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.
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.
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.
June 2017 Myles Thatcher is in his prime as a dancer, but opportunities to choreograph new works are increasingly coming his way.
December 2015 The closing ceremony honouring the mentors and protégés of 2014–2015 capped off a brilliant Rolex Arts Weekend.