The Joffrey Ballet kicks off its 60th-anniversary season this week with a brand-new program featuring young choreographers.
Also a corps de ballet dancer at the San Francisco Ballet ( SFB ), Myles Thatcher, 25, is making a name for himself as a choreographer with an already impressive resume. In addition to his Joffrey debut Sept. 16 with a world premiere called The Passengers, Thatcher is currently setting work on New York City Ballet and was selected for the 2014-2015 Rolex Mentor & Protégé Arts Initiative. As one of seven young choreographers in the program, the Harid Conservatory graduate was selected by choreographic mentor Alexei Ratmansky, American Ballet Theatre's Artist-in-Residence and a former director of the Bolshoi Ballet.
According to Thatcher, a career in choreography is all about momentum and, at the moment, he's got plenty of it. "Getting the opportunity to work is the hardest part," he said in a phone interview with Windy City Times, so when the chances to work with Joffrey and New York City Ballet arose, he couldn't possibly say no. Nevertheless, managing dual careers as a company dancer and now nationally recognized choreographer means juggling a challenging schedule, and occasional sacrifices at SFB.
Because the company shares a venue with the San Francisco Opera, the dancers' performance schedule is half the year, and the other half if spent focusing on choreography. "It's kind of crazy," he said. "For now, I'm able to maintain both and they feed into each other," said Thatcher. He plans to continue performing as long as he is able, or until it no longer gives him joy and satisfaction, but while Thatcher said the company is very understanding and supportive, he admitted he has had to make some concessions in casting. "The balance is tricky," he said, "but not unfathomable."
For young choreographers, the challenge of bringing much-needed new audiences to dance, particularly ballet, has been a frequently debated topic. Thatcher feels that audiences can become easily intimidated by dance and struggle to connect with it. "I'm so aware that ballet is a really weird thing," he said. "It is not always understood that dance doesn't have to go through the rational part of the brain, but it's important to pack abstract work with meat and purpose and intention. ... It's important that we question, 'Why are we doing this? Who's going to care?'"
Perhaps dating from George Balanchine's rejection of the traditional story ballet for abstracttechnical workmany modern-day interpretations of the classical form continue to rely on technique and physicality. Balanchine's preference for simple costumes ( often dressing the dancers in leotards and tights ) and sparse staging was a dramatic turn for ballet that showcased the dancers' technique and musicality. However, "if [technique is] all we're banking on, that's a problem," said Thatcher, who believes that a return to narrative work could be a key element in drawing more people to ballet. He's not alone in this approach, although Thatcher's contemporaries are revisiting the use of narrative in different ways. Over the past few decades, choreographers have been simultaneously creating new work while reimagining beloved 19th-century ballets.
Tony winner Christopher Wheeldon has been a frequent guest at the Joffrey; his ballet Fool's Paradise makes its Chicago premiere alongside Thatcher's The Passengers.
Last year, the Joffrey acquired his version of Swan Lake, and the company will unveil a brand new Wheeldon Nutcracker in 2016 after retiring the its beloved choreography created by co-founders Robert Joffrey and Gerald Arpino. Wheeldon is joined by others re-creating the classics: Stanton Welch created a new and expedited La Bayadere ( also acquired by Joffrey within the last few seasons ).
Even these new and fresh interpretations of the classics, however, concede to the original Petipa choreography in their most well-known moments. Wheeldon's Swan Lake maintained the iconic cygnet variation and Welch kept the Kingdom of the Shades section completely in tact in his Bayadere. Instead of dressing up old ballets in new choreography, Thatcher's mentor Alexei Ratmansky has looked back to the original notations of these great ballets and, as Thatcher describes, "filled in the color of what Marius Petipa was doing." As an emerging choreographer in classical ballet, Thatcher draws inspiration from the classics, which he views as essentially perfect. "Who am I to create a crappier version of that?" he joked, and prefers to take on new stories, contemporary characters and relationships, or abstract ideas.
Thatcher said he sees an opportunity for ballet to expand its reach by investigating wider representation and diversity in its characters and storylines. The great ballets, he explained, presented a limited scope of personas that today are perceived as heteronormative and uni-dimensional. "Men have more substance that being macho; women have more substance than being dainty and frail," he said. "In classical ballet, if two men are on stage together they're usually either in a competition, or fighting. I can never connect to that. There is a lack of sensitivity around allowing men to be soft… Balanchine said, 'Ballet is woman.' As much as I respect him, ballet is human."
The Passengers, as with all of Thatcher's work, attempts to expand on this traditional narrative and create additional depth in balletic characters. Set in a train station to two scores by Steve Reich and inspired by 1950's Film Noir and Thatcher's travels, The Passengers is joined by Wheeldon's Fool's Paradise and a world premiere from Annabelle Lopez Ochoa for Joffrey's 60th-anniversary season opener.
The Joffrey Ballet presents "Millennials" Sept. 16-20 at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University, 50 E. Congress Pkwy. Tickets start at $32 available for purchase at Joffrey Tower, 10 E. Randolph St., as well as the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University's box office, all Ticketmaster Ticket Centers, by telephone at 800-982-2787 or online at ticketmaster.com .