I first saw San Francisco corps de ballet member Myles Thatcher in class about six years ago when he was a first-year student at New York’s Ellison Ballet. I saw his first choreographic work, Timepiece, at the Assemblée International, hosted by the School of the National Ballet of Canada, in Toronto in 2009. The Assemblée International was a first-time experiment, in which graduating students from ballet schools in 14 locations throughout the world brought both a student choreographic piece and an established work from their parent company’s repertoire, to be performed by mixed casts drawn from all the participating schools. Thatcher’s work drew the curtain back on a young man who was in the thrall of ballet. I wondered where his choreographic career would take him, but didn’t have to wait long for the answer, as his Timepiece and Spinae were selected by San Francisco Ballet Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson to be included, one each year, in the 2011 and 2012 Stern Grove Festival SFB performances. I was able to interview Thatcher between rehearsals for the company’s upcoming London tour at the Sadler’s Wells Theater.
What brought you into the world of dance?
I grew up in Pennsylvania, and was part of a theater youth program there. When I was eight years old, I was auditioning for a show one day, and afterwards, Margo Clifford Ging, the teacher who oversaw the dance section, told my mother, “This boy should dance!” and so my mom enrolled me in ballet, telling me that if I wanted to, I could stop after three classes. I was the only boy dancing. I had attended summer sessions at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, and when I was 14, decided to go to the Harid Conservatory in Florida. After a year and one summer at Harid, I was accepted into Edward Ellison’s program in New York for two years. I came here for the summer school, and was asked to stay as a member of the trainee program, and then invited to join the company.
I observed you in class with Edward Ellison about six years ago. What from your studies with Ellison do you carry into the studio every day?
Most importantly, he instilled a great work ethic in his students. That’s the main thing I carry with me, along with an appreciation of classical technique and all the refinements. We spent a lot of time on every hand, arm and middle step’s detail, in order to get to know those qualities that finish a step. We spent a lot of time after class discussing those things, and on some days we had technique classes that lasted for four hours, so it was very thorough, and you got to know the correct place for everything, and that training really corresponded to how my brain works. I developed those skills during the first half of the year and in the second half, prepared to dance the Giselle pas de deux for the Youth America Grand Prix Competition in New York. We spent a lot of time talking about the emotional content of the pas de deux, and it was a wonderful experience for the two of us sixteen-year-olds, getting to the substance in that way.
Which came first, the desire to dance or to make dances?
Definitely, the desire to dance came first, but when I was 12, I told my mom I wanted to be a choreographer, and this was before Harid, so I had thought about it at a young age. I remember choreographing to The Nutcracker Suite, but once I began training more seriously, I wasn’t thinking about it, I didn’t have time! When I was in the trainee program here, we had a choreographic workshop to prepare for the Assemblée International, and we were using each other in a very experimental way. It was intimidating, but also fun, and then Helgi chose my piece for the festival and well, it has snowballed, and all of a sudden I’m getting opportunities. It’s such a different side of dancing, and it comes very naturally to me.
Have you had any opportunities outside of SFB?
I did two projects with the San Francisco Symphony. One was for a citywide teachers gathering; we did a small solo with a girl in the school and then I did another piece with Damian Smith [an SFB principal dancer] for a St. Sebastian Symphony production. That was more elaborate, with projections, a full chorus, and a speaker.
What were the biggest challenges and rewards of participating in the Assemblée International three years ago?
The biggest challenge was the short amount of time we had to put it together. It was hard to delve into the movement and to get the quality that I wanted. Another challenge was the language barrier, which was actually kind of fun; some kids spoke five languages, others only one. The Cubans spoke only Spanish; I spoke only English! It was very interesting to see what each school brought from its existing repertoire and how it correlated with their parent company’s. We also got to see the strengths of different schools and styles, and what was most important to them as dancers. We tend to adopt the perspective of the schools we come from. It’s easy to get stuck in the bubble of where you are at the moment. So, it was good to see what was happening in the scholastic world. Those are the dancers of my generation, and as a choreographer, it made me analyze my own movement. When working with the dancers at SFB, we are in sync, but when working with dancers from other schools, you can take nothing for granted, and have to specify everything, and yet I was able to discover consistencies among all of them with the piece I set.
If you were organizing the next Assemblée International, what changes would you consider making?
I had to miss the culminating meeting, because the SFB trainees had to leave to attend a big meeting to prepare for rehearsals, so I wish I had been there to be part of that process, to see what the teachers from each school gained. Now looking back at it, there is a fascinating aspect in seeing what you can learn from different schools, and I definitely wish we had had more time back at home to prepare. As trainees, we danced in both company and school performances, so we were coming in early before class to steal the time to work on our preparation. Jean-Yves Esquerre was the director of the program at the time, and I very much admired how he consciously took a step back and let us craft it, but then just when we needed help, he would step in and say, “Think about this—“ because it’s so scary the first time out; I didn’t have fancy lighting, nor did I think I needed it. I told the dancers my ideas and then it just happened. I definitely would have liked to hear what the directors thought about the experience, and how it has changed how they are approaching it now. Keeping one’s perspective and learning from taking an objective look, are things you have to step back and do for the good of the art.
When four lines of dancers are going in different direction, working on different levels, changing partners every few seconds, some turning, some jumping, some rolling across the floor, how do you let the audience experience the sweet spot amidst all the movement?
This is based on instinct. I try not to analyze too much, especially what other people have done. I like to create that moment, test the moment of when it goes over to being too much, and then bringing it back where it should be. I’ve been thinking about which rules to break, test, which we need to test: V formations and cannons, stashing so much on one side of the stage. What do I want to keep or test? I’m completely new, and don’t want to fall back into fast-food formulas. I try to put movements together that are complementary, and find that the more you see the work, the easier it is to process.
When you lay awake at night, which do you think about more: your career, your work in rehearsal that day, or a piece you are setting?
If I’m working a lot with the school, I think as a choreographer. It’s like a puzzle that needs to be cracked. It may seem to me that the steps are predetermined, but really, the music is dictating what should be there: Even though I may think this needs to be there, the music tells me that needs to be there instead. The work has to be cohesive with the score, and then you can play with the layers of music.
When you audition or select dancers, do you have differing criteria for different works, or are you more interested in a certain kind of dancer for all your work?
So far, I’ve tried to use everyone who has been given to me. In the Trainee Program, I make a point of working with everybody because I think that year is so important artistically, in order to get what you will need when you join a company. To not use someone because contemporary style seems to not be their strength—no! And that’s what is amazing about working with the trainees, and seeing them grow over these past eight months. We’re seeing the subtleties they’ve managed to add, just in the time between spring showcase and Stern Grove!
I worked a lot with improv to construct some of the movement, I paired up men and women, men and men or women and women and gave them a task. For example, we’d put two people together with the task of competing with each other to get from point A to point B and take turns, guy and girl, and then pairs competing, and so that ended up directly helping us shape the piece, and gave us the material to talk about what the piece was trying to say. It was fascinating that the men would be more aggressive, flinging each other across the stage, whereas women would out-maneuver each other, work in a more strategic way, and we’d talk about it how funny it was how we reacted to a human conflict we’d decided on and what we extracted from it artistically; I’m not naturally someone who enjoys conflict. There are a couple of layers. The first tended to be the man’s aggressive approach; second was the woman’s more strategic thing where she’s always one step ahead of him; then we blurred the lines between male and female because conflict is never about other people. When I was going through the music, and began setting the steps, I wanted it to have that edge of conflict, and then halfway through, didn’t know where I was going with it, and so we worked together to develop it conceptually. I’d would ask the dancers what they thought they were representing, and then I would share what I was thinking and then discuss how important it was to all be on the same page. I think that’s what’s missing these days in contemporary works. We have so much going on, and if we don’t have the same focus, we lose the quality.
My challenge with pre-professionals is, “What can I do within the process of creating a ballet to open their minds to what ballet is besides technique, and how will that quality add dimension to the piece?” The process is what our career is all about. You want to come in and get to the meat of what the art is, not just learn steps and perform them. Finally, there was one rehearsal where I thought to myself, “This is isn’t mine anymore; they have taken this and made it their own.”
San Francisco Ballet will appear at the Sadler’s Wells Theater, Rosebery Avenue, London, September 14-23 2012. For more information, call 08444124.
Toba Singer, author of “First Position: a Century of Ballet Artists” (Praeger 2007), was Senior Program Director of the Art and Music Center of the San Francisco Public Library and its dance selector until her retirement in 2010. Raised in The Bronx, she graduated from New York City’s School of Performing Arts with a major in Drama, the University of Massachusetts with a BA in History; and the University of Maryland with an MLS. Since high school, Singer has been actively engaged in a broad range of pro-labor, social, and political campaigns. She has lived, worked, organized and written in Baltimore, Boston, The Bronx, Cambridge, Charleston, West Virginia, Jersey City, Richmond, Virginia, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., working in steel mills, chemical refineries, garment shops and as an airlines worker; also editing, teaching and as an office worker. Singer has contributed articles to the “Charleston Gazette,” “San Francisco Chronicle,” “Dance Magazine,” “Dance Europe,” “City Paper,” “Provincetown Advocate,” “Voice of Dance,” CriticalDance.com, “InDance,” and “Dance Source Houston.”
Singer returned to the studio to study ballet after a 25-year absence, and in 2001, was invited to become a founding member of the board of Robert Moses’ KIN dance company. Singer studied ballet with Svetlana Afanasieva, Nina Anderson, Perry Brunson, Richard Gibson, Zory Karah, Celine Keller, Charles McGraw, Francoise Martinet, Augusta Moore, E. Virginia Williams, and Kahz Zmuda; and Modern Dance with Cora Cahan, Jane Dudley, Nancy Lang, Donald McKayle, Gertrude Shurr, and Zenaide Trigg. Her son James Gotesky dances with Houston Ballet. Singer lives in Oakland, California, with her husband Jim Gotesky.