Ballet Stars

Sparkle and Spirit: NYCB's Sterling Hyltin

Sterling Hyltin photographed for Pointe by Nathan Sayers.

Daylight saving time had been in effect only a few hours last November when New York City Ballet principal Sterling Hyltin entered an NYCB rehearsal studio to recapture history. In Classroom 2 on the seventh floor, the clock had been turned back to 1968, when NYCB premiered Balanchine's La Source, a demanding pas de deux with four solos set to a Léo Delibes score and made on Violette Verdy and John Prinz. The George Balanchine Foundation, which is dedicated to preserving the choreographer's ballets in a state as close to the original as possible, had arranged to tape Hyltin and Gonzalo Garcia in practice clothes performing La Source.

Verdy herself was there as an expert observer and advisor, while Helgi Tomasson, who often performed La Source at New York City Ballet before becoming artistic director of San Francisco Ballet, served as co-critic. Lined up along one mirrored wall of the classroom were an accompanist at a grand piano, a movie cameraman, sound technicians and an assistant responsible for keeping a boom mike hovering out of camera range to catch every word Verdy and Tomasson said to Hyltin and Garcia.

Choosing Hyltin for taping this demanding role would have surprised no one who saw her debut in La Source the last week of the 2010 spring season. She had only one opportunity to achieve its many piquant subtleties, such as the brace of gargouillades that blossom amid a flourish of footwork, and she performed each with the assurance and precision of a veteran. “NYCB ballet master Sally Leland invited me to observe the company rehearse the three casts," Verdy recalls. “Sterling was incredible, with endless arms and legs, and she was always open to criticism. Her dancing has a quality I call 'true from the inside.' "

Texas-born Hyltin (pronounced, Texas style, “hill-teen") would have been conquering the repertoire of Kristi Yamaguchi instead of Violette Verdy if she'd had her way after the family moved from Amarillo to Dallas. “When I was 6, I wanted to be an ice skater more than anything," she recalls. “I got up early to take lessons before I went to school. I entered competitions. It was my mother who saw me as a ballerina. No one in my family dances. Not my brother Bo or my sister Rebecca. They play golf."

S'wonderful: Hyltin and Fairchild in a swoony section of "Who Cares?" Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB.

Erin Hyltin's enrollment of her daughter in the Etgen-Atkinson School of Ballet transformed Sterling into the most miserable little 6-year-old in all of northeast Texas. Ann Etgen remembers Erin's concern that her daughter was working at a discipline she might never use or even enjoy: “I told her Sterling had the natural proportions of a dancer," she recalls. “Also she did enjoy our school performance."

Reassured, Erin continued bringing Sterling to the lessons. While Sterling cried before every class for a year, to this day she has the fondest memories of Etgen and Bill Atkinson. She worked off the frustration of dance class by riding her Yamaha dirt bike on weekends with her father, John (“I was Daddy's girl and something of a tomboy"). While she missed ice skating, the discipline it instilled in her was carried over into dance. Being rejected at her first School of American Ballet regional audition, as she was at 12, might have crushed most little girls' spirits. Not Hyltin: “The loss made me realize how much dance now meant to me, and I really went to work."

The effort paid off. When SAB scouts returned to Dallas in 2000, the summer program accepted her; admission to the school in the fall followed. By then she had acquired the focus that fuels great dancers and the ability they have to communicate their joy onstage. She was accepted as an NYCB apprentice two years later, taken into the corps in June 2003, made soloist in 2006 and principal in 2007, after she had starred in the premiere of ballet master in chief Peter Martins' Romeo + Juliet. Her entrance with an explosive grand jeté alerted the audience that a dancer with tensile strength and gracious ease had arrived.

At 25, standing all of 5'5", she now has a repertoire of 50 roles. Choice parts have come her way so fast it's as if she were on line in a cafeteria, being automatically served one after another. Yet her daring can still alarm those who haven't looked beyond the adorable set of her head, the shyness of her smile and the affecting little furrow of her brow. For them, Martins' Morgen came as a shock. The ballet, set to a plush orchestral arrangement of 10 love songs by Richard Strauss, is athrob with passion and crammed with nine pas de deux and a pas de six for three couples. The German text, sung by a dramatic soprano, pulsates with romantic ecstasy.

Violette Verdy and Helgi Tomasson coach Hyltin and Gonzalo Garcia in "La Source." Photo by Costas.

Hyltin met its emotional challenges head on. Moments after she entered during the second song, she crossed the stage in a run and hurled herself at partner Nilas Martins, turning over in midair to wind up safely draped head down over his shoulder like a gorgeous bath towel. “There was no easy way to dance Morgen after Jared Angle, one of my three partners in the piece, urged me to read the text of the songs," she says. “They were so beautiful! I saw why Peter had asked so much of us. I'm something of a daredevil. I couldn't hold back."

