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Spotlight: The Worst Advice SFB's Sarah Van Patten Ever Received

Van Patten in Romeo and Juliet. PC Erik Tomasson.

When we put San Francisco Ballet principal Sarah Van Patten on our cover in 2013, we couldn't stop gushing about how deeply she dives into every character she portrays. Since then, her characterizations have only grown, and she's taken on a new role—as a ballerina mom. We caught up with Van Patten for our "Spotlight" series:


What do you think is the most common misconception about dancers?
Most people ask me if I have a restricted diet. I remember this was my husband's impression before our first date. He was very surprised to see that I ordered a steak, had a glass of wine and still joined him to share a dessert.

What other career would you like to try?
I'm a mom so I already have a second full-time job! I haven't decided exactly what I might do once I retire, but I have done some outreach in the past that I really enjoyed. I've taught dance in South Africa, organized a fundraiser for Children of Uganda and for the past 12 years organized Nutcracker hospital visits.

What's the most-played song on your phone?
Probably the soundtrack from Moana for my son. It's seriously good music!

What's your favorite book?
My favorite author is Haruki Murakami. I've read all his books.

Where can you be found two hours after a performance ends?
I have a toddler, so I'm at home eating dinner, taking a hot bath and winding down before going to bed.


Where did you last vacation?
North Port, Michigan with my family.

What app do you spend the most time on?
Daniel Tiger's Day & Night is a big one on our list—it's a fun app for toddlers. I also check the news, listen to music on Spotify and watch Netflix shows if I need to work out on the elliptical.

Who is the person you most want to dance with—living or dead?
Choreographers who I'd love to work with are Crystal Pite and Jiří Kylián, and I would be thrilled to perform a role from John Neumeier's Lady of the Camellias or Kenneth MacMillan's Manon.

What's the first item on your bucket list?
Travel experiences. I've always wanted to go to Japan or do an African safari trip. Once my son is a little older I'll get out and see the world.

What's your go-to crosstraining routine?
Gyrotonic all day, every day.

What's the worst advice you've ever received?
That I'll never be able to do something or that a specific role isn't for me. Anything that makes me feel limited.

If you could relive one performance, what would it be?
When I danced Juliet in front the Queen of Denmark, which was also my debut in the role. Looking back, I didn't realize how special that moment was.

In Memoriam
A flyer showing Alberto Alonso, Fernando Alonso, Benjamin Steinberg and Alicia Alonso. Photo courtesy the author

Alicia has died. I walked around my apartment feeling her spirit, but knowing something had changed utterly.

My father, the late conductor Benjamin Steinberg, was the first music director of the Ballet de Cuba, as it was called then. I grew up in Vedado on la Calle 1ra y doce in a building called Vista al Mar. My family lived there from 1959 to 1963. My days were filled with watching Alicia teach class, rehearse and dance. She was everything: hilarious, serious, dramatic, passionate and elegiac. You lost yourself and found yourself when you loved her.

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Sponsored by Harlequin Floors
Left: Hurricane Harvey damage in Houston Ballet's Dance Lab; Courtesy Harlequin. Right: The Dance Lab pre-Harvey; Nic Lehoux, Courtesy Houston Ballet.

"The show must go on" may be a platitude we use to get through everything from costume malfunctions to stormy moods. But when it came to overcoming a literal hurricane, Houston Ballet was buoyed by this mantra to go from devastated to dancing in a matter of weeks—with the help of Harlequin Floors, Houston Ballet's longstanding partner who sprang into action to build new floors in record time.

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Hansuke Yamamoto in Helgi Tomasson's Nutcracker at San Francisco Ballet, which features an exciting and respectful Chinese divertissement. Photo by Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB

It's Nutcracker time again: the season of sweet delights and a sparkling good time—if we're able to ignore the sour taste left behind by the outdated racial stereotypes so often portrayed in the second act.

In 2017, as a result of a growing list of letters from audience members, to New York City Ballet's ballet master in chief Peter Martins reached out to us asking for assistance on how to modify the elements of Chinese caricature in George Balanchine's The Nutcracker. Following that conversation, we founded the Final Bow for Yellowface pledge that states, "I love ballet as an art form, and acknowledge that to achieve a diversity amongst our artists, audiences, donors, students, volunteers, and staff, I am committed to eliminating outdated and offensive stereotypes of Asians (Yellowface) on our stages."

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Dance & Activism
Allegra Bautista in Nevertheless, by ka·nei·see | collective. Photo by Robbie Sweeny

An audience member once emailed Dallas choreographer Joshua L. Peugh, claiming his work was vulgar. It complained that he shouldn't be pushing his agenda. As the artistic director of Dark Circles Contemporary Dance, Peugh's recent choreography largely deals with LGBTQ issues.

"I got angry when I saw that email, wrote my angry response, deleted it, and then went back and explained to him that that's exactly why I should be making those works," says Peugh.

With the current political climate as polarized as it is, many artists today feel compelled to use their work to speak out on issues they care deeply about. But touring with a message is not for the faint of heart. From considerations about how to market the work to concerns about safety, touring to cities where, in general, that message may not be so welcome, requires companies to figure out how they'll respond to opposition.

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