Myles Thatcher on his SF Ballet World Premiere COLORFORMS

by Michael Phelan

February 9, 2021—At the age of 30 Myles Thatcher has distinguished himself, both as an established choreographer and by rising to the rank of Soloist with San Francisco Ballet. He has received numerous distinctions and created dances for prestigious companies such as San Francisco Ballet, New York City Ballet, Joffrey Ballet, and others. His latest work, titled COLORFORMS, was filmed to be presented to an online audience during this pandemic season. The filming locations around San Francisco included the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) and Golden Gate National Park. Music is by Steve Reich and costumes were designed Susan Roemer. Myles Thatcher generously took a few minutes out of another busy day to discuss COLORFORMS with Michael Phelan of BayDance.com.

Q: Tell me about your new ballet. Why have you called this piece COLORFORMS?

Myles Thatcher: I thought it was really important to find a title that was accessible and inviting. We had a few iterations, like words in another language, that we felt were maybe a little too intellectual to bring people in. I wanted to find something that was simple and indicative of the joy and irreverence that's incorporated in the film. And later I also found there was a reference to these toys called COLORFORMS. They're little plastic, colored shapes that you get on a sheet, and you can combine them to form whatever your imagination creates. I thought that really kind of captured a lot of elements in the film that we wanted to look at. So yeah, it resonated with me. It's inviting and simple enough that it's not intimidating for non-dancers to watch, which is super important to me. I really wanted to make something inviting, not only for people from the dance world, but for people who might be just getting their feet wet.

Myles Thatcher, protégé. Paris, France, 2014 ©Rolex/ Reto Albertalli
Myles Thatcher, protégé. Paris, France, 2014 ©Rolex/ Reto Albertalli

Q: I understand that you got the inspiration for this work from one of Alexander Calder's mobile sculptures.

MT: Yeah! Before I knew this was going to be a film, that was my initial response to the Steve Reich music, especially at this point in time when we're all so connected and all of our behaviors affect one another. I thought that was a really good way of encapsulating that in one piece of art, those mobiles, because they're so kinetic and they lend themselves to movement, like there's this kind of invisible force connecting everything. I thought that was really kind of beautiful and timely. So that was my starting point at the beginning of the piece. We (the collaborators) had these discussions about we can't be onstage and we can't access the theater space in the way we're used to. I knew SF MOMA already had a Calder exhibit, so that's why I decided to throw out the crazy idea of seeing if MOMA would be up for a collaboration. Luckily, they were super responsive and really generous with their time and space. I'm really excited about that element. For me it's really important to try and figure out how to make up for all the elements of live performance that we'll be missing with a screen dance. So I'm happy we found these different environments that make the piece richer and more integrated and kind of like just to dream big.

San Francisco Ballet in Thatcher's COLORFORMS © San Francisco Ballet
San Francisco Ballet in Thatcher's COLORFORMS © San Francisco Ballet

Q: In addition to MOMA, how did you choose the other locations?

MT: Well, I really wanted it to feel rooted in MOMA. I think, especially with the collaboration of SF MOMA and SF Ballet, I knew both of us rely on physical space to share our work, and we don't have that opportunity any more. Even the concept of this digital season is transcending those spaces in the way that we're used to and kind of pushing past inviting people in and trying to move outside of what we know in these institutions. I thought conceptually that was really interesting, and I wanted to take that and go with it. So we used spaces in the MOMA and used a few art spaces, but I really wanted to showcase the architecture and identity of MOMA itself. We also found a way to utilize theater space as heightened dance spaces that correlate with the dances in MOMA. I thought it was really important to also show classical technique and use pointe shoes and big jumps, things that are best achieved in spaces where we have a marley and a sprung floor where the dances feel comfortable. SF Ballet excels in classical technique, and that's where a lot of my work is rooted in. So I'm happy to find that connection between the two. We also filmed in Yerba Buena Gardens, and we filmed the last sequence in Golden Gate Park in a redwood grove. In that final section of the film we break off from spaces we're super familiar with. It was really fun to outfit dance out there because it's so different, and I think it's really powerful and impactful, but I think for me it was really important to find a journey between point A and point B. That's how I usually approach my work for the theater and the stage anyway. So I knew to keep people engaged for seventeen minutes on film. Without that live element we had to figure out a way to keep the story and this evolution going. That's a little bit in each of the spaces and it feels really well balanced. I'm happy we made those choices. I'm grateful that we're able to access those spaces in a time like this.

