How a San Francisco Dancer is Representing Queer Culture in Ballet
This article was originally published on GayCities.com.
Myles Thatcher arrived in San Francisco in the summer of 2007 at the age of 17. He arrived on a scholarship from the San Francisco Ballet School, one of the best in the nation. But having just come out to family and friends back home in small-town Pennsylvania, and not even of legal drinking age, he had no idea what to expect.
In a stroke of luck, he had arrived on Pride weekend.
"I couldn’t believe my eyes as I came off the train and saw a city plastered in rainbows," he recalls in an interview with Queerty. "I remember being moved to tears during the parade. I had never seen so many queer people in one place. The sense of freedom, belonging, celebration and community was overwhelmingly beautiful. It was that moment when I decided I had to live in San Francisco."
The city continued to inspire him in ways he could not have imagined. Not only did he win a coveted spot as a dancer for the San Francisco Ballet, but he has become a champion of non-binary sexual and gender representation in traditional dance, as well as a choreographer of note. Two of his works, "Ghost in the Machine" and "Otherness", passionately incorporate these themes.
Thatcher agreed to show Queerty around his favorite haunts of his adopted city. We met at the Pacific Heights apartment he shares with a friend, a fellow dancer. The two have a few days off before practice starts for the Ballet's production of the holiday staple, "The Nutcracker".
The Christmas tree is trimmed, and Thatcher's roommate is getting his hair cut in an adjacent room. Dressed in a blue shirt buttoned up to the neck and black jeans that show off his sculpted dancer's legs, Thatcher apologizes for "the mess" that does not seem to exist in the tidy pad. The only sign that Thatcher's life here might be somewhat out of the ordinary is the mannequin standing next to the tree with a wig covering it, a prop for the drag calendar Thatcher is producing to benefit local charities.
Polaroid taken during Thatcher's first summer in SF
It must have felt scary to land in a big city like San Francisco at 17.
Fortunately, the San Francisco Ballet is one of the top companies in the world. I fell in love with not just the city but the company pretty much right away and decided to take the risk of declining job offers just in order to audition for the ballet school’s trainee program. Luckily, it paid off and I moved to San Francisco not long after the Pride visit. From there, I joined the company as a full-time dancer while starting my choreographic career. A decade later, I’m still here, dancing and choreographing.
How has the culture of the city influenced your work?
This city has always been at the forefront of social and political conversation, and I often find myself reflecting these themes in my work. Classical ballet comes from a strong place of tradition, which can be a beautiful thing. With that said, I also think it’s important to keep pushing the art form forward. I’m interested in finding more ways to engage with today’s generation and looking at topics that feel relevant to us today.
My second ballet, "Ghost In The Machine," is a reflection on the ever-polarizing political atmosphere that was gaining momentum in our country leading up to the 2016 election, and more importantly, how to reconcile the divisiveness it created. I’ve also created "Otherness", a ballet about gender expression and gender non-conformity.
Ballet can be quite heteronormative in both the ways we practice our craft and the stories we tell on stage. Not only did I want to find representation for this topic in the story, but I also wanted to look at how we could internally examine how we look at gender.
For the ballet, I decided to create a leading role that was danced by both a male and female dancer. I’m really interested in the ways we can carve out space for our gender non-conforming, trans, and non-binary siblings, whether they are audience members or dancers themselves.
With all that said, San Francisco audiences are able to handle art with strong messaging behind it, and in turn, they challenge me to explain the things I find important.
Thatcher in his living room.
How do these themes play out in your own life?
I think a lot about how my identity translates to who I want to represent as a dancer. Often in ballet, men are encouraged to be defiantly strong, macho, and impenetrable in their strength and masculinity. Of course, I can’t deny how beautiful that can be on stage. But I also think it is important to carve out space for different ways men can be perceived and behave. We can also be vulnerable and tender and soft. I’m proud to be part of this discussion.
How has the machismo of traditional ballet affected you personally?
Historically, there have been a lot of gay people in ballet, but it has not been an expression of their lives. Growing up in ballet, I felt pressure to act masculine in certain ways that were not comfortable. No one said, "You are acting too gay" or "You look too gay," but a few people might have said something more subtle, like "You look a little light." That made me feel like I had to change who I am to be accepted in ballet, which is wrong.
Ballet has traditionally been about classic straight love stories, and the idea was that you had to be believable in your love for a woman. That idea kept a lot of dancers from being themselves. Gay men can be just as believable as straight men. Now ballet is starting to address these things, which makes me happy.
There's not enough male tenderness in ballet, and that's part of what I want to contribute. "Otherness" is a love letter to trans and non-binary people, a love story for the people in our audience who have never seen that kind of representation on our stage. It breaks my heart how our trans and non-binary siblings have been treated in traditional dance. Modern dance has been way healthier on this for a long time, and now it's our time to catch up. My generation simply thinks differently about gender and sexuality, and we need to reflect that to keep ballet relevant.
"Ghost In The Machine" at SF Ballet Photo by Erik Tomasson
How do you identify yourself in your own life?
