Sofiane Sylve: "I Don't Do Average"
Sofiane Sylve doesn't mince words. "If you are just going through the motions," she says to her trainee class at the San Francisco Ballet School, "we might as well stay home."
The veteran SFB principal is famed as much for her directness as for her exquisite technique, astonishing interpretive range and captivating stage presence. "I don't do average," she says in an interview at SFB headquarters, across a tree-lined street from the War Memorial Opera House. "If somebody has made the effort to come and sit in the audience, I'm going to give everything I have. There is no holding back."
These are among the first words Sylve has said to the press since she joined SFB as a principal in 2008. Defiant of the trend for self-promotion, she avoids interviews and social media. "I'm highly, highly private," says the French-born ballerina, who turns 41 this month. "I'd rather spend time in the studio."
Sylve's artistry speaks for itself. A former principal at New York City Ballet and Dutch National Ballet, she has garnered the admiration of the world's leading dancers and dancemakers for her technical and emotional range.
"She's freaky," says choreographer William Forsythe, with a hearty laugh. He met Sylve in 1992, when she was a 15-year-old coryphée at DNB, where he was setting his evening-length Artifact. "She was a prodigy, we all knew that," he recalls. Twenty-five years later, Sylve remains a leading performer of his devilishly difficult choreography. In The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude, she dispatches the electrifying footwork and intricate turns of the central role with apparent ease. "She just zings right through it, like it's a party," Forsythe says.
"She has completely mastered the classical technique, and she can let herself go on the stage," says SFB artistic director Helgi Tomasson. "And even though she does contemporary very well, I have the feeling that her heart is still in the classics." Surprisingly, though, he casts her mainly in contemporary work and in supporting roles like Myrtha and Lady Capulet in Romeo & Juliet.
"I feel like I've been underused many times," Sylve says. But this year she once again proved her mettle: She debuted as the sultry, imperious Siren in Balanchine's Prodigal Son, then broke hearts with an excruciatingly tender Odette in Tomasson's Swan Lake.
Sylve in Prodigal Son. Photo by Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB
Those late-career successes are made possible by Sylve's single-minded focus. "There's not many dancers like her," says SFB principal Carlo Di Lanno, 24. One of several company members who take Sylve's class at the school, he is also her frequent onstage partner. "She is capable of making every step, in every role, relevant to the audience," he says. "I've seen videos of her dancing when she was 10 years old. That's how she was—just had that incredible way of going onstage and getting all the attention."
Sylve could not have predicted how far ballet would take her when she started dancing at age 4, in her hometown of Nice, France. "I was the flexible, funny kid," she recalls, insisting that her older sister was the one with the perfect ballet body. "But I was very eager. The more my teacher gave me, the more I wanted."
Sylve's natural talent stood out, but in the South of France she was shielded from the pressures of a company-based school. "I didn't know I wanted to be a principal dancer or anything like that," she recalls. "I just wanted to be on pointe."
She achieved that goal at age 9 and within a few years was sweeping regional competitions—even though she needed a waiver to enter because she was underage. At 14 she joined the resident ballet company of the Badisches Staatstheater in Karlsruhe, Germany.
Looking back, she says, "I don't think any child should do that. It's way too young." Yet Karlsruhe introduced her to Balanchine's choreography, and showed her what she was capable of. "I was in three ballets a night, because there was nobody else able to do it," Sylve recalls of dancing the technically challenging triple-bill of Four Temperaments, Allegro Brillante and Who Cares? Visiting répétiteur Patricia Neary spotted her and brokered an audition at DNB.
Sylve in Serenade. Photo by Erik Tomasson, courtesy SFB.
Soon after she joined that company, a principal's injury offered career-making opportunities. " 'Can you do 'Sanguinic' tonight?' Yes. 'Can you do 'Choleric' tomorrow?' Sure. At that age, you don't think about it."
When then-director Wayne Eagling promoted her to principal by 20, Sylve received a lifetime contract and every role she could dream of: Aurora and Cinderella, dozens of Balanchine ballets, works by Sir Frederick Ashton and others. "I had it all in Amsterdam," she says. "I never thought I would leave." So when NYCB invited her to step in for an injured dancer in 2003, she took several months before saying yes.
"Sofiane's technique is just phenomenal," says Merrill Ashley, who coached her at NYCB in everything from Dewdrop in The Nutcracker to the fourth movement in Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet. "You can throw any challenge at her, and she wants to do it." Ashley adds the ultimate compliment: "It's sad that Mr. B wasn't around to work with her, because that's quite an instrument, what she's got."
Five years later, Sylve transferred to SFB, drawn by its contemporary repertoire and the opportunity to teach in the company school. Choreographers like Liam Scarlett, Jirí Bubenícek and Christopher Wheeldon seek her out there. Others, she says, avoid her. "I think sometimes I scare people," she says of her no-nonsense approach. "I have done it all, so there's not much that you can threaten me with."
