Sofiane Sylve dances with glorious virtuosity. Her musical phrases are sweeping, her pirouettes extravagant, and her leaps exultant. She looks like she could jump over a rainbow. Sylve has a clear affinity for Balanchine’s choreography, but her background is European. She was born in France and studied at the Académie de Danse in Nice. After dancing as first soloist in the Stadtheater in Karlsruhe, Germany, she joined the Dutch National Ballet in 1993, rising to first soloist in 1998. She became a guest artist with the New York City Ballet in 2002, and joined as a principal dancer in 2003. This season she has an ever-expanding repertoire of roles (see www.nycballet.com). Last fall I spoke with her in the music room of the School of American Ballet. —Allegra Kent
What propelled you into ballet as a child? My grandmother. She basically dropped me into the ballet studio when I was 4 or 5. She was taking care of the whole family—cousins, brothers and sisters—seven in all. She said, “I’ll only take care of them if they do something artistic.” My grandmother got a piano, and I said, “Those black notes on white paper are not my thing.” So she said, “Then you’ll have to try ballet.”
When did you get your first thrill from ballet class? When I was 8 my teacher said, “I think you have talent but you need to go to a competition so I can see you with other children.” The jury said, “She has talent but she needs to work on it.” Later on at 11, 12 years old, I thought, “This is too hard. You’re not allowed to ski, or do this or that.” My teacher said, “Stop dancing and see how you feel.” I took two or three weeks off and I went back to it by myself. I missed it. Only at that age I started having the thrill of going to classes.
What steps did you start to love? It was more the relationship with the music, and finding those feelings inside your body. There is always something you can pick up from teachers, like the way you do your arms or the way you place yourself or the way you finish an exercise. I was hungry for that.
When you graduated from school, where did you go? I was asked to join the Paris Opéra Ballet School. It’s a big glass building and I just didn’t see myself there. Then I went to Monte Carlo and I saw those girls with Chanel bags and I did not feel I belonged there either. I was about 12. The director told me that girls my age usually do floor barre. I was on pointe already for four years.
It was like putting on the brakes. Yes, so I just found my own way. When I was 14 the director of Ballet Karlsruhe saw me at a competition and said, “I want you for a new piece.” My grandma said, “I can also move to Germany.” So I moved there with her and my dog.
I love your grandmother. She’s quite a lady. She would be in the studio 10 hours a day if I had to be. She took care of the house, and I did school by correspondence and worked for the company. We had 100, 110 shows a year.
Your grandmother gave up babysitting for the other six… You know, I saw her this summer and she said. “I miss all those years we had together.” New York is a little too far for her to fly.
After that company you went to the Dutch National Ballet? Well, in Karlsruhe they did a Balanchine evening.
Pat Neary came along and said, “Honey, what are you doing here? You have to go to a bigger company, a different rep!” We were doing Allegro Brillante, The Four Temperaments and Who Cares?, and I was in three ballets a night because no one else could do them. Pat said, “Listen, I’m going to Amsterdam; why don’t you come and audition?” Wayne Eagling, the director, invited me to join. Then they found out in Germany and made a big fuss saying that I couldn’t leave. I called Wayne, and he said, “Your director is looking for you. He’s mad.” I said, “I know; I just quit.” He said, “Well, just come then. I’ll take you.” I was 16.
And your grandmother? That’s when I started to live by myself. I stayed in Amsterdam 10 years. The rep was very
colorful—Balanchine, Forsythe, new choreographers, classics.
How did you feel about those Balanchine ballets? I have some kind of connection with those ballets. Every time I would go onstage I thought, “Maybe he’s watching.” I think Pat was into that because it’s like he’s still alive to her. I heard all the stories from Pat and now from Karin von Aroldingen. There is just something about this man that I think we would have gotten along. And here I am ending up in New York. It’s so funny.
How did you happen to join the NYCB? Two years ago, I get a letter in Amsterdam. I open it up. It’s from Peter Martins: “I saw your video and would like to invite you as a guest artist for the winter season. If you are interested, please call me.”
You’ve been in both a major American company and a major European company. Would you contrast the difference? Well, the rep is the big difference. When you are used to doing White Swan or Juliet, it’s different when you only do 20 minutes. You don’t have that building of a character. And the schedule, too. Here you swap four, five different ballets a week, whereas in Europe you do Swan Lake for 20 times, then you do five other shows, then you do Romeo and Juliet for 15 times. So your whole preparation is different.
What inspires you? Sometimes I pop into a gallery to look at paintings—you have that warmth coming out of a painting and it’s great. Sometimes you just walk in the city. It’s the simple things. My friends just adopted a baby, and you put him on your chest and you realize life is so important. I need to find daily inspiration.
I heard you like to take men’s class. I do. I don’t wear pointe shoes in class, so for me doing a girl’s class is a little bit pointless. I usually do the pointe class down here at SAB.
How did you learn to jump so high? I worked in Budapest and in Russia. In Budapest those guys are flying, and in Russia they are really taking off. I also worked with Boris Akimov, who was the artistic director of the Bolshoi for the last couple of years—a very good teacher—and he builds his class for men’s technique. You leave the class and you take off. Here you get the speed. In France it’s the position, it’s very correct. You get a lot of clarity. England is also very nice—all those beautiful pas de deux from MacMillan. Russia and Hungary are very good for jumps and for partnering, too—all those lifts up there. I’m not scared because you try, and then you end up being in the air without fear.
You just danced Second Movement of Symphony in C with music by Bizet. How did that feel? It was a blessing. Finally, I got to do something that was technically hard but not like the circus. Second Movement is purely movement: adagio, the connection with the guy, technically hard but not showing that it is so hard. I had a wonderful time filling out that music—the quietness. The adagio is amazing. And by doing it you can show that you have different colors and you’re not just a technical animal. It’s much shorter than second act of Swan Lake, but it takes just as much out of you because you can’t do it without having something going on inside.
Are there choreographers you would like to work with? Yes, actually, one is coming up. Christopher Wheeldon. I’m in his new piece. And I’m going back to Amsterdam to do a new Firebird from Ted Brandsen. That Stravinsky music is wonderful.
Have you had any extraordinary moments onstage? In 1990 I got invited to a festival in Split, Croatia and it was their first festival after the war. We arrived by boat. This was on the coastline in an open-air theater that looked a thousand years old. Just being in that open space in a tutu ballet was a very special moment. I remember stories my grandma told me. After World War II, people were thankful that they were still alive and could see a performance again, thinking that that would never happen. That was the feeling from the Croatian audience. They were just so grateful!
It’s scary what’s going on in the world. Sometimes I wish I could help make a change. I have a friend who says to me, “You are already doing something for the world because you are an artist.” And I say to him, “No, I’m just using what I was given.”
Allegra Kent, former principal dancer of New York City Ballet, is the author of Once a Dancer.