Q: How far along were you on making this work when the performance was cancelled. Did you have to rework it as a film?

MT: When the pandemic hit I still hadn't created anything. I knew I had a commission coming up, but I hadn't worked with the dancers yet. I hadn't started getting into the nitty-gritty of it yet. So luckily I didn't have to backtrack on anything, and I was able to step into the project knowing it was going to be on film once we were in the studios with the dancers. What makes this so different for me is I've worked with some dance on film, but a lot of that was works that I refitted for film from their stage iterations. This is the first long form piece I've made specifically for a film, integrating these spaces and having that journey with my collaborators the whole way. It's a super different way for a ballet company to work. I often think that a lot of shorter dance films that come out of dance companies are kind of like a teaser, maybe a teaser for a stage work or as stand alone bite-sized pieces. It was fun to take on that extra challenge, but also I think there's so much to explore with this kind of rubric. So I'm grateful that I had the opportunity to explore it and that the Company trusted me with the time and resources it would take to do that. It's a big investment, especially when we're not able to perform. I thought it was really special that the Company took that risk.

Q: I assume you selected the dancers for this work?

MT: It was a little tricky just because with the covid protocols we have to work in dancers pods, so there could be no overlap, not only with dancers, but with a second cast or with roommates, or with households, with dancers between my work, Helgi's work, or Danielle Rowe's work. There was some back and forth and some decision making there. But I'm really happy with the group that I ended with. (laughs) It was a really special time for all of us. I admire not only their technical abilities, but also their intelligence and openness to be collaborative in their effort and find their own selves in the work. I feel lucky with how that all sorted out. There's definitely a little back and forth, and I'm good with that. (laughs) That's just part of the job.

Q: And you've got outstanding dancers.

MT: I'm so happy with the group that I was able to work with. Everyone worked together really well. I know this Company so well because I've been here quite a while, and I know which personalities work well together, and who's suited toward each other. And I know everybody's strengths, which I wanted to showcase as well as I could. And especially since I knew that this work would be accessible to so many who aren't in San Francisco and who can't get to know our Company like the locals here can. So I felt a little pressure to deliver a product that honored these dancers and how amazing they are.

Frances Chung in Thatcher's COLORFORMS © San Francisco Ballet
Frances Chung in Thatcher's COLORFORMS © San Francisco Ballet

Q: Did you feel that any particular dancers were especially suited to express what you had in mind, say like Frances or Esteban?

MT: You know, I think everybody, and this is what's interesting, I had a cast that's fully through the ranks. I had principal dancers and corps de ballet members. Everybody's energy compounded on itself. Everybody not only allowed space for other people to shine, but also kind of amplified each other. I don't know if that sounds awfully egalitarian of me, but I often work in a way that I hope to give everybody a little place to shine no matter what rank they are. I really see everyone contributing to the same vision that all of us are creating together. It would be hard for me to single out one person or another because I think everybody contributed so much, both in their technical abilities but also in the way they shape the ballet feels and the connection in it. All those things are really important in order to communicate the heart of the vision. That's something that's really special and doesn't always manifest. So I feel really happy about that. Especially in such a hard time when we all have to trust each other to stay safe and be responsible. I felt honored to work with the group that I had. I know that sounds awfully diplomatic, but it's true.

Cavan Conley and Esteban Hernandez in Thatcher's COLORFORMS © San Francisco Ballet
Cavan Conley and Esteban Hernandez in Thatcher's COLORFORMS © San Francisco Ballet

Q: In a previous interview you said that you love that choreographer Liam Scarlett gives you a lot of freedom as a dancer. Did that experience influence your choreography for COLORFORMS?

MT: I do think there's something to be said for creating movement and allowing a piece to speak for itself. It's funny you bring this up, because I've been thinking about it more and more. For me it's important to leave space for the ballet to become the thing that it is rather than me holding on to an idea that I think it might be saying, but I think it might be saying something slightly different once it's finished and all the collaborators have had their hands in there, and all of these different artists shape it. That's my one hesitation for sharing. But this was a specific project because dance film is such a different way of working than a theater work. There are so many more people involved in executing the vision from beginning to end. There are many more artists involved who have knowledge of things I know nothing about, like film making. So I found myself having to articulate myself in a clearer way earlier on in the process to get everybody on the same page. I made sure to create a story board, even before I made a movement, of what the ideas were and how I imagined the film playing out narratively. And as I made the movement, I sort of did the same thing with the choreography and the steps and pictures of the spaces I imagined we'd be in and how they interacted with the music and the music edits we were making. It was important to be as clear as possible with the vision in this project as soon as we could. Once you get creative minds on a zoom call, the vision is bound to evolve and change. I thought that was also a really fun and exciting part about this, because I got to learn so much about everybody's else's craft. It enriched the way we executed this project. It's exciting to see it all finally come together. Just a few days ago we had a discussion about what the title design would look like in the beginning of the film and how it was animated and what colors it would use. There's endless amounts of people who have their hands in it and put their own artistic stamp on it. I think my job is to make sure all of these shape the same identity of the piece. It's an interesting dynamic.

Q: In a previous interview you said that art should be a reflection of our times, which have been pretty interesting lately. Will the audience recognize current events in COLORFORMS?

MT: I think what I set out to do was make a piece that really inspires joy and wonder. I wanted something that felt aspirational. I wanted something that felt like it was the art I needed right now. Something with a touch of escapism, that takes us out of this world, and at the same time touches on the way we connect with each other. I'm not afraid to lean into some tough subjects in the work that I do. I really wanted to create something that felt joyful and explored all of the beauty that this Company has to offer and that art has to offer to the world. We're in a world now where we're having to prioritize things in our society, and rightfully so. I think often when we're talking about national budgets and where things are going, of course the arts can feel superfluous. I combat that with whenever I'm having a really hard time, the thing that gets me back on track is art. There's nothing like it to connect me to other people's experiences and to the world around me, and to beauty, and empathy, and all of these really beautiful things that enrich who we are and hopefully cause to think a little differently about our world. Those are things I hope I can encompass as an artist, but especially just creating something that feels hopeful, joyful, and aspirational right now, because I think that's what we all need, especially as we're feeling so isolated. We want something that connects all of us.

Q: Speaking of connecting all of us, would you like to choreograph more dance films, more virtual viewing, so you can reach broader audiences?

MT: Absolutely. The medium, especially in the field of classical ballet, has so much to be explored. I wouldn't be surprised, and I hope, that ballet companies see the value of that. We giving a product that doesn't have a seating capacity. In the past I've heard a lot of critical voices afraid that a medium like film would take precedence over live theater, which I don't believe. I think in live theater there's something so irreplaceable about that experience, being face to face and surrounded by people all sharing the same experience. I think that will never die. And now that we can't do that, we're all seeing that value of it. At the same time, I hope companies like San Francisco Ballet will keep incorporating this digital into new work. It's such a great tool, not only for artistic expression and collaboration, but also to include people into what we're doing. Spaces like museums and theaters, symphony halls, can feel intimidating to a lot of people. Just taking that step into the door without really knowing what the art form is can be tough. I hope that dance and film can be a bridge to allow people to become more comfortable with seeing dance and knowing how to watch dance, engage them more, and investing the money to go to the theater. Letting people see dance without feeling intimidated by it is super important. I think we're moving in the right direction with this.

COLORFORMS will be shown as part of San Francisco Ballet's Program 02 from February 11-March 3. For more information see sfballet.org.