Even Forsythe pays extra attention when working with Sylve. "I want to figure out how I can keep her really challenged," he says. "Because she'll process, she'll come back, she'll want more."
Sylve, who hopes to become an artistic director herself, has found a satisfying outlet in teaching. "Putting yourself on the other side of the room reminds you of why you are still doing this," she says. "It's almost like I use it to also keep nurturing myself."
Outside the studio, she dotes on "the girls," her miniature dachshunds Gaia and Olympia, and four reptiles named Lulu, Carlos, Sisi and Brutus. Her eclectic interests range from race cars (she owns Porsches and has driven Indy cars) to farm-animal rescue to interior design and haute couture. "I'm a fashion victim," she confesses. "You should see my wardrobe. It's crazy. A lot of shoes."
Those outside passions help balance out the intensity she brings to ballet. Back in the classroom, she is laser-focused on the third round of an allegro failli-assemblé-arabesque-cabriole combination, asking for clearer articulation of the feet and arms. "I am not meaning to torture you," she says to the exhausted dancers, imbuing the correction with the principle that defines her dancing and, by extension, her life. "But if you do it, do it very well."
For the past 3 years, choreographer Stephen Petronio has been reviving groundbreaking works of postmodern dance through his BLOODLINES project. This season, although his company will be performing a work by Merce Cunningham, his own choreography moves in a more luxurious direction. We stepped into the studio with Petronio and his dancers where they were busy creating a new work, Hardness 10, named for the categorization of diamonds.
'Tis the season to have some fun in the kitchen. If you want to get more creative than simply baking another pumpkin pie, try these Nutcracker-themed treats—created by and for dancers. These recipes from former Boston Ballet and Joffrey Ballet dancers were first published in Dance Magazine's December 1990 issue. Today, they're still guaranteed to turn any holiday party or dressing room into a true Land of the Sweets.
It's no secret that affording college is a challenge for many students. And for dancers, there are added complications, like the relative lack of merit scholarships that take artistic talent into consideration and the improbability of a stable salary to pay off loans post-graduation. But no matter your budget, a smart approach to the application process can help you focus less on money and more on your training.
According to Drexel University performing arts department head Miriam Giguere, figuring out the kind of financial assistance a school offers is just as important as navigating what kind of dance program you want. Here's how to incorporate finances into your decision-making process:
When dancers get injured, they often think they should eat less. The thought process goes something like, Since I'm not able to move as much as I usually do, I'm not burning enough calories to justify the portions I'm used to.
But the truth is, scaling back your meals could actually be detrimental to your healing process.
We always figured that stretching made us more flexible by loosening up our muscles and joints. Some of us, ahem, might have even tried to fall asleep in our middle splits to get our stubbornly stiff inner thighs to let go.
But it turns out that might not actually be how stretching works.
A new review published in the Scandinavian Journal of Science & Medicine in Sports suggests that increased flexibility actually comes from your brain growing more used to the tension.
"Women are often presented as soft, fragile little creatures in ballet," says Léonore Baulac. "We're not." The Paris Opéra Ballet's newest female étoile is discussing her unease at some of the 19th-century narratives she portrays. "It was real acting," she says with a laugh of La Sylphide. "James kills her by taking away her wings, yet she tells him not to worry and goes to die elsewhere onstage!"
Sitting in the canteen of the Palais Garnier, Baulac embodies some of ballet's contradictions in the 21st century. With her fair curls and dainty features, she could easily pass for a little girl's fantasy princess. As Juliet, she exuded a girlish ardor that felt entirely natural; her reservations notwithstanding, her Sylphide was committed and carefully Romantic in style.
Yet the 27-year-old is no ingénue. At Garnier that day, her sweater reads "I can't believe I still have to protest this s**t," a feminist slogan; last winter, Baulac proudly wore it over a Kitri tutu on Instagram. And her repertoire is as thoroughly modern as she is offstage. A versatile performer even by Parisian standards, she is equally at home in Nutcracker as she is in the works of Pina Bausch and Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker.
With her fearless demeanor onstage, it's easy to see how Washington Ballet apprentice Sarah Steele attracted the keen eye of former American Ballet Theatre stars Julie Kent and Ethan Stiefel. Promoted mid-season from the studio company by artistic director Kent, Steele was cast by Stiefel as the lead in Frontier, his world premiere for The Washington Ballet, this past spring. For the space-themed piece, Steele donned a black-and-white "space suit" onstage, exhibiting dual qualities of strength and grace. Most evocative about Steele's dancing might be her innate intelligence—she was accepted to Harvard on early admission, and plans to resