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

Time Out New York: How did he direct your Cinderella?
Sarah Van Patten:
Because it’s a joint production with Dutch National, he choreographed parts on us and parts on them, so both of the companies could really feel like it was their own. I did a lot of the creating of Edwina, but I was also in the studio a lot for Cinderella. I got to be there for the evolution of both parts. What was great—especially for me—was to really have the severe character differences and to really hear the background of his thought process on the different characters. For every step—every kind of movement or gesture—he’ll talk it out: “This is what’s going through your head.” He’d have a whole conversation going during a variation or during a scene, and that’s what made the process really enjoyable, especially for a part like Edwina, where you’re being comedic and loud with all of these big movements. And the same for Cinderella. He really talked through a lot of the choreography; that makes the story feel real. I don’t know if that makes sense.

Time Out New York: It does. I’ve watched him in the studio, and he’s so great at not only explaining what he wants but doing it himself.
Sarah Van Patten:
Yeah. It’s nice when you’re trying to replicate what he’s doing and it’s so clear that you’re really able to put on the stage what the choreographer has envisioned.

Time Out New York: Do you enjoy dancing Edwina even more than Cinderella?
Sarah Van Patten:
I wouldn’t say more. I would say it’s very different, but to be honest I dance Edwina with one of my best friends who is Clementine—Frances Chung—and not only is Edwina fun, but I’m also dancing with Fran and we just have a blast.

Time Out New York: You’re also drawn to comedy.
Sarah Van Patten:
I am. [Laughs] Over the years, I get very excited when there’s a comedic ballet like The Concert or Ratmansky’s Carnival of the Animals. I got to do the elephant.

Time Out New York: Tell me about the Ratmansky ballet From Foreign Lands.
Sarah Van Patten:
He created that last season. I have known him since I was 15, because he was in the Royal Danish. When he did his Nutcracker in Copenhagen, I was in it. I was a part of his very early choreographic days. I’ve known him for a long time.

Time Out New York: What were your feelings about his choreography then?
Sarah Van Patten:
When I moved to Copenhagen, it was also my first experience outside of seeing mainly Balanchine work and so I was seeing Bournonville and—I wouldn’t say there was much Forsythe, but there was that kind of rep. And then I was watching him, and I could see that he was incredibly talented. I didn’t have much to base it on except that I remember some of his works from when I joined the company and I could tell he was very innovative. I knew he was going to go far and it was just a matter of time—obviously, he’s been all over the world and he’s just had an incredible career. He’s always been incredibly polite, very kind, very gentle, but demanding in a sense of really wanting to get the most out of you. He never yells; he gets it out of you by still maintaining—

Time Out New York: He’s persistent?
Sarah Van Patten:
Yes. He knows it can come out.  So even if you’re like, Arrrgh, he’ll just be patient and, “Okay, let’s just try that again.” He’s also incredibly clear and just like how Chris shows, he can demonstrate musicality and steps and his ideas so well that there’s no way to not do it. It’s very clear what he wants and what it is and what he’s aiming for.

Time Out New York: What is his new ballet like?
Sarah Van Patten:
I do a really fun, really enjoyable tarantella. It’s the Italian section, and I also do a Spanish section as well as the ending, which is a Hungarian type of finale with everyone. I know from the people who’ve watched it that it’s definitely a piece that goes by quickly. He’s very good about using movement and space in a way, so you’re always a part of what’s happening—you never get into a dreamlike-waiting [place]. It keeps moving in a very interesting way. He uses the space and the dancers and the movement in ways that you feel like, Oh! Is this like something I’ve seen? But it’s not. It’s never like anything you’ve seen before, which is what’s so interesting. And I feel like a lot of his ballets—because I’ve danced Russian Seasons and Carnival and now this—they’re all so different. It’s like a brand-new idea. That’s what is great about his work.

Time Out New York: What part do you dance in Russian Seasons?
Sarah Van Patten:
The woman in red. Very powerful. His work always has the most simple ideas but the most effective. It doesn’t take crazy costumes and lighting—it’s super simple, but incredibly effective and I think that’s what makes such a big impression.

Time Out New York: What is your approach to musicality?
Sarah Van Patten:
I’m learning. In ballets that I’ve danced before and am coming back to, you have a muscle memory. We’ve had a changeover of ballet masters in pieces that I’ve worked on before, and they’ll come with another approach and a musicality or a different way of hearing the steps. I think it’s important to keep that fresh and spontaneous and if you have the ability to explore a little bit, it can be really interesting in evolving in a role—unless you’re doing something where you’re in a piece by Ratmansky or Yuri Possokhov, who has a very clear idea of the musicality he’s looking for and will stamp it out in front of you, because it really shows off the step in a certain way. If you stay true to that, that’s one thing, but if you’re in a place where you can really play with a phrase or how you develop a step, it makes it more interesting over the course of dancing a role. To see what else you can do with it.

Time Out New York: Is there a ballet master in particular that you connect with now?
Sarah Van Patten:
They all bring something to the table, for sure. It’s important to have more than one person that you’re working with. Like I said, there have been some who have come and gone and it’s nice to have someone come in with a fresh perspective. You do something like Nutcracker every year. I’ll work with a ballet master on my Nut pas variation, and it’s really interesting to see just what it is that they see out of a solo for me to work on that’s so different than another. Especially in something like Nutcracker, because it is every year with this music and these steps.

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