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By Allan Ulrich
SFB's striking principal inhabits her roles.
Van Patten in costume for Wheeldon’s Cinderella, which is designed by Julian Crouch. Photo by Nathan Sayers.
Not that anyone would want to, but it was almost impossible for a dance fan to avoid Sarah Van Patten the first weekend of May in San Francisco. On opening night of San Francisco Ballet’s new Cinderella, the dancer dove into the role of snarky stepsister Edwina with such kicky zest that you feared she would levitate on an updraft of sheer malice. The following afternoon, Van Patten claimed the title role of the ballet and imbued Christopher Wheeldon’s creation with a gentleness, innate nobility, and quiet determination that swayed even the hardest heart.
“It was a really challenging weekend,” Van Patten noted in a conversation a few days later at the company’s headquarters. “But the roles are so different in terms of personality, I simply had to put on another hat, take a moment out, stop and ask myself, ‘Who am I now?’ ”
It’s a question that veteran Van Patten watchers suspect she often poses to herself. Wheeldon’s idea, to have three of his Cinderellas alternate the parts of the annoying siblings, worked after a fashion; yet, of the three principal dancers who attempted the feat, it was Van Patten, 28, who most eloquently traveled the long road between certifiable slapstick and almost mythical yearning.
Any season in San Francisco will shine with Van Patten moments, performances that transcend technique and seem to glow with a special quality. Who am I now?, an act of great concentration, lay behind the sheer sensuality Van Patten bestowed on the cigarette waltz in Serge Lifar’s Suite en Blanc or the wit she displayed in the exotically inflected arm movements in the second movement of Balanchine’s Symphony in Three Movements. Years later, you remember such moments. Paul Taylor’s Company B has been absent for a few years but Van Patten’s poignant rendering of “I Can Dream, Can’t I?” still occasions a sigh.
With Tiit Helimets rehearsing Lifar’s Suite en Blanc. Photo © Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB.
She fashions roles from the inside out. Her performances often seem a commentary on what and how she is dancing, and her complex response can seem ambivalent, as in the middle section of artistic director Helgi Tomasson’s Trio, in which the ballerina prompts a rivalry between two cavaliers.
In her 11 years in San Francisco, patrons have learned that there is almost nothing in the repertoire that Van Patten cannot dance with distinction. Yes, she was both precocious and lucky in the earlier part of her career. She danced Terpsichore in Balanchine’s Apollo when she was 14, and performed Juliet with the Royal Danish Ballet at 15.
I recall, too, her dual assignments, the mermaid and her rival, the princess, in John Neumeier’s The Little Mermaid in 2010. Van Patten brought a reserve to roles which all too easily lend themselves to melodramatic excess, and, while the other dancers raged and over-projected around her, she delivered rounded portraits that affirmed the humanity of both characters.
Considering the empathy she displayed in that ballet, it was not a surprise to discover that Van Patten esteems Neumeier as an instrumental figure in her career. She met the American expatriate choreographer, famed for his psychological approach to narrative, soon after she arrived in Denmark in 2000. Thirteen years ago, Van Patten reminds us, the Royal Danish Ballet admitted fewer Americans than today.
Van Patten seemed destined to end up in a major company. A Boston native, she started ballet and modern lessons at 7. Gifted with natural coordination and flexibility, she gradually decided on a ballet career. Her supportive parents, both of whom were active in the arts, warned her of the risky route she was taking, but they gave their blessing and Van Patten began home-schooling after eighth grade to pursue her ideal.
She studied at Ballet Workshop of New England with teacher Jacqueline Cronsberg. “Jackie was giving me one-on-one coaching and she would pick me up and drive me home,” she says. Cronsberg detected her talent and challenged Van Patten with learning major Balanchine rep. Cronsberg’s daughter, former New York City Ballet member Sandra Jennings, kept in touch with her old colleague Colleen Neary, then co-directing the Royal Danish Ballet, and, at Jennings’ suggestion, Van Patten flew over to audition.
She was only 15 when she was hired as an apprentice, but she grew up fast. “Copenhagen was a very nurturing environment,” she recalls. “The classes were so different from the Balanchine classes that I was used to.” Three months later, Neumeier arrived in Copenhagen for a revival of his popular Romeo and Juliet, spotted Van Patten in class, and chose her to inaugurate the run. “I was in shock,” she remembers.
Van Patten got the royal treatment. Her Romeo was one of Denmark’s foremost danseurs, Mads Blangstrup, and she received no less than two months of coaching from Neumeier and his assistants. “Mads was just wonderful, and, with tears in his eyes, John himself taught me the crypt scene. Then, with the whole company watching, he said, ‘Now it’s your turn.’
“I had to go inside myself and block everything out,” says Van Patten. “This was my first and most influential acting lesson. I used personal experience to shape my characterization.”
The young American Juliet made news in ballet circles. Fortuitously, at the same time, San Francisco Ballet artistic director Helgi Tomasson had gone to Copenhagen to revive his Sleeping Beauty and was captivated by Van Patten. He found her “very believable as Juliet. Sarah is a very dramatic dancer. But she has been good in Balanchine, too.
“Sarah brings her own special quality to the repertoire,” continues Tomasson. “Yet she can be molded; she adapts easily to new situations.” He did find her wanting in one area: “I felt that, maybe, her arms were not completely schooled; they didn’t look quite right.”
The way Van Patten remembers it, “When I was 16 I was still quite green. I had enthusiasm and attack. I would just go out there and dance. Sometimes young dancers have fears or hesitations. I just went for it. But there was a lot that needed to be refined. Helgi said it was time to bring my dancing up to the next level, to use the entire body, to connect all the points. I had to learn a mindfulness about where the arms are between the steps, how you move from one position into the next.”
Van Patten’s 2002 return to this country after two years in Copenhagen (where she had been promoted to the corps) brought her a soloist contract—and some readjustment. First, she notes, the repertoire is immensely more varied here. Happily, Van Patten’s early Balanchine training served her well: “He made me decide that I wanted to be a dancer; he resonated with me. The musicality, the steps, the épaulement—everything made sense.”
Wayne McGregor’s frenetic, body-testing choreography is about as far away as you can get from Balanchine, but performing in the premiere last winter of his Borderlands generated another kind of experience. “In that central quartet, I felt like I was dancing through fog,” says Van Patten. “Wayne emphasized the importance of our sensory awareness of everything on the stage. Ideally, you should feel the strength of those dancers beside you and behind you.”
Partnered by Carlos Quenedit in McGregor’s Borderlands.
Photo by @ Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB.
Being a part of Wheeldon’s Cinderella was “such a joy,” Van Patten declares. “Ever since I joined the company, Chris has been a part of it, and we have developed a strong relationship. I’ve been cast in all his ballets.”
Van Patten stresses preparation in the studio—to a point. “You learn the steps, you get to know the music so well that you can sing it, you watch all the performances you can find on YouTube. Then you have to put it all away. You have to resist replicating someone else’s performance. It’s just you and the role out there.”
Van Patten, who is engaged to be married (her sweetheart is a Harvard grad who’s in business), is catching up on her education through the LEAP program designed for dancers at St. Mary’s College, outside of Oakland. During the summer she taught in South Africa for no money in the townships. “It’s a great learning experience,” she says. And there’s next winter’s revival of Giselle to contemplate (“nowhere to hide in that role”). She plans to keep dancing through the next decade and plans to do it in San Francisco.
“I’ll confess. It took me time to get in the groove here,” she says. “But then I consider the wonderful repertoire I dance in this company and I just feel blessed.”
Van Patten in costume for Wheeldon's Within the Golden Hour. Photo by Nathan Sayers.
Allan Ulrich is the dance correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle and writes for the Financial Times.
SFB in NYC
The company makes a rare visit to Lincoln Center, Oct. 16–27. The four programs include works by Edwaard Liang, Mark Morris, and Yuri Possokhov. Of special interest for Sarah Van Patten watchers will be McGregor’s Borderlands (see April cover story), Lifar’s Suite en Blanc, Tomasson’s Trio, Ratmansky’s From Foreign Lands, and Wheeldon’s Cinderella. See www.sfballet.org or www.davidhkochtheater.com.