A rehearsal viewing can be daunting for any young choreographer. But when the person watching you work is Alexei Ratmansky, one of the world’s greatest living choreographers, it could easily be overwhelming.
“We had a five-hour rehearsal, and he sat on the marley and took notes the whole time,” recalls San Francisco Ballet corps member Myles Thatcher. The 24-year-old burgeoning choreographer was creating Spectrum on SFB School students for the annual showcase last spring when Ratmansky paid a visit. Thatcher felt nervous, but he needn’t have been—Ratmansky had just chosen him for a year of one-on-one mentoring through the 2014–15 Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative.
Founded by the Swiss watch company in 2002, the biennial Initiative brings together international emerging and established artists in seven fields, including music, theater and even architecture, for a one-year mentorship. A panel assembled by Rolex selects nominees anonymously, invites them to apply by submitting an essay and video samples, and winnows applicants down to three to four finalists. After an extensive in-person interview, the mentors choose whom they want to work with. (Past choreographic mentors include William Forsythe, Jir?í Kylián and Trisha Brown.) Mentor and protégé then set their own priorities and devise their own schedule. A generous travel budget, plus grants of approximately $25,000 to the protégé and $75,000 to the mentor, to be spent any way they choose, ensures almost total freedom to pursue their goals.
Thatcher, who studied at The Harid Conservatory and privately with Edward Ellison, began choreographing in 2008 as an SFB trainee, and has contributed a piece to the trainee program performances every year since (he joined the corps in 2010). Even his early works showed technical clarity, spare musicality and an inventive, unfussy approach to classical ballet; his 2013 school piece, Stone and Steel, was a turning point, with newly sophisticated partnering and ensemble patterns, organic transitions and asymmetries that surprised the eye.
Stone and Steel went over so well with audiences and critics that SFB artistic director Helgi Tomasson had Thatcher set it on the main company for a summer arts festival in Stern Grove Park. Afterward, he commissioned In the Passerine’s Clutch for the 2013 season gala. “Myles has a great sense of space and how to move dancers within it,” says Tomasson. “I was surprised when I first saw his work. It was not what you expect from someone young.” This year Thatcher has been preparing his first regular-season commission for the company (a piece for 12 dancers premiering in February), so the mentorship with Ratmansky couldn’t have come at a better time. “Alexei is not only a great choreographer, but he is a very nice human being,” Tomasson says. “Myles is learning from a master.”
The adventure began in January 2014, when Rolex flew the three dance finalists to Paris for interviews with Ratmansky. “That alone was an amazing experience,” says Thatcher, who got to witness the Bolshoi Ballet’s opening night performance of Ratmansky’s Lost Illusions. He and Ratmansky established a comfortable personal connection in the interview that followed. “One of the first things we talked about is that we each are our own artists. He is trying to see where I am coming from and help me clarify things through my artistic vision, not his.”
Ratmansky agrees. “I learn from him, as well,” he noted in an e-mail interview. “I don’t know the answers; I just share my observations.”
Much of Thatcher’s learning has also been by observation. Welcomed into Ratmansky’s rarefied world, Thatcher sat in on New York City Ballet’s rehearsals of the choreographer’s Pictures at an Exhibition and on preparations of By 2 With & From (co-choreographed with Christopher Wheeldon) for Wendy Whelan’s October 2014 farewell performance. “Alexei knows what he wants, but is still open to the input of the dancer,” says Thatcher. “It is really great to see that somebody is willing to take the time to do that, and respect the dancers as people and as artists.” Fairness is a defining theme for Thatcher, who adds, “If I cannot work in a respectful way, I would rather not do it.”
Last November, he shadowed Ratmansky and ballet historian Doug Fullington as they set a new reconstruction of Paquita on the Bavarian State Ballet. Thatcher admires the unique balance of classicism and contemporary innovation that makes Ratmansky so relevant. “I love how nuanced his work is,” Thatcher says. “Finding clarity in that way is almost the hardest part, but it is exactly what you need to express yourself to your dancers, and to your audiences. Hopefully, I can pick up on that.”
Ratmansky is also a role model for handling the stress of a demanding career—and not bringing it into rehearsals. “I tell him about my own difficulties, and how I manage them,” Ratmansky says matter-of-factly. “In the studio, you would not know if he is frustrated,” Thatcher says, “but he is still very clear about what he wants. That is something that I hope to be good at one day.”
As Thatcher prepares for his upcoming world premiere, titled Manifesto, he’s kept these inspiring lessons in mind. He and Ratmansky have kept in touch via e-mail and Skype during SFB’s busy performance season, but Thatcher hopes to run the piece by his mentor in February, when Ratmansky will be in California putting finishing touches on his new Sleeping Beauty for American Ballet Theatre. Thatcher can think back to their very first feedback session for guidance. “Sometimes the simplest version is the best—how to edit your own work and how to let go of things that are not right, which I am still learning about.”
Thatcher already knows that this experience will inform the rest of his career. “A lot of it will not be apparent until later, after I am really able to observe my work.” But Tomasson has already seen the changes. “I was in a costume fitting for his new ballet, and seeing him interact with the designer, I immediately sensed a new maturity,” he observes. “Myles is growing as an artist.”