I identify as both gay and queer. Queer feels less labeled and allows for fluidity. I don't feel I conform to a masculine stereotype. At the same time, there is something beautiful about how we had to define LGBTQ into existence so we could be recognized and seen. There was a time early in the 20th century when homosexuality was not even something to be discussed. Advocacy needs labels. But now in the Bay Area and other progressive places, maybe the labels are not quite so necessary. We have less of a need to define.
How should both locals and visitors tap into the world you describe, the one where people come together regardless of identity?
I love how we are starting to blend spaces in the city. Everything becomes a queer space here; but if you want to find gay spaces, you can still find plenty in the bars in the Castro and SoMa. Some of my favorite places are blends. The diversity of events and audiences at the Castro Theater is amazing. The bar Blackbird tends to be like 50-50 gay and straight, creating a healthy mix. I love Beaux, where there are all kinds of people who just love to dance together. I love the "Drag Race" parties at The Mix, by the pool table and on the back patio, where people are always friendly. There's a party, Glamcocks, where I'll put on a costume to go. Frankly, I don't go out as much as I'd like. When the ballet is in season, I can't drink, do hard drugs or stay out late.
Tell us about your life in the city.
Work keeps me pretty busy. I live in Pacific Heights with an easy walk to work, luckily all downhill. It's my form of meditation. On the way, I'll listen to something like Sufjan Stevens, Robin or Ariana or catch up on some podcasts such as "Nancy", "Reply All" or Jonathan Van Ness's "Getting Curious". Willam and Alaska are doing a recap of "Drag Race," which I love.
Myles bonds with a four-legged neighbor. Photo by Stephen Underhill
On the streets, strangers lend you their puppies and greet you in various admiring ways.
What can I say? I can’t pass up a good puppy! I love the vibe of the city. Everyone is so friendly and relaxed. I find it really refreshing, and after all this time here, I still love it. And, yes, I’m spotted a few times by some serious ballet fans.
How do you stay in shape when you are not dancing?
The Lyon Street Steps have one of my favorite views of the city. They look down on the Palace of Fine Arts, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the Marina district. During the off-season, when the weather is nice, I’ll head up here to do some cross training. Frankly, my personal time off is pretty limited, so you’re more likely to find me on my couch Netflixing than doing the stairs. I just finished watching "Haunting of Hill House" for the second time. I highly recommend it if you like a good spook.
What is it like to work in the War Memorial Opera House?
I can’t even tell you how much I love working in the War Memorial Opera House. It is right across the street from City Hall, and it is such a beautiful historic building.
I know that sometimes a place like the Opera House can feel intimidating to first-time audience members, so I’m working alongside the ballet to find ways we can break down barriers and form a welcoming environment to invite people into our space.
This year, we are revamping the Nite Out event during the SF Ballet season. We’ve selected three Fridays during our rep season to celebrate the community with a post-show party in the basement of the theater. I’m hosting alongside my friend and fellow dancer, Solomon Golding, and we will be pairing with three non-profits that do amazing work in our community. It’s a great way to meet the dancers, have a drink, and see some amazing dance.
Myles at City Hall's Harvey Milk Bust
City Hall is in some ways the birthplace of marriage equality.
I recently finished the autobiography of the gay rights activist Cleve Jones, "When We Rise". He talks about his life in San Francisco during the late seventies and early eighties, as well as his work with Harvey Milk and the gay rights movement. I think all of the principles that allowed San Francisco to be at the forefront of social change at that time are still alive in the city today.
What's your favorite cafe?
Blue Bottle is my go-to coffee shop for a great cup of coffee. Hayes Valley has changed a ton since I moved here, but this alley is a hidden gem. It's lined with graffiti art and looks towards Patricia’s Green, where I will usually hang out during my breaks. Plus, you can always find a pack of puppies around here.
Myles enjoying the alley bench across from Blue Bottle in Hayes Valley.
Myles the puppy magnet at Blue Bottle.
Where do you shop?
I gave my dad a sweater from Marine Layer shop a few years ago. I think he might wear it every other day, and it still looks brand new. I’m not sure if I could give it a better recommendation than that.
MAC is a super fun shop right by the ballet. There are a lot of fun and unique pieces here, and I’d get one of everything if I had the means.
Myles tries on Walter Van Beirendonck jacket and scarf at MAC in Hayes Valley
What’s this about a drag calendar for charity?
Ever since I was a little kid, drag has been a big part of my life. The creativity, the transformation, and the rebellion that inherently lives in the art form have always encapsulated the spirit of the queer community. Now as an adult, I see how all of these ideas can transcend the queer community and apply to us all.
My ballet coworkers and I are releasing a super fun 2019 drag calendar this year. Everyone from our photographer to our digital artist to each and every one of the models is a ballet dancer. In fact, more than half of the models identify as straight, so it has been a really cool way to invite people into things that I love. They’ve all trusted me to bring out and showcase their inner feminine side, and I was amazed at their willingness to discover it with me. What we discovered together was beautiful. All proceeds will go to San Francisco's LGBTQ Center and LYRIC.