Sarah Van Patten talks about San Francisco Ballet

Sarah Van Patten talks about working with Mark Morris, Alexei Ratmansky and Christopher Wheeldon at San Francisco Ballet

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Time Out New York: You were Juliet at such a young age. What did that experience teach you in terms of carrying a ballet? 
Sarah Van Patten:
I was quite young, so I didn’t really know what was happening and I didn’t feel—when I got cast—oh my goodness, I have to be the main person for the next two-and-a-half hours and the show rests on my shoulders. I didn’t really think about that. I was like, Oh, okay. I don’t know. Maybe that’s me being super naive. It was almost not until it came back, and I started doing full-lengths—the older I’ve gotten, the more I really take on, Okay, I’m Odette and I really think about that more. We talk about when we’re young, we just go for it, you just do it and then when you get older you’re thinking about it more, you understand the pressure and it’s almost gotten harder the older I get. When I was young, I just kind of went out there and did it and didn’t really connect the dots of what that meant.

Time Out New York: Will you dance in Mark Morris’s Maelstrom.
Sarah Van Patten:
I hope I’m still in it. We haven’t done it for close to ten years, and I was in it then.

Time Out New York: What is his relationship like with you?
Sarah Van Patten:
Mark and I get along really well. I’ve been in a number of his works over the years, and he likes to use—I don’t want to say the same people, but if you get along with him, and you know how he works and you’re a part of the process, you’re in. I’ve been a part of many of his works, and I appreciate his attention to musicality; when he choreographs, he choreographs with a score, so he conducts our movements like the musicians would play. There’s something incredibly unique in his process that’s unlike many of the choreographers that we work with. You can really see that when you watch a piece of his.

Time Out New York: How does he draw qualities out of you?
Sarah Van Patten:
I think this is really important: When he works with a ballet company, he’s always on us about making sure we don’t add that extra ballet fluff. As I was saying with Alexei, he has a very pure, clean, simple approach—it’s all about how the simple movements go a long way. With Mark, it’s the same. So he brings out, I don’t want to say pedestrian [qualities], but he gets on us for little things. To run offstage, we do this big head motion, and he says to us: “Just run. Don’t get ready to run. Just go.” So things like that. You realize with a lot of older classical ballet, you have these isms, and he really tries to strip that and to just focus on the music, the movement and the dance. As he says, it’s added choreography. That’s good to always keep in mind.

Time Out New York: What were you doing in Cape Town in August?
Sarah Van Patten:
I was teaching. I am a student with the LEAP program. I’m a senior now. I’ve been in school for seven years or so. I didn’t go to high school. I went to work with Pennsylvania Ballet, and then I just trained, so when I moved to Copenhagen, I was supposed to be in ninth or tenth grade, and I just didn’t go. I got back to the States when I was 17 and I had no high-school diploma or any years of high school. I wanted to get on with college, so I took my GED exam and started college classes when I was maybe 21. Now, I’m a senior and have a handful of classes left and as part of a new class that they offered, there was a student who did some work in South Africa in Cape Town with dance schools just outside in townships. She put together a class where you pay your way to go and teach and you gain credit. It’s two weeks and you write a long paper on it. You have to apply for this class; they only bring five students. So I applied and was accepted. I taught at a school right outside Cape Town, and then I taught in the townships in the afternoons. It was about six hours a day of teaching. I set some of Wayne McGregor’s Chroma on one class, which was really fun, and then I would go out into the townships—it’s like a 45-minute drive—and they would bring the students to the school. I had, like, 37 11-year-olds for an hour and a half, and then I had my 12-to-17-year-olds for another hour and a half. It was an intense amount of teaching, because I had never really taught ballet, so I was teaching for the first time and I was teaching in South Africa. It was in a tough type of economic situation that was a very eye-opening, amazing experience. But it was a lot.

Time Out New York: Did it change anything about how you approach dance for yourself or why you still do it?
Sarah Van Patten:
I think there was an element of that. You see a lot of things; coming from our society and the world that I’m in, you really have to go into these areas to understand what it is you see on television. It’s very different. You think you know until you’re there. I didn’t really understand the power of dance and movement and owning your own movement and the way you use your body in space until I was in that situation. I realized how powerful that is and what a gift that is, especially when you’re teaching kids. A lot of my young ones had no discipline because they have no parents. Nobody was there taking care of them, and so I was teaching them what I felt was maybe useless, but I realized over my time there that the discipline—understanding how you move your body in relation to somebody else, that you don’t just walk over and kick them. Using dance as that kind of a tool was very interesting. And coming back—I’ve been in the company for 12 years, and I’ve been dancing for a while. I have an incredibly unique life. I think there is a routine that develops over the years. To take my next steps in the next hopefully eight years, or whatever is the second half of my career, I think it’s important to have that fresh perspective and to dive in and to not start to make the daily life of what it is I do a routine, but really understand how special it is.

Time Out New York: You have such intensity when you dance. What are you like before a performance?
Sarah Van Patten:
[Laughs] That would be a good Fran question. We share a dressing room. It depends on what the piece is. If it’s a dramatic work, you have to bring yourself into the mood and wherever it is you’re needing to be. But I’m not somebody that gets too “don’t talk to me” type of thing. I’m pretty easygoing. If I’m doing Odette, I probably wouldn’t be laughing in the wings right before, but for the most part I’m able to not get too wrapped up in being afraid.

Time Out New York: Do you consider yourself to be a dramatic dancer?
Sarah Van Patten:
It’s funny—there’s an ongoing joke that if there’s a death scene, I’m usually a part of it. I tend to do a lot of the dramatic work, but I hope that’s just one aspect of what I do. You don’t have to have a crypt scene in order to be a dramatic dancer. It’s not like putting on drama where there isn’t any, but you can bring out certain emotions just in a feeling of an abstract work.

Time Out New York: Do you really love and watch football?
Sarah Van Patten:
I do.

Time Out New York: How did you become a fan?
Sarah Van Patten:
My fiancé was a football player when he was at Harvard and when we first started dating, we started watching games. I had never watched football although to be perfectly honest, my father is a huge football fan and my brother. I was around it, but I never really understood it, and I think because Brad, my fiancé, played football, he’s quite passionate about it and so he took the time to explain the strategy involved and what’s going on in the game so that when I watched I could see more than just guys running into each other. I understood what was trying to happen, how it was a team sport and I could really understand the game and I think through that—I wouldn’t say I have to watch every Sunday or anything like that. But I can go and watch a game and I get into it and I enjoy it.

Time Out New York: You spoke about the next eight years. Is that what you have in the back of your mind about how much longer you’ll dance?
Sarah Van Patten:
In eight years, I’ll have been here for 20 years. I hope to dance as long as I can. I don’t want to go, obviously, too long and I think there’s a good balance there. I understand the demands that it takes to be in a company like SFB. I think some of my best years are to come.

San Francisco Ballet is at the David H. Koch Theater (at Lincoln Center) Oct 16–27.

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