The Evolution of Sarah Van Patten
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.
Even if you haven't heard her name, you've almost certainly seen the work of commercial choreographer James Alsop. Though she's made award-winning dances for Beyoncé ("Run the World," anyone?) and worked with stars like Lady GaGa and Janelle Monae, Alsop's most recent project may be her most powerful: A moving music video for Everytown for Gun Safety, directed by Ezra Hurwitz and featuring students from the National Dance Institute.
We caught up with Alsop for our "Spotlight" series:
I want to make an apology because, in my opening speech at the Dance Magazine Awards on Monday, I inadvertently left out one awardee. I said, "Tonight we are honoring four outstanding dance artists who have contributed to the dance field over time." But then I named only three. How could I have forgotten Lourdes Lopez?!?!
We had all been hearing about Lourdes's taking the helm at Miami City Ballet with grace, intelligence, compassion and new ideas. I was planning to say, "Lourdes Lopez, who has brought new life to Miami City Ballet" because I thought that would cover a lot of ground. (My only quibble with myself was whether to say "brought new life" or "gave new life.")
Each year, The New York Times Magazine shines a spotlight on who they deem to be the best actors of the year in its Great Performers series. But, what we're wondering is, can they dance? Thankfully, the NYT Mag recruited none other than Justin Peck to put them to the test.
Peck choreographed and directed a series of 10 short dance films, placing megastars in everyday situations: riding the subway, getting out of bed in the morning, waiting at a doctor's office.
Today, we are thrilled to announce the honorees of the 2018 Dance Magazine Awards. A tradition dating back to 1954, the Dance Magazine Awards celebrate the living legends who have made a lasting impact on dance. This year's honorees include:
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On busy performance days, international guest artist Joy Womack always makes time for one activity after class and rehearsals: a nap. "I like to feel well-rested when I need to be in the spotlight at night, not dragging at the end of the day," she says. "It helps me recover and refocus."
With her earbuds tuned to a guided meditation app, she can squeeze in a nap wherever she needs to. "One time I even took a nap on the floor of the tour bus in Siberia," she says. "Dancers can sleep anywhere."
Joy Womack prioritizes napping before a show. Photo by Quinn Wharton for Pointe magazine.
As research has revealed the benefits of short daytime naps, power-napping advice has proliferated, and more dancers are choosing to include a nap in their pre-performance routines. Approaching napping strategically will help you get the most out of an afternoon snooze.
On Monday night, a memorial was held at Riverside Church to honor the life and achievements of Dance Theatre of Harlem co-founder Arthur Mitchell. With nearly three months to process and grieve (Mitchell passed away on September 19) the atmosphere was not that of mourning as much as reflection, reverence and admiration for who he was, what he built and what remains. (Watch the full livestream here.)
The church filled with family, artistic friends, fans and admirers. What was most gratifying was the volume of DTH alumni from the school, company and organization who traveled across the globe to pay their respects, from founding members to present dancers and students. The house of worship was filled with the sentiment of a family reunion. As Mitchell was sent home, it was a homecoming for many who have not shared air together in decades. What was palpable was the authentic bonds that Dance Theatre of Harlem and Mitchell fostered in all.
Fans of the sublime English National Ballet first artist Precious Adams were probably excited to see her image splashed across the company's website in a promotional image for an upcoming production of Swan Lake.
But those who took a closer look were met with a disappointing reality: Adams, who is the only black woman in the company, is not listed on the principal casting sheet for the production.
Gennadi Nedvigin is not the only early tenure director breaking out a new production of The Nutcracker this season.
We love The Nutcracker as much as the next person, but that perennial holiday classic isn't the only thing making its way onstage this month. Here are five alternatives that piqued our editors' curiosity.
The Nutcracker is synonymous with American ballet. So when Gennadi Nedvigin took the helm at Atlanta Ballet in 2016, a new version of the holiday classic was one of his top priorities. This month, evidence of two years' worth of changes will appear when the company unwraps its latest version at Atlanta's Fox Theatre Dec. 8–24. Choreographed by Yuri Possokhov and produced on a larger-than-ever scale for Atlanta, the new ballet represents Nedvigin's big ambitions.
Ballet Hispánico returns to the famed Apollo Theater in Harlem with its full-length ballet, CARMEN.maquia. Spanish choreographer Gustavo Ramirez Sansano has reenvisioned the story of Carmen to emphasize Don José, the man who falls in love with Carmen, suffers because of her infidelity, then murders her in a "fit of passion." Their duets are filled with all the sensuality, jealousy and violence you could wish for—in a totally contemporary dance language.
