Cupcakes & Conversation with Sarah Van Patten, Principal, San Francisco Ballet
What motivates you at 8am on a Monday morning?
If Monday is the start of a new ballet then it’s always exciting to see what will be created. I love seeing what can evolve from nothing. I’m also always excited, not only by the process of the pieces I am working on, but also the relationships and friendships that I build every day.
When I was younger I started doing jazz, tap and ballet as after school activities. Slowly, I left jazz and tap and started focusing on ballet. By the time I was eight I was dancing five days a week, and by the time I was eleven I knew that I wanted to pursue a dance career. For some dancers they see a performance as a kid and decide that they want to dance, but for me it was a gradual realization.
What are you looking forward to dancing during 2012 & what are the big challenges likely to be for you?
I am lucky to be a part of many of the ballets in the repertoire. This season I am looking forward to the return of Onegin, as well Christopher Wheeldon’s Cinderella. Other ballets include Wheeldon’s Within the Golden Hour, Jerome Robbins’ In the Night, and Balanchine’s Scotch Symphony and Symphony in Three Movements. There are also a few new works being created this fall which I always enjoy being a part of. These works are by choreographers, Yuri Possikhov, Alexei Ratmansky, Wayne McGregor, and Helgi Tomasson.
Who would you most like to dance with & what would you dance?
I’m lucky to dance with wonderful partners here at SF Ballet. I recently saw Hamburg Ballet dance when I was guesting with the company, and I would love to dance another full length of John Neumeier such as Lady of the Camellias.
If you could dance anywhere in the world (not only in a theatre), where would you dance?
I remember dancing outside in the Acropolis in Greece and having an incredible experience. I also danced at the Spoleto Festival in Italy. These were both outdoors. When the weather is right, I find it to be very liberating to dance in a beautiful outdoor setting.
How do you prepare your pointe shoes?
I like to bend my shoes when they are brand new, to soften the shank as well as step on the box of the shoe to soften and flatten it. Then I remove two nails in the shank and cut down the material so that the cardboard ends where the arch of my foot is. I sew on the ribbons and the elastics and tie and trim the drawstrings. I like to wear new shoes so I go through many pairs a season.
What is your daily routine at the moment?
At the moment I’m in rehearsal period at the ballet. I’m working Monday through Friday, about six hours a day. When I’m rehearsing full days, (like I am now) I have very little time for anything else outside of ballet. I just focus on being prepared for my rehearsals by eating well and getting enough sleep. This also includes taking care of any body aches or possible injuries that can arise. I try to stretch a lot during this time of the year because seven hours of dancing each day can take a toll on the body!
What do you eat during the course of a typical working day?
I have to have my coffee! I’ll have either a piece of toast with a hard boiled egg, or a bowl of cereal with blueberries. For lunch, I’ll either have a piece of toast with avocado and a slice of cheese or some yogurt with granola and fruit. I’ll also eat a banana or an apple, as well as trail mix to keep me going on long days. For dinner I like to cook. I’ll make either fish or chicken with some vegetables and rice or potatoes. I also love chocolate and will either walk to my favorite gelato store at night or have a piece of dark chocolate.
You can ask six famous people to dinner – whom would you invite?
This is a hard question, but if I had to pick six to start I would say George Balanchine, Joe Montana, Woody Allen, Robin Williams, Bob Dylan, Gandhi.
What would surprise people about you?
I’m a huge football fan. I grew up watching the New England Patriots but I’ve also become a Buffalo Bills fan. I watch the games every Sunday during football season and I hope to make it to a few games.
Who inspired you to dance?
My family. I have amazing parents who are very supportive of my dance career. Without them I would not be the dancer I am today. I feel very blessed to have had a chance to achieve my dream of dancing professionally.
What is your best piece of advice?
When making choices in life always listen to your gut instinct. I’ve been confronted with some very tough choices at a very young age and somehow I just knew what the right choice was. It wasn’t always the easiest, but in the end it was right.
How do you prepare in the hours before a show?
I like to take eat something that would last me through the show like pasta or a sandwich with avocado and cheese. I’ll take a nap and then a hot shower before starting my make-up and doing my hair. I’ll also see our physical therapist who will work on whatever issue I’m dealing with at the time. About an hour and a half before the performance I’ll start stretching and do a barre. I’ll get my shoes on and practice some of my choreography on stage before getting into my costume and talking through things with my partner.
How do you deal with the stress of performing?
If I know I’ve rehearsed properly for a role then I know I’m prepared. When I dance full length ballets for the first time I’ll have more nerves than shorter ballets, due to the length of time I know I’m on stage and the pressure of needing to carry the evening. I try to think about one section at a time in order to not overwhelm myself. This way the story evolves naturally so each that section feels spontaneous.
Which role has tested you the most & how ?
During different times in my career different roles have tested me. A few years ago I danced my premier of Odette/Odile in Swan Lake. This was a huge technical challenge for me at the time – after dancing the role, I had more confidence in dancing other very technical ballets. One other very challenging work that really tested me as an artist was when I danced the Mermaid and the Princess in John Neumeier’s The Little Mermaid. Over the period of one week I danced nine back-to-back shows, performing either role. These two roles are complete opposite in character and technique so I needed to stay very focused throughout the week in order to switch back and fourth between the two.
If you were asked to design your own ballet costume, what would you create?
I’m not a designer or a choreographer but I always enjoy wearing flowing dresses. I also like to be in shades of blue!
What do you look for in a dance partner?
I look for someone who I can enjoy working with, who is coordinated and who will repeat a step 100 times until I feel we have achieved it. I love the process of creating a ballet, so I like to work hard and laugh in the studio. Luckily for me I’ve experienced this with all of my partners at SFB.
What is your favorite quote?
“Don’t think, just do.” Yuri Possokhov always says this and it’s good a good reminder for me, especially when I get nervous.
Do you have a ‘signature step’ – one that comes naturally to you?
I’m smiling reading this question because I’ve been known here at SFB to dance many of the dramatic works. If there’s a death involved I’m usually cast for the part.
A phrase I use far too often is … ?
I asked my boyfriend this question and his reply was…”Pick this up,” or “Is the dishwasher full?” “Why are there dishes in the sink?” I guess I’m a neat freak.
What’s been your best on-stage moment so far?
Two best on-stage favorites of mine have to be dancing the ballerina in Jerome Robbins’, The Concert and dancing the elephant in Alexei Ratmansky’s Carnival of the Animals. In both of these ballets I was able to dance “bad ballet” in a very exaggerated and humorous way. I had the time of my life dancing these parts on the stage.
Do you have a secret skill, which no one knows about?
I’m a good cook, I love to garden and organizing and cleaning relax me.
In terms of your ballet career, where would you like to be in a year from now?
I feel very lucky to be dancing for San Francisco Ballet. Next season will be my twelfth season with the Company. Every season is full of new challenges. I look forward to another season with the Company dancing great repertory.
What is your exit strategy, for the time when you stop dancing, and how did you plan it?
I’m very close to graduating college with a BA in Liberal Arts. In the past few years, I’ve helped organize a few fundraisers for different organizations. My first was one benefitting an organization called Children of Uganda. The second was for the Cancer Prevention Institute of California. I’ve enjoyed working on these projects and I could see myself going to business school to acquire the skills needed to fundraise and work in non-profit organizations.
San Francisco Ballet visit Sadlers Wells in London between 14-23 September