Playing Swanilda last spring offered her an opportunity to use movement for characterization. “I was showing impatience with Franz by rolling my eyes and pouting, when I was reminded that no one in the Fourth Ring could see my expression," she says. “I started showing emotion through how I moved, turning away in disgust, flouncing off." Playing a spunky young woman exasperated by an annoying boyfriend was no stretch for her, though she's not currently dating and only shares her Manhattan apartment with Henry, her silky terrier. (Walking Henry at 8:30 am and breakfasting on Lavender Earl Grey tea and oatmeal are a daily ritual.)

Robert Fairchild, Romeo to her Juliet and her most frequent partner, describes their rehearsals as “like you're going to war!" He immediately adds, “She works so hard she pulls you along. She really helps you when you're doing a tough pas de deux." The Hyltin-Fairchild partnership at its most silken is epitomized in their pas de deux in Balanchine's Who Cares? when the orchestra eases into Hershey Kay's swooning arrangement for lower strings of the lovely Gershwin title song. Fairchild extends his left hand. Hyltin takes it and goes up on one pointe, raising the left leg at a killing angle as she tilts her head to bestow upon him the most melting of glances.

Hyltin as Juliet in "Romeo and Juliet." Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB.

The La Source taping involved performing, over and over, two demanding solos, two pas de deux, a coda and finale. Hyltin had to bolt from the room to treat blisters the size of quarters that had abruptly materialized on each foot. (“Limping through the coda is not how I want to represent myself to the generations to come.") Everything done and said was caught on tape. “I got this enlightening contrast to how I had originally interpreted the role," says Hyltin. “I left the studio that day with the idea that less is more. I can't wait to explore that."

Verdy, after many subtleties regarding style, expressed the wry hope that some day a choreographer might do the left leg a favor by making a ballet for the right one (“the way Ravel had written a piano concerto for the left hand"). And the result? A finished performance, soon available on DVD for home consumption? No, a jigsaw puzzle for professionals to use, section by section, to create future performances.

After the taping was finished, the dancers, personnel from the Balanchine Foundation, technicians and the pianist beamed with delight for a group portrait. Hyltin said she returned to her apartment and collapsed “paralyzed, in and out of naps on the sofa all afternoon." Henry must have looked on, puzzled by
his mistress's uncharacteristic inactivity. She had remade a precious part of dance history. That takes a lot out of you.

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Richmond Ballet dancers in "An Open Later..." by Matthew Frain. Photo by Sarah Ferguson, Courtesy Richmond Ballet.

What's going on in ballet this week? We've pulled together some highlights.

The Bolshoi Premiere of John Neumeier's Anna Karenina

Last July Hamburg Ballet presented the world premiere of John Neumeier's Anna Karenina, a modern adaptation on Leo Tolstoy's famous novel. Hamburg Ballet coproduced the full-length ballet with the National Ballet of Canada and the Bolshoi, the latter of which will premiere the work March 23 (NBoC will have its premiere in November). The production will feature Bolshoi star Svetlana Zakharova in the title role. This is especially fitting as Neumeier's initial inspiration for the ballet came from Zakharova while they were working together on his Lady of the Camellias. The following video delves into what makes this production stand out.

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Beijing Dance Academy students Pei Yu Meng and Wang Yuzhiwan in rehearsal. Photo Courtesy BDA.

In one of 60 spacious dance studios at the Beijing Dance Academy, Pei Yu Meng practices a tricky step from Jorma Elo's Over Glow. She's standing among other students, but they all work alone, with the help of teachers calling out corrections from the front of the room. On top of her strong classical foundation and clean balletic lines, Pei Yu's slithery coordination and laser-sharp focus give her dancing a polished gleam. Once she's mastered the pirouette she's been struggling with, she repeats the step over and over until the clock reaches 12 pm for lunch. Here, every moment is a chance to approach perfection.

Pei Yu came to the school at age 10 from Hebei, a province near Beijing. Now 20, and in her third year of BDA's professional program, she is an example of a new kind of Chinese ballet student. Founded in 1954 by the country's communist government, BDA is a fully state-funded professional training school with close to 3,000 students and 275 full-time teachers over four departments (ballet, classical Chinese dance, social dance and musical theater). It offers degrees in performance, choreography and more. BDA's ballet program has long been known for fostering pristine Russian-style talent. But since 2011, the school has made major efforts to broaden ballet students' knowledge of Chinese dance traditions and the works of Western contemporary ballet choreographers. Pointe went inside this prestigious academy to see how BDA trains its dancers.

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Ballet Stars
Tim Verhallen, via Instagram

Dutch National Ballet Soloist Michaela DePrince has been busy winning over the mainstream media. Since last spring, the First Position star not only landed a spokesmodel deal with Jockey, but she also recently teamed up on a commercial with Chase Bank and just announced that Madonna will be directing her upcoming biopic, Taking Flight (totally casual).

What could possibly be next? The cover of April's Harper's Bazaar Netherlands, it turns out. Posing in an arabesque with her hair slicked back in her usual ballet bun, DePrince traded in her leotard and tights for a stunning metallic Gucci dress (can we do that, too?).

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Ballet Stars
Leanne Benjamin and Luke Heydon in "Coppélia," via YouTube.

Dancing with The Royal Ballet from 1992 until 2013, former principal Leanne Benjamin tackled just about every role in the classical gamut, from Juliet to Nikiya to Giselle. As the young and spirited Swanilda in this clip from Coppélia, Benjamin reveals that she has equal talent for the silly as the serious. Her comedic performance in Swanilda's doll dance is this role at its best.

In an effort to trick the scheming Dr. Coppelius and save her beloved Franz, Swanilda pretends she is the doll Coppélia come to life. As she begins to dance, Benjamin is stiff and mechanical one moment and then flopped over like a rag doll the next. Dr. Coppelius, played by character artist Luke Heydon, watches her enthralled and Benjamin's gaze is fixed in a plastic stare. But when the toymaker looks away, Benjamin's Swanilda breaks doll character and frantically tries to figure out an escape. Feebly, Dr. Coppelius tries to keep up with her. Although we feel some sympathy for the delusional old toymaker, we can't help laughing at Swanilda's antics. And that slap at 1:55? Gets us every time. Happy #ThrowbackThursday!

New York City Ballet's shoe room. Photo by Tess Mayer.

Deep in the basement of Lincoln Center's David H. Koch Theater is a small, windowless space that's home to nearly 6,000 pairs of pointe shoes, neatly stacked on shelves that reach to the ceiling. It's New York City Ballet's shoe room, and for company members, it's one of the most important places in the world. Dancers frequently stop by to search for the ideal pair for a special performance, or to tweak their custom pointe shoe orders, trying to get that elusive perfect fit. "If the shoe isn't right, the dancer can't do her job," says shoe room supervisor and former Pacific Northwest Ballet principal Linnette Roe. We talked to Roe and NYCB soloist Emilie Gerrity about some of the most interesting—and surprising—secrets of the shoe room.

The NYCB dancers go through 9,000 to 11,000 pairs of shoes each year, including flat shoes, sneakers, jazz shoes, and character shoes. The company has an annual shoe budget of about $780,000.

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Younji-Grace Choi at the 2014 USA IBC. Choi is now a dancer with Cincinnati Ballet and will return to the USA IBC as a senior competitor this summer. Photo by Richard Finkelstein, Courtesy USA IBC.

Exciting news today: the USA International Ballet Competition has just announced its list of invited competitors for the summer 2018 competition. The USA IBC has invited 119 dancers from 19 countries out of over 300 applicants to compete in Jackson, MS June 10-23.

Since the last USA IBC in 2014 the competition has expanded its age limits; the junior category now allows dancers ages 14-18 and the senior category dancers ages 19-28. Of the 119 competitors this year, 53 are juniors and 66 are seniors. The United States has the highest number of competitors invited (52), followed by Japan (23) and South Korea (14). The other countries represented are Armenia, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, China, Columbia, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Mexico, Mongolia, Peru, Philippines, Ukraine and the United Kingdom.

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Les Grabds Ballets dancer Mai Kono in a promotional phtoo for next season's production of "Lady Chatterley's Lover." Photo by Sasha Onyschenko, Courtesy Les Grands Ballets.

The latest front in the controversy over the underrepresentation of female choreographers in ballet is at Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal. They're facing a petition and choreographer resignation that forced them to rebrand a season and publicly defend their programming.

On February 26, artistic director Ivan Cavallari, who started the job in the summer of 2017, announced the 2018-2019 season, which included a program titled Femmes. The program announcement said the evening would have "woman as its theme," and that Cavallari had "chosen three distinctive voices, rising stars of choreography, to undertake this great subject."

The three voices Cavallari chose to create on the theme of women, however, were all men.

"This was just too much for me, it was the last straw," says Kathleen Rea, a former member of National Ballet of Canada who now freelances, choreographs and teaches in Toronto. Rea says she's been bothered by the dearth of women choreographers throughout her career. But referring to women as "subjects" and excluding them from choreographing on a program about them compelled her to take action.

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