Sansano's previous piece for Ballet Hispánico, El Beso, bloomed with a thousand playful and witty ways of expressing desire. He has a knack for splicing humor into romance.
Not being able to attend the in-person audition at your top college can feel like the end of the world. But while it's true that going to the live audition is ideal, you can still make the best out of sending a video. Here are some of the perks:
It's become a colloquialism—or, we admit, a cliche—to say that dance can heal.
But with a new initiative launched by British Health Secretary Matt Hancock, doctors in the U.K. will soon be able to prescribe dance classes—along with art, music, sports, gardening and more—for patients suffering from conditions as various as dementia, lung problems and mental health issues.
We always figured that stretching made us more flexible by loosening up our muscles and joints. Some of us, ahem, might have even tried to fall asleep in our middle splits to get our stubbornly stiff inner thighs to let go.
But it turns out that might not actually be how stretching works.
A new review published in the Scandinavian Journal of Science & Medicine in Sports suggests that increased flexibility actually comes from your brain growing more used to the tension.
New York City Ballet fired principal dancers Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro on Saturday. Both had initially been suspended until 2019 for engaging in "inappropriate communications," while principal Chase Finlay, who was the instigator of those communications, resigned. (Although, in a statement on Saturday, NYCB made it clear they had decided to terminate Finlay prior to his resignation.)
The New York Times reports that NYCB says the change from suspension to termination resulted from hearing the concerns of dancers, staff members and others in the NYCB community. Yet it's hard to ignore the fact that a lawsuit against NYCB had been filed in the meantime. A statement from NYCB executive director Katherine Brown and interim artistic team leader Jonathan Stafford stated:
"We have no higher obligation than to ensure that our dancers and staff have a workplace where they feel respected and valued, and we are committed to providing that environment for all employees of New York City Ballet."
Since the news was announced, both Catazaro and Ramasar have spoken out publicly about being fired.
What does it mean to be human? Well, many things. But if you were at the Dance Magazine Awards last night, you could argue that to be human is to dance. Speeches about the powerful humanity of our art form were backed up with performances by incredible dancers hailing from everywhere from Hubbard Street Dance Chicago to Miami City Ballet.
Misty Copeland started off the celebration. A self-professed "Dance Magazine connoisseur from the age of 13," she not only spoke about how excited she was to be in a room full of dancers, but also—having just come from Dance Theatre of Harlem's memorial for Arthur Mitchell—what she saw as their duty: "We all in this room hold a responsibility to use this art for good," she said. "Dance unifies, so let's get to work."
That sentiment was repeated throughout the night.
Choreographer Val Caniparoli started his ballet career by performing in Lew Christensen's The Nutcracker with San Francisco Ballet in 1971. Today, he still performs with SFB as Drosselmeir, in the company's current version by Helgi Tomasson.
It takes Caniparoli a lot of concentration to stick to the choreography.
"I have the four versions that I choreographed of the role in my head, plus the original I danced for years by Lew," he says. "That's a lot of versions to keep straight."
A list of Clara alumnae from Radio City's Christmas Spectacular reads like a star-studded, international gala program: Tiler Peck and Brittany Pollack of New York City Ballet (and Broadway), Meaghan Grace Hinkis of The Royal Ballet, Whitney Jensen of Norwegian National Ballet and more. Madison Square Garden's casting requirements for the role are simple: The dancer should be 4' 10" and under, appear to be 14 years old or younger and have strong ballet technique and pointework.
The unspoken requisite? They need abundant tenacity at a very young age.
When I read last month that Jessica Lang Dance had announced its farewell, I'm sure I wasn't the only dancer surprised. In the same way that many of us, when reading an obituary, instinctively look for the cause of death, I searched for a reason for the company's unexpected folding. It was buried in the fifth paragraph of The New York Times article:
Her manager, Margaret Selby, said in an interview that Jessica Lang Dance's closing showed how difficult it is to keep a small dance company running these days. "You have to raise so much money, the smaller companies don't have enough staff, and Jessica was running the company for the last seven years without a day off," she said. "She wants to focus on creative work."
Whereas the announcement itself may have come as a shock, the root cause certainly doesn't. All of us in the field are familiar with the conditions to which Selby refers. But that these problems can topple the success of a company like Lang's, which boasts seven years of national and international touring that include commissions from Jacob's Pillow and The Joyce, among others, is sobering.