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

Sarah Van Patten of the San Francisco Ballet

Sarah Van Patten of the San Francisco Ballet Photograph: Erik Tomasson

San Franciso Ballet's Sarah Van Patten looks forward to the company's New York season at the David H. Koch Theater, which will feature ballets by Mark Morris, Alexei Ratmansky and Christopher Wheeldon. In an interview, Van Patten opened up about working with the choreographers, her love of Balanchine and her love of drama.

When San Francisco Ballet arrives in New York for the first time in five years, one draw will be the repertory. But along with ballets by Mark Morris (two!) Alexei Ratmansky and Christopher Wheeldon (two again!), there are the spectacular dancers. Among them is the ravishing principal Sarah Van Patten. Here, she talks up the season.

Time Out New York: Was your mother a dancer?  
Sarah Van Patten:
She was. I started when I was around six or seven as an after-school activity—a jazz, tap and ballet after-school thing. In two years or so, I stopped doing the jazz and tap, and I just kept with ballet, so by the time I was nine or ten, I was dancing after school five days a week and then it just stuck. [Laughs]

Time Out New York: That’s a young age to become so fixated on something. What was it about ballet?
Sarah Van Patten:
When I was that age it wasn’t like I went and saw a performance and decided that was what I wanted to do. I really enjoyed the musicality with the movement. I seemed to have good coordination. I could enjoy it because I seemed to be able to do it, so I think those factors kept me wanting to spend more hours doing it and to learn more advanced steps; the more I did and the more I started doing little pieces and dedicating more time to it, that’s how I knew I wanted to pursue a real dance career.

Time Out New York: What was your first performance?
Sarah Van Patten:
I remember back to doing Flower Festival [in Genzano] pas de deux. I think that was my first pas de deux ever. I was maybe ten. I went on pointe when I was nine. I was young.

Time Out New York: Who were you studying with then?
Sarah Van Patten:
My teacher was Jacqueline Cronsberg, and she owned a school, Ballet Workshop of New England, that then had a youth company, Massachusetts Youth Ballet, and I was a part of this. It was a relatively small school. Her daughter, Sandra Jennings, danced with New York City Ballet and is a répétiteur for the Balanchine Trust, and she set many Balanchine ballets on us. So I did Serenade, “Russian girl” when I was 12. I did Concerto Barocco, first violin, when I was 13. I got to do [Le] Baiser de la Fée, the principal. I did Divertimento No. 15. We did Who Cares? So I got to dance a lot when I was quite young, which I think really helped me take on a company when I was really young. I joined the Royal Danish when I was 15. Without all of that experience, I think I would have come in and not really understood how you pick up choreography and do what you need to do.

Time Out New York: Weren’t you with Boston Ballet School for a little while?
Sarah Van Patten:
I was. I studied there when I was seven or eight for a few years. I quickly made the transition after taking a summer course with my teacher when I was nine. I was at Boston Ballet, and it was fine; we had relatively large classes, and I was one of many even though I was put in their advanced track. I went to study with Jackie, and I immediately put pointe shoes on and started learning all this choreography and moving, and it just felt like this is where I wanted to be. It wasn’t the big, necessarily prestigious school, but I had a lot of attention. It was really great training for me and that’s what really turned me into the dancer that I became, all of that work with her.

Time Out New York: What was it about her training that was so beneficial for you?
Sarah Van Patten:
It was a Balanchine school. Specifically, the musicality in the technique clicked for me. It’s a very specific musicality and port de bras, and that made sense in my body. And her attention to detail and taking the time for that—I had many private lessons with her where she would bring me from school to the studio, and we would work for an hour or so before class. I had a lot of one on one, and I think that personal attention mixed with being in a school where I had her every day—I really was able to evolve. I didn’t have teachers coming in and out; we worked many hours on the weekends, and it was a very dedicated group. All the students in my class were on track to be professional dancers.

Time Out New York: What is it like to perform something that you danced at 12 now?
Sarah Van Patten:
[Laughs] It’s funny. It’s in my body. As you know, when you’re in school, you rehearse for, like, six months. I will never forget “Russian girl”—all these parts. Even though I haven’t done it in a few years, I’d be able to do it right now just because we worked so much on it. I feel like it’s in me, it’s in my body.

Time Out New York: I want to ask about the Royal Danish, but first did you ever consider the School of American Ballet or New York City Ballet?
Sarah Van Patten:
Definitely. I love Balanchine ballets, so it was definitely something that I had considered. I think, because I had such great training and was in a position where I was dancing all these works, I didn’t want to go into a school. I was ready. I wanted to dance. It just so happened that the way things worked out, I got this job offer to join the Royal Danish, and it put me in a company right away and that’s how things evolved. 

Time Out New York: What happened? Sandra was staging a ballet in Denmark, and she took you along?
Sarah Van Patten:
Yes. Colleen Neary and her husband [Thordal Christensen] were the directors of the Royal Danish, and because Colleen was a NYCB dancer—I want to say Sandy was setting a Balanchine piece on the company. There was some talk that the school at the time didn’t necessarily have apprentice-kind-of-dancers coming up; three of us flew over, and Jackie came with us.

Time Out New York: I read an article about you right before you left where you said you wanted to learn how to become friends with your boyfriend because you were leaving.
Sarah Van Patten:
Oh goodness. Was it in Danish?

Time Out New York: No, English. Beacon Hill Times. It just made me think what it must have been like for you to change cultures.
Sarah Van Patten:
It was a shock. On one hand, I was coming from not knowing anything else into being in a company so anything would have been a shock, but on top of that, having an apartment and a paycheck and the everyday-life things that you have to start doing on your own—even though, to be honest, I was very independent before that. I had lived in an apartment in Pennsylvania when I was 14 doing Nutcracker with Pennsylvania Ballet; I had traveled to New York to take class with Willy Burmann and to work with Sandy. Being on my own wasn’t really scary to me. It was more the logistics of everyday life and being in a company and going to company class, picking up choreography in your rehearsals, preparing for the day—and growing up. I look back and I don’t know how I did that, but because it was for the first time and I was kind of naive; I was like, All right, I’ll just do this. I went with the flow. It sorted itself out and, yes, it was very hard. But I got there, and I did like everybody else and got into a rhythm and by just watching and seeing how the older dancers went about their day—by example—I think that’s how the younger ones learn. That’s how you understand the ways of company life. At that time, the Royal Danish did not have very many foreign dancers. I was one of very few, and I was 15. I got a lot to dance early on, so it was tough at times.

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