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.
It's the second week of Miami City Ballet School's Choreographic Intensive, and the students stand in a light-drenched studio watching as choreographer Durante Verzola sets a pas de trois. "Don't be afraid to look at the ceiling—look that high," Verzola shows one student as she holds an arabesque. "That gives so much more dimension to your dancing." Other students try the same movement from the sidelines.
When Arantxa Ochoa took over as MCB School's director of faculty and curriculum two years ago, she decided to add a second part to the summer intensive: five weeks focused on technique would be followed by a new two-week choreography session. The technique intensive is not a requirement, but students audition for both at the same time and many attend the two back-to-back.
On a summer afternoon at The Ailey School's studios, a group of students go through a sequence of Horton exercises, radiating concentration and strength as they tilt to one side, arms outstretched and leg parallel to the ground. Later, in a studio down the hall, a theater dance class rehearses a lively medley of Broadway show tunes. With giant smiles and bouncy energy, students run through steps to "The Nicest Kids in Town" from Hairspray.
"You gotta really scream!" teacher Judine Somerville calls out as they mime their excitement. "This is live theater!" They segue into the audition number from A Chorus Line, "I Hope I Get It," their expressions becoming purposeful and slightly nervous. "Center stage is wherever I am," Somerville tells them when the music stops, making them repeat the words back to her. "Take that wherever you go."
Dance artists, as a rule, are a resilient bunch. But working in a studio in New York City without heat or electricity in the middle of winter? That's not just crazy; it's unhealthy, and too much to ask of anyone.
Unfortunately, Brooklyn Studios for Dance hasn't had heat since mid-November, making it impossible for classes or performances to take place in the community-oriented center.
So what's a studio to do? Throw a massive dance party, of course.
A newly launched initiative hopes to change the face of ballet, both onstage and behind the scenes. Called "The Equity Project: Increasing the Presence of Blacks in Ballet," the three-year initiative, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, is a partnership between Dance Theatre of Harlem, the International Association of Blacks in Dance and Dance/USA.
"We've seen huge amounts of change in the years since 1969, when Dance Theatre of Harlem was founded," says Virginia Johnson, artistic director of DTH. "But change is happening much too slowly, and it will continue to be too slow until we come to a little bit more of an awareness of what the underlying issues are and what needs to be done to address them."
As winter sets in, your muscles may feel tighter than they did in warmer weather. You're not imagining it: Cold weather can cause muscles to lose heat and contract, resulting in a more limited range of motion and muscle soreness or stiffness.
But dancers need their muscles to be supple and fresh, no matter the weather outside. Here's how to maintain your mobility during the colder months so your dancing isn't affected:
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From the outside, it seemed like the worst of New York City Ballet's problems were behind them last winter, when ballet master in chief Peter Martins retired amid accusations of abuse and sexual harassment, and an internal investigation did not substantiate those claims.
But further troubles were revealed in August when a scandal broke that led to dancer Chase Finlay's abrupt resignation and the firing of fellow principals Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro. All three were accused of "inappropriate communications" and violating "norms of conduct."
The artistic director sets the tone for a dance company and leads by example. But regardless of whether Martins, and George Balanchine before him, established a healthy organization, the issues at NYCB bespeak an industry-wide problem, says Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, founding artistic director of Urban Bush Women. "From New York City Ballet to emerging artists, we've just done what's been handed down," she observes. "That has not necessarily led to great practices."
If you've ever wondered what goes on behind the scenes at Dance Magazine, now's your chance to find out. Dance Magazine is seeking an editorial intern who's equally passionate about dance and journalism.
Through March 1, we are accepting applications for a summer intern to assist our staff onsite in New York City from June to August. The internship includes an hourly stipend and requires a minimum two-day-a-week commitment. (We do not provide assistance securing housing.)
For the past few months, the dance world has been holding its collective breath, waiting for New York City Ballet to announce who will take over the helm as artistic director.
Though former ballet master in chief Peter Martins retired over a year ago after accusations of sexual harassment and abuse (an internal investigation did not corroborate the accusations), the search for a new leader didn't begin until last May.
Nine months later, the new director's name could be released any day now. And we have some theories about who it might be:
Some people take this profession as just a chapter of their life. They feel like dance is a job—a fun job, but a job. Other people live their life through dance. I never considered being a ballerina a profession. It's a lifestyle.
If I don't have a performance, I feel like a tiger trapped in a cage. I have so many emotions, I feel I need to give them to somebody, to exhaust myself—I need to cry or laugh, or else it's suffocating. Other people might scream or throw bottles into the wall. We dancers scream onstage through our movement. For me, it's like sweeping off the dust in my soul.
Back in 2011, Yale University's dean of science was thinking about refreshing the program's offerings for non-majors when he happened upon a Pilobolus performance. A light bulb went off: Dance is full of physics.
That realization led to what has become an eight-year collaboration between particle physicist Sarah Demers and former New York City Ballet dancer Emily Coates, both professors at Yale who were brought together to co-teach a course called The Physics of Dance. Their partnership has involved everything from directing a short film to presenting a TedX Talk and performing a piece that Coates created, commissioned by Danspace Project. This month, they're publishing a book about what they've discovered by dialoging across two seemingly disparate disciplines.
Sebastian Abarbanell remembers being asked as an undergrad at Trinity Laban in London to perform wearing only a dance belt. "I said no," he says, "because I felt uncomfortable." Now a performer with Sidra Bell Dance New York, he's performed partially nude several times, without reservation. The difference? "It comes with more experience and maturing as a dancer," he says. "When you see a dancer living in their skin, you don't need to put anything else on them. When I said no in college, I wasn't in my skin yet."
Getting in your skin—and getting comfortable wearing only your skin onstage—requires a particular alchemy of vulnerability, agency, preparation and practice.
Birmingham Royal Ballet announced today that international star Carlos Acosta will be taking over as director in January of 2020. Current BRB director David Bintley will be stepping down this summer, at the end of the company's 2019 season, after a 24-year tenure. "It is a tremendous honor and privilege to have been appointed to lead Birmingham Royal Ballet," Acosta said in a statement.
Since retiring from The Royal Ballet in 2015, Acosta has focused much of his attention on his native Cuba, where he's proven his directorial abilities at the helm of Acosta Danza, the contemporary company that he founded in 2016. In 2017 Acosta also opened his first Dance Academy through his foundation, which provides free training to students. We don't yet know how Acosta will balance his time between his projects in Cuba and his new role at BRB.
Though Polunin has long had a reputation for behaving inappropriately, in the last month his posts have been somewhat unhinged. In one, Polunin, who is Ukrainian, shows off his new tattoo of Vladimir Putin:
What's next for the dance world? Our annual list of the dancers, choreographers and companies that are on the verge of skyrocketing has a pretty excellent track record of answering that question.
Here they are: the 25 up-and-coming artists we believe represent the future of our field.
Just before retiring in 2015, Sylvie Guillem appeared on "HARDtalk with Zeinab Badawi," the BBC's hard-hitting interview program. Badawi told Guillem,
"Clement Crisp of the Financial Times, 14 years ago, described your dancing as vulgar."
"Yeah, well, he said that. But at the same time, when they asked Margot Fonteyn what she thought about lifting the leg like this she said, 'Well, if I could have done it, I would have done it.' "
They were discussing Guillem's signature stroke—her 180-degree leg extension à la seconde. Ballet legs had often flashed about in the higher zones between 135 and 160 degrees before. But it wasn't until the virtuoso French ballerina regularly
extended her leg beside her ear with immaculate poise in the 1980s that leg extensions for ballet dancers in classical roles reached their zenith. Traditionalists like Clement Crisp were not taken with it.
My personal life has taken a nosedive since I broke up with my boyfriend. He's in the same show and is now dating one of my colleagues. It's heartbreaking to see them together, and I'm determined never to date a fellow dancer again. But it's challenging to find someone outside, as I practically live in the theater. Do you have any advice?
—Loveless, New York, NY
The inimitable Carol Channing, best known for her role as the titular Hello, Dolly!, passed away today at 97.
Though she became a three-time Tony winner, Channing was born in Seattle, far from the Great White Way, in 1921. After growing up in San Francisco, she attended the famed Bennington College, studying dance and drama. She later told the university, "What Bennington allows you to do is develop the thing you're going to do anyway, over everybody's dead body." For Channing, that meant decades of fiery, comical performances, bursting with energy.
Something's coming, I don't know when
But it's soon...maybe tonight?
Those iconic lyrics have basically been our #mood ever since we first heard a remake of the West Side Story film, directed by Steven Spielberg and choreographed by Justin Peck, was in the works. THE CASTING. THE CASTING WAS COMING.
Well, last night—after an extensive search process that focused on finding the best actors within the Puerto Rican/Latinx community—the WSS team finally revealed who'll be playing Maria, Anita, Bernardo, and Chino (joining Ansel Elgort, who was cast as Tony last fall). And you guys: It is a truly epic group.
Rehearsal is in full swing, and Leta Biasucci, Pacific Northwest Ballet's newest principal dancer, finds herself in unfamiliar territory. Biasucci is always game for a challenge, but choreographer Kyle Davis wants her to lift fellow dancer Clara Ruf Maldonado. Repeatedly. While she's known for her technical prowess, lifting another dancer off the floor is a bit daunting for Biasucci, who stands all of 5' 3". She eyes Maldonado skeptically, then breaks into a grin.
"It's absolutely given me a new appreciation for the partner standing behind me!" Biasucci says with a laugh.
Looking at Biasucci, 29, with her wide smile and eager curiosity, you think you see the quintessential extrovert. In reality, she's anything but. "I was an introverted kid," Biasucci says. "That's part of the reason I fell in love with dance—I didn't have to be talkative."
It's only one of the seeming contradictions in Biasucci's life: She's a short, muscular ballerina in a company known for its fleet of tall, long-legged women; she's also most comfortable with classical ballet, while taking on a growing repertoire of contemporary work.
Sergei Polunin, whose recent homophobic and sexist Instagram posts have sparked international outrage, will not be appearing with the Paris Opéra Ballet as previously announced.
POB artistic director Aurélie Dupont sent an internal email to company staff and dancers on Sunday, explaining that she did not share Polunin's values and that the Russian-based dancer would not be guesting with the company during the upcoming run of Rudolf Nureyev's Swan Lake in February.
Before spending a summer at Los Angeles Ballet School, Lillian Glasscock had never learned a Balanchine variation. "The stylistic differences, like preparing for a pirouette with a straight back leg, were at first very challenging," says Glasscock, 17. "But it soon got easier."
Los Angeles Ballet company members were in class daily, motivating and inspiring her. Trying out a new style and expanding her repertoire gave Glasscock more strength, and a better understanding of the varied demands of ballet companies today. Months later, the Balanchine variations she learned are now personal favorites.
While the early years of training are typically spent diligently working through the syllabus of a single ballet technique, when you start to prepare for a professional career, versatility is key. There isn't just one correct version of each step. And as ballet companies continue to diversify their repertoires, directors need dancers who can move fluidly between an array of styles.