they are more established. I’m happy with the experience I've had and am excited to grow from this mentorship.

Master of choreography

Alexei Ratmansky is an encyclopaedia of classical ballet. It’s rare to find someone so familiar with its history. He’s doing new things, drawing on ballet traditions. I’ve never seen anything like it. Most new choreographers elaborate upon present-day dance styles, but Alexei is inspired by what’s at the heart of classical ballet. He is a master in the art of choreography.

The initial meeting with him went really well. I said to myself, “Just be yourself and if it works, it works.” It was in Paris, and I was able to see the opening night of a Bolshoi production of one of Alexei’s ballets. After that, we sat and chatted for two hours, although it didn’t feel nearly that long. The Rolex programme was new to both of us. I was the first finalist he’d interviewed. We were both still figuring out what it was to be a mentor and protégé. He was so open and genuine, I felt I could express myself, even if we disagreed on something. I remember thinking that the mentorship is going to be really great if it happens. He had previously worked with the San Francisco Ballet, creating the ballet Foreign Lands. I was there at the time to see how he worked in the studio, and I think he was familiar with who I was as a dancer.

I feel this is the right time for a mentorship. I need someone like Alexei to ask me questions and to challenge me. I have a lot to learn about how an experienced choreographer stays inspired to create new work, collaborates with music, costumes and lighting, and challenges himself to keep growing as an artist. I realize how much I have to grow as a choreographer, and it’s the perfect time for me to take full advantage of what Alexei can teach me, as I’m on the cusp of my professional career.

Experiencing vulnerability

Stone and Steel is the most recent ballet that I choreographed with the San Francisco Ballet School trainees. For me, it explores the many different ways we experience vulnerability, and what effect these experiences have on us. In fact, I started the process by asking each dancer what the word “vulnerability” meant to them. The answers varied from opening your heart completely to another person, to hiding behind a cold façade out of insecurity. I had a great time putting together tasks for the dancers that simulated the emotions behind these ideas. Once the dancers truly started to understand what we were doing, they enriched the steps with this intention, creating an almost palpable cohesion on stage. It taught me a lot about how working with dancers can enhance the performance.

It’s hard to say where I’ll be in five years, except I do want to still be dancing, even if it at times it might feel easier to simply be a choreographer – and I hope I will be here in San Francisco.

Alexei Ratmansky and Myles Thatcher

A year of mentoring

Six months with a mentor (Chapter 3 of 4)

May 2015

The allure of perfection

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 toThe 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 whatépaulement– 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 theport 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.”

Alexei Ratmansky and Myles Thatcher

A year of mentoring

After a year of mentoring (Chapter 4 of 4)

November 2015

A pas de deux of ideas

Controlling the exquisite tension between emotional restraint and expressiveness is just one element needed to create exciting classical choreography. For American protégé Myles Thatcher, the chance to work on his own special style with the guidance of one of the greatest exponents of his art, Alexei Ratmansky, has been revelatory.

By Marina Harss

"I remember two years ago," 25 year-old dancer and choreographer Myles Thatcher said in San Francisco in late February, "I felt stuck, like I was missing something in order to grow. And now I'm getting it, and it's a little bit overwhelming. It makes me that much more self-reflective and forces me to stay in touch with who I want to be and how I want to approach my work." We were sitting in a café, one of many that dot the rapidly gentrifying Hayes Valley neighbourhood around the corner from the San Francisco Ballet, where he dances in the corps de ballet. The lanky, sandy- haired Thatcher, who grew up in Easton, Pennsylvania, appeared even paler than usual - dancers barely see the sun during performance season - with circles under his eyes. The premiere of Manifesto, his first large-scale piece for his company, was scheduled for the following night. He hadn't been sleeping particularly well.

Self-reflection is nothing new for Thatcher. A penchant for thoughtfulness is among the first qualities one notes in conversation, or even when he stands at the barre in ballet class. Margo Clifford Ging, his first ballet teacher, noticed it when he was a child: "We used to do little improvisations, and his were so special, and so musical." That purposefulness suffuses his dancing and his new career as a choreographer. (Before this year, he had made just four works for the San Francisco Ballet School and one gala piece for the main company.) Now, he has put this experience to use during his mentorship with Alexei Ratmansky, one of the most exciting and widely admired ballet choreographers working today.

An intense rapport
Ratmansky grew up in Kiev and studied at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy in Moscow. After a dancing career that took him back to Kiev and then to Winnipeg and Copenhagen, he began choreographing and eventually became the director of the Bolshoi Ballet. Since 2009, he has been artist-in-residence at the American Ballet Theatre, while continuing to create works for companies around the world. He and Thatcher have an intense rapport, despite living on opposite coasts, and the fact that Ratmansky is one of the busiest figures in the field of dance. Since the mentorship began in 2014, Ratmansky has made a handful of ballets in the U.S. and Europe, overseen the revival of others, and taught himself to decipher a form of dance notation invented by the Russian dancer Vladimir Stepanov in the 1890s.

