26-year-old San Francisco Ballet (SF Ballet) dancer Myles Thatcher is whipping his second major piece for the company into shape for its world premiere this week. Thatcher says Ghost in the Machine is meant to reflect community lost and gained, and is deeply influenced by the current political and social climate.
"The heightened combative and adversarial atmosphere in this piece mirrors our polarized political atmosphere today," Thatcher says of his thinking behind the abstract work, whose score was created by famed American composer Michael Nyman.
His first work for the company, Manifesto, created in 2015, was revealing of his fellow dancers, of individual personalities and the nature of their camaraderie. He says his new work is also very much an ensemble piece, but one with an arc around finding, “the vulnerability to share experiences with others, to find solace in community.”
“I feel grateful for this bubble I live in,” Thatcher says. He says he is deeply troubled by the new administration’s failure to display what he considers, “fundamental human respect for people – especially people with disabilities, transgender people, and women.” Among Thatcher’s friends, many of whom are also artists, he says “the anger is palpable.” Together they’ve marched on the streets. “I have privilege,” he says. “I will never know the struggles of minorities. It’s important for me to know when to speak up, but also when not to, because I can’t presume to know these struggles. But I can be an ally; I can do my part to be supportive.”
In this uneasy climate, Thatcher feels an added urgency to make work that reaches beyond the classical dance "bubble." “The structural problem with ballet is that we as a community are still trying to figure out how to take it outside of the theater, where it costs from $40 to $300 to see a show, and outside of the metropolitan area,” Thatcher says.
It’s rare for a major ballet company such as the SF Ballet to offer one of its own company members a shot at creating dances rather than only performing in them. The past two seasons have been a whirlwind for Thatcher, whisking him away from San Francisco for long stretches after Russian choreographer Alexei Ratmansky chose him as his mentee in the prestigious Rolex Mentor & Protégé Arts Initiative. Commissions from the Joffrey Ballet and New York City Ballet quickly followed.
This season, in addition to setting his new work on the SF Ballet company, he’s been cast in every performance to date, which includes five role debuts. Yet when Thatcher sat down to chat with KQED, none of this seemed daunting. He seemed relaxed, unruffled and quietly confident.
With one more week till opening night, how do you feel about Ghost at the moment? Have you turned to anyone for feedback?
Helgi Tomasson, artistic director of the San Francisco Ballet, has given me a lot of room to make artistic decisions. He’s very hands-off. I sent a video to Alexei Ratmansky and he had some good feedback. But there’s nothing better than stepping away from a piece for eight months and then coming back to it, which I did. My problem is that I always want to stuff too much into a ballet. Editing is the hardest thing. What I need to work on now is building authentic emotional cues between the dancers. Sometimes this is tricky, because we are so used to ballet mime.
You’re in a rare situation: an emerging artist who’s received tremendous recognition at a young age, and whose voice is being heard in major cities. Do you feel a sense of responsibility, that you have to stand up for others?
I do. I think there are areas to be explored to make ballet less of an elitist thing. In the studio, I try to change things I don’t like about the art form, these archaic gender stereotypes of ballet, like calling women “girls”, and the man has to be a hero and the damsel has to be saved.
There are a lot of things I like to incorporate into my work even though it’s not a blatant message, to try and steer against those stereotypes, to set a precedent for how we should organize ourselves and how we should behave in the ballet studio.
How did your values develop?
I feel really fortunate with the family I was born into. I was comfortable -- or as comfortable as one can feel -- coming out to them. There’s a lot of shame embedded by society in being LGBT; even the fact that we’re forced to come out at all is bizarre. I had a really hard time in public school in Pennsylvania. I was bullied – never in a physical way, but I remember getting death threats. There was no support in the classroom. That really defined for me how I choose to treat people. And how I need to be sensitive to other people’s struggles, especially those of children. That’s what attracted me to the art form. It was a way out. It was a way to express myself. I was always a very creative kid and my public school experience on top of all of that really turned me off. Ballet was something I could sink my teeth into that was physically active, that was artistic and structured. I was an athletic kid but I didn’t like the aggression that was encouraged in team sports. I’m more competitive with myself than with others.
Myles Thatcher's 'Ghost in the Machine' runs Wednesday, Apr.5 through Tuesday, Apr. 18 as part of SF Ballet's Program 7 at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco. Tickets and information here.