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How an Unknown S.F. Ballet Dancer Became a Breakout Star

One of the country’s hottest young choreographers got his start as a supporting dancer in San Francisco.

Myles Thatcher instructs dancers during a rehearsal for his new work premiering at this month’s Unbound festival.

 

Myles Thatcher is sitting on the floor of a windowless studio in the San Francisco Ballet building, knees splayed like a frog’s. Before him, two men are entangled in a duet, each wearing a rubber swimming cap—one pink, one blue. Like two aliens on a newfound planet, they eye each other and then, cautiously, trade headgear. “You’re getting acquainted with formatting yourself to this different group,” Thatcher calls out. “For him, it’s no big deal. But for you, it’s something you’ve been wanting to try for a long time. It’s deeper.”

The typical male-female pairing for this kind of sweeping pas de deux is today relegated to the sidelines. In the world of ballet, this qualifies as both significant and bold.

Thatcher, the handsome 27-year-old behind the production, is one of ballet’s fastest-rising talents. This month, he’ll be one of 12 choreographers commissioned by San Francisco Ballet to create new work for the Unbound festival, a lineup that includes dance-world sensations like the celebrated Belgian-Colombian Annabelle Lopez Ochoa and Complexions Contemporary Ballet cofounder Dwight Rhoden. For all its star power, however, it’s Thatcher who best represents the festival’s cutting edge. “I have high hopes for him,” Helgi Tomasson, San Francisco Ballet’s artistic director and the mastermind of the festival, says coyly.

Myles Thatcher.

Tomasson plucked Thatcher out of the obscurity of the corps de ballet—the company’s lowest level of performers, of which he remains a member—gave him his first break as a dance maker, and has championed him ever since. This has been an unexpected path for a kid from Easton, Pennsylvania, whose entrée to dance came when an instructor watching him audition for the grade school musical called out, “Which mom belongs to this one? You need to put your kid in dance.”

From there, he attended the Harid Conservatory in Florida, and in 2008 he turned down opportunities with other companies to become a trainee in San Francisco, never predicting that his own works might one day be among those performed there. Thatcher’s first work, Timepiece, was created during a workshop for students of S.F. Ballet’s school, and it was soon programmed as part of a festival at Canada’s National Ballet School. In 2015, Thatcher’s Manifesto marked his choreographic debut on the company’s main stage. Since then, he’s created works for the likes of the Joffrey Ballet and the New York City Ballet. “I had no idea what I was doing,” Thatcher says of his first forays into choreography. “But I also had nobody telling me what I should be doing.”

The result is dance marked by youthful energy, hip costuming, and a progressive attitude toward gender roles. His Unbound piece was inspired by a gender-nonconforming friend who’d had breast removal surgery and lives between two identities. “When I shared the music with [her], she started crying,” he says. “She said, ‘This is what it felt like for me, the shame in the music here.’”

Thatcher, who is gay, likes to play with gender conventions. Donald Trump’s election gave his work a newfound sense of urgency. Two weeks after Thatcher took the Unbound commission, Trump weighed in on trans people serving in the military. “That further solidified that it was time to take on this theme,” he says.

Watching Thatcher lead a rehearsal, it’s clear that he isn’t the domineering choreographer of yesteryear. Many of his dancers are, like him, in the lowest-rung corps, and he takes an egalitarian approach with them that’s not necessarily common in prestigious companies. His life outside the ballet is similarly unlordly: He lives in a shared, rent-controlled apartment in Presidio Heights, eats sushi in the Tenderloin, and goes dancing at Amnesia.

Life as a dual performer and choreographer has been challenging, Thatcher admits. In late 2015, while preparing to stage a work in Mexico City, he developed Bell’s palsy, a temporary paralysis in the face. “I got a taste of my boundaries that year,” he says. And yet Thatcher says he isn’t ready to hang up his dancing shoes to focus solely on choreography just yet. “I’m craving stories I can relate to as a dancer and a human,” he says.

As his workday wraps, the manifesto goes into action. “More tender here,” he says to the entwining dancers. Their hard-as-steel bodies melt just a little. “As creature-y as we get, we need to keep the humanity in it.”

 

Originally published in the April issue of San Francisco

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