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.

Show Comments ()
Ballet Stars
Photo by Amitava Sarkar, Courtesy Houston Ballet

Houston Ballet soloist Harper Watters has a good thing going on. Not only is he one of the company's rising young dancers, but he's also a ballet celebrity on social media, where he charts his life on Instagram and on his hugely popular YouTube series, "The Pre Show" (which he describes as "tons of ballet, banter, boys and lots of backstage shenanigans").

The Dover, New Hampshire, native, who seems just as comfortable in a pair of pink heels as he does onstage, trained at Walnut Hill School for the Arts and Portsmouth School of Ballet. While a member of Houston Ballet II, he landed an apprenticeship with the company after winning the Contemporary Dance Prize at the 2011 Prix de Lausanne. He joined the main company that same year and was promoted to soloist in December 2017. Known for his big personality, elegantly long lines and sensual flow in contemporary work, Watters, 26, is ready to take on the next phase of his career. He recently spoke with Pointe about his new rank and his mission to help others feel proud of who they are.

Keep reading... Show less

Cleaning is a daily procedure. Proper maintenance will help extend the life of your floor and protect its special slip-resistant surface.

Keep reading... Show less
Sara Webb and Connor Walsh with Artists of Houston Ballet in "Swan Lake" choreographed by Stanton Welch. Photo by Amitava Sarkar, Courtesy Houston Ballet.

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

The Australian Ballet's Triple Bill, Verve, Includes New Work by Company Dancer Alice Topp

Verve, a triple-bill program from The Australian Ballet running June 21-30 in Melbourne, will host revivals of works from resident choreographers Stephen Baynes and Tim Harbour, as well as a world premiere from company coryphée Alice Topp. Topp's Aurum is inspired by kintsugi, a Japanese art in which broken ceramics are mended using lacquer colored with silver or gold, so that the cracks are emphasized, instead of hidden. In Aurum, Topp applies that philosophy to the human ability to find beauty in vulnerability and imperfections. Completing the bill are Baynes's Constant Variants, which pairs neo-classical ballet with a Tchaikovsky score, and Harbour's Filigree and Shadow, a contemporary ballet featuring striking set and lighting design.

Keep reading... Show less
Ballet Stars
ABT principals Christine Shevchenko and James Whiteside rehearse "Swan Lake" in Singapore.

In the middle of American Ballet Theatre's spring season, principal dancer Christine Shevchenko takes a break from her comedic role of Pierrette in Harlequinade to (briefly) transform into a swan. During the half hour rehearsal, Shevchenko seamlessly transitions from Odette to Odile, running through her various solos without pause—save for the short conferences with ballet mistress Irina Kolpakova, which switch between Russian and English almost as quickly as Shevchenko whips out her fouetté turns (but more on those later).

"The rehearsal process is a lot different right now because every week it's a new ballet," Shevchenko says during a rehearsal break last week. "I'm really trying to squeeze in as many Swan Lake rehearsals as I can, and at the same time, I'm trying to prepare for Don Quixote, which is the week after," she explains of juggling the season's eight programs. "This is my first year as a principal during the Met season, so I'm learning how to figure it out as we keep going. In a way, I'm used to doing parts last minute because that's how I got most of my roles," she says. Ahead, Shevchenko shares exactly how she's gearing up for her Met debut on June 20.

Keep reading... Show less
Ballet Stars
Carla Fracci in "Giselle," via YouTube.

In the late 1950s and 60s, Italian ballerina Carla Fracci won the world over with her definitive interpretations of romantic ballets like La Sylphide, La Sonnambula, and, of course, Giselle. At just 22 years old, she left her home stage at La Scala in Milan to begin guesting internationally, eventually forming a famous partnership with the dashing danseur Erik Bruhn at American Ballet Theatre. The two appear together in this film of ABT's Giselle, in which Fracci's Act I variation is as near to perfection as any Giselle before or after.

Keep reading... Show less
David Hallberg in rehearsal. Photo by Kate Longley, Courtesy The Australian Ballet.

Have you ever dreamt of the chance to choreograph for American Ballet Theatre? Thanks to ABT Incubator, the company's newly launched choreographic initiative directed by company principal (and recent author) David Hallberg, that wish could become a reality this fall. The two-week choreographic lab will run from October 31-November 10 at ABT's New York studios and will give both members of the company and freelance choreographers the chance to create new work on dancers from ABT and the ABT Studio Company. Participants will also have access to crucial dance making tools including a stipend, studio space, collaborators, feedback and mentorship from Hallberg and other artists. They'll present their creations in a private showing on November 10. "It has always been my vision to establish a process-oriented hub to explore the directions ballet can forge now and in the future," said Hallberg in a statement released today. "I am thrilled that Incubator will provide the resources for emerging and established creators to explore movement and new paths in dance."

Keep reading... Show less
Health & Body
Photo by Trust "Tru" Katsande/Unsplash

Most commonly consumed as a powdery spice, turmeric has seen a recent spike in popularity but has been used in Indian and other Asian cuisines and natural medicine for centuries. Today, it's often consumed as a natural anti-inflammatory and a dietary supplement for a variety of medical conditions. Comparable to ginger, turmeric tastes warm and peppery. (It has a slight kick, so a little goes a long way.)


Keep reading... Show less





Get Pointe Magazine in your inbox


Win It!