Thatcher spent several weeks in New York last September when Ratmansky was preparing new works for the New York City Ballet and the American Ballet Theatre Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School. The young choreographer also travelled to Munich to observe Ratmansky's reconstruction of Paquita, for the Bavarian State Ballet. Conversely, Ratmansky spent hours sitting on the floor of a studio at San Francisco Ballet, watching the dancers rehearse a piece Thatcher was preparing for the ballet school. "I wanted to give him some feedback,” Ratmansky said at the time. "You try to find the logic, to see the thought behind the movement. I tried to be inside his mind, to look at things through his eyes.”

Aesthetic affinity
When they were not in the same city, which was most of the time, they stayed in touch, mainly via email. Ratmansky has kept up with the evolution of Thatcher's new work, Manifesto, through the exchange of videos. The two share their thoughts about other things, too. "It may sound simple, but the process of identifying areas of aesthetic affinity and divergence is essential for a young choreographer,” says Ratmansky. "One of the impulses for me to become a choreographer was that I didn't like what I saw onstage.”

"I think it's important to understand why I don't like something,” reflects Thatcher in turn, "it's about figuring out who I am as an artist.''

For Ratmansky, this search for expression is a never-ending process: "I always feel uncertain about what I'm doing,” he admits, "you constantly have to dig inside.”

They are very different choreographers, and that is partly why they get along: "Myles has a very specific mindset,” Ratmansky remarked last year, "his own direction, his own style. That attracted me to his work." Asked why he had selected Thatcher as his protégé from three finalists, he said simply: "I just thought his work was the best. I even had the selfish idea that maybe I could learn something from him."

Defining figure
Their exchange is based on respect, curiosity and a shared love for this centuries-old art that some have proclaimed to be in decline since the death of the defining figure of 20th-century ballet, the Russian-American choreographer George Balanchine.

Neither Ratmansky nor Thatcher shares this dire outlook, but their conversations have led to larger questions about the art, its limitations and possibilities. As Thatcher recounts in the programme for Manifesto: "There are moments when classical ballet can be suffocating... but then there are moments when you think, this is why I put myself through this."

The two artists have established a deep reservoir of trust. This became clear when Ratmansky was preparing Paquita in Munich in December. Thatcher sat in on rehearsals, and became increasingly involved in refining Ratmansky's vision. "Paquita was the perfect setting for discoveries," says Ratmansky. "After rehearsal I would ask him to give me his observations on our work in the studio." Eventually, Thatcher began assisting more directly, communicating his observations to the dancers. "It was empowering," he says, "because it made me feel more confident that I have a good grasp of the technique." They have also discovered a nucleus of common values. Both believe in the centrality of the pointe shoe to ballet, but it's not only that. "I think we share the idea that there needs to be three-dimensionality to the use of the entire body," says Thatcher. "Épaulement" - the torque and contrapposto that is central to ballet technique - "and dynamics can bring such richness to classical dance. These days, there is so much focus on the cleanliness of lines and steps, sometimes we lose the actual sensation of movement, the suppleness of the upper body, the involvement of the head and arms." Both Thatcher and Ratmansky believe that ballet is alive, evolving, not simply to be admired for its precision or its level of difficulty.

Restriction and freedom
Thatcher's Manifesto, premiered on 24 February 2015 at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco. The ballet sets in motion many of the ideas he has been mulling over during the course of the past year: the tension between restriction and freedom, the space between emotional restraint and expressiveness. In the beginning, the dancers' movements are sharp, linear and contained; the structure feels etched in glass, claustrophobic. Gradually, the ballet's contours soften, becoming less mathematically complex, fuller. A warmth creeps in, catching the viewer almost off guard. In the final section, a masterful fugue, Thatcher superimposes both tendencies. "I'm trying to experiment with the formula of the layout of ballets," he explains, "to see what I can get away with. I think, especially now, I need to take those risks and make sure to learn something from new work."

The ballet, which is set to an astutely constructed selection of excerpts from Bach's Musical Offering and Goldberg Variations, is ambiguous and slightly unsettling. It also reveals great sophistication of musicality and of structure, unusual for a choreographer of his age. Helgi Tômasson, the director of San Francisco Ballet, noticed these qualities in his earlier works: "I was impressed by the way he moved the dancers around, the structure and complexity of his choreography."

Working with Ratmansky has allowed him to trust his natural inclinations, and to ask himself fundamental questions, or, as he puts it: "What kind of dancer do you want to be, what kind of choreographer do you want to be, what do you want to express?” In Ratmansky's demanding but gentle manner he has also seen a model for how to communicate his ideas to the dancers, as specifically as possible, articulating his intentions, making minute adjustments while honouring the dancers' voices and abilities.

"It has to be a respectful process,” Thatcher says. "To have a role model who is so humble, so lacking in ego... I needed to see that it was possible. Ratmansky's integrity means the world. If l'm going to look up to somebody I want it to be someone I believe in and respect wholly.”

Marina Harss is a freelance dance and culture writer in New York. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker and The Nation.