San Francisco Ballet’s Myles Thatcher is on a mission to make dance as queer as the city

Myles Thatcher arrived in San Francisco in the summer of 2007 at the age of 17. He was there on scholarship at 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 yet 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 were overwhelmingly beautiful, and it was that moment when I decided I had to live in San Francisco.”

Over the next decade, the city would 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, the latter of which passionately incorporate these themes.

Thatcher agrees to show Queerty around his favorite haunts of his adopted city, and we meet 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 haircut 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.

It must have felt scary to land in a big city like San Francisco at 17.

A polaroid photo of Myles Thatcher in his college dorm room in July 2007.
Polaroid during Thatcher’s first summer in SF

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 both dancing and choreographing.

How has the culture of the city influenced your work?

Gay San Francisco Ballet dancer Myles Thatcher poses with a colorful cardigan in his living room, with exposed brick in the back.
Thatcher in his living room. Photo by Steven Underhill

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 for SF 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.

How do these themes play out in your own life?

Queer ballet dancer Myles Thatcher shirtless, doing a dance jump in front of a garage.
Photo by Oliver Endahl of Ballet Zaida

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?

A moment in Myles Thatchers' ballet called Ghost in the Machine, where there are about 20 dancers on stage.
‘Ghost In The Machine’ at SF Ballet Photo by Erik Tomasson

Historically, there have been a lot of gay people in ballet, but traditionally it has not been an expression of their lives. I know it sounds contradictory, but growing up in ballet I always felt pressure to act masculine in certain ways. No one said, You are acting too gay or looking too gay, but a few people might have said something more subtle, You look a little light. That made me feel like I had to change who I am to be accepted in ballet, which never sat well with me. Ballet has traditionally been about classic straight love stories, and with that idea, the straight male prince charming that comes with it. Of course, that can be great, but I think there is so much more room for different stories to be told.

Today’s generation in ballet has been having real conversations about how we represent sexuality and gender, which makes me super happy. Otherness is a love letter to trans and non-binary people, a love letter for the people in our audience who have never seen that kind of representation on our stage, but also to the dancers in our field who might not yet feel like they have a space in ballet. It breaks my heart to see the struggle some trans and non-binary have in finding a place in our art form, and I’m working hard to try to figure out how to carve out space for them. I see my generation thinking differently about gender and sexuality, and I’m happy to see us finally starting to reflect it through our art form.

How do you identify yourself, in your own life?

I identify as both gay and queer. I like the word queer because it feels less definitive and more fluid. I really think it’s fascinating that we are moving towards a world with fewer labels. Of course, there is something both beautiful and valuable about how we defined LGBTQ into existence so we could be recognized and seen as a people. There was a time early in the 20th century when homosexuality, let alone transgender and non-binary, was not even something to be discussed. To be recognized as real, we need to be labeled as existing. But now in the Bay Area and other progressive places, maybe the labels are becoming less necessary. The more we see gender and sexuality as fluid, the less we will need to put them in boxes.

How should locals and visitors tap into the world you describe, the one where people come together regardless of identity?

Myles, left, at Glamcocks with a friend

I love how we are starting to blend spaces in the city, anything can become 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 blended between gay and straight. The diversity of events and audiences at Castro Theater is amazing. The bar Blackbird tends to be like 50-50 gay and straight, creating a cool mix. I love Beaux Bar, where there are all kinds of people who just love to dance together. You can also find me at Drag Race viewings at the Mix, by the pool table and or the back patio, where people are always friendly. Also, there’s a burning man troupe called the Glamcocks that throw pretty epic themed costume parties. I must admit, I don’t go out too often. I need to take care of my body for work, so I rarely have late nights out when we are in season, but I’ll let loose every so often.

We live in a world where conservatives are trending the opposite direction of this city by reinforcing “traditional” gender and sexual stereotypes.

The way I see it, social progress works like a pendulum. We make progress, and inevitably it will rub some people the wrong way and there will be backlash. I do think it’s important to take stock of the advances we’ve made in the past decade or two, repealing ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ gaining marriage equality, the beginnings of healthcare reform. We have huge wins to celebrate. It is important that we don’t rest on our laurels when it feels like things are going our way. The past generations have worked their asses off to give us the privileges we have today. I’m forever humbled and inspired by the sacrifices they’ve made in order for me to live openly and honestly. Now it is our time for our generation take the reins and fight for the minorities that are under attack.

You had a role in Test, the indie film about ballet dancers and AIDS in San Francisco in the 1980s? The city has been through hell and back.

Five male dancers rehearse for Myles Thatcher's queer ballet in San Francisco.

Test was a really great feature film. The director, Chris Mason Johnson, gave me a call to audition one day and it turned out I was a good fit. It is a period film following a contemporary dance company in the Bay Area during the height of the AIDS crisis. Chris did a great job of capturing what I imagine the fear would’ve been during that time, and it was a really insightful experience to be able to learn so much more about the time from the people who lived through it. I think you can still catch it on Hulu.

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, Robyn, Fleet Foxes, and 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, all the way back from the first season. It’s hilarious, check it out if you’re a fan.

On the streets, strangers lend you their pit bulls and greet you in various admiring ways… 

Dancer Myles Thatcher poses in a San Francisco street with a bulldog that is wearing an orange harness.
Myles bonds with a neighborhood Bulldog. Photo by Stephen Underhill

What can I say, I can’t pass up a good puppy! I love the vibe of the city. Before I moved here 10 years ago, I lived in NYC. Although I did love it there, the warmth and openness of the community in San Francisco really drew me to this 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?

Queer dancer Myles Thatcher poses while jumping on top of Lombard Street in San Francisco.
Photo by Steven Underhill

The Lyon Street Steps have one of my favorite views of the city. They look down upon 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 at the War Memorial Opera House?

Myles Thatcher poses in a blue sweater in front of the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco.
Photo by Steven Underhill

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.  

City Hall is in some ways the birthplace of marriage equality.

Gay dancer Myles Thatcher poses with a status of Harvey Milk in San Francisco's city hall.
Myles at City Hall’s Harvey Milk Bust Photo by Steven Underhill

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 out of San Francisco. 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. Yes, the growth of the tech community has changed some demographics in the city, but there remains magic in its artists, politics, and ideas that I come across in my day to day life.

What’s your favorite cafe?

Myles Thatcher poses in a colorful top while sitting on a bench across from Blue Bottle coffee in Hayes Valley, San Francisco. There is a beautiful mural in the background.
Myles enjoying the alley bench across from Blue Bottle in Hayes Valley. Photo by Steven Underhill.
Myles Thatcher poses with a yorkie in front of a sign for Blue Bottle Coffee.
Myles the puppy magnet at Blue Bottle. Photo by Steven Underhill.

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. This little one’s name is Starbuck!

Where do you shop?

Myles Thatcher, a dancer for the San Francisco Ballet, tries on a colorful scarf at MAC in Hayes Valley.
Myles tries on Walter Van Beirendonck jacket and scarf at MAC in Hayes Valley
A gay San Francisco ballet dancer poses in a skin-tight shirt at MAC in Hayes Valley.
And a skin-tight Walter shirt while communing with a mannequin

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. Here is one of Walter VanBeirendonck’s tamer designs that I tried on. The jacket with the nipple cutouts is just the right amount of cheekiness for me. Plus, it would still keep me warm in the San Francisco fog!

What’s this about a drag calendar for charity?

A drag queen poses in Egyptian attire, in a bathtub, with an assistant photographing her.
Photo by Alexander Reneff-Olson

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 Lyric, a center for LGBTQ youth. 

Myles Thatcher on Instagram