Alexei Ratmansky & Myles ThatcherA pas de deux of ideas

Published in May 2015clockTime to read: 4m55s
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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.

by Marina Harss May 2015
  • Alexei Ratmansky
    The Mentor
  • Myles Thatcher
    The Protégé

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.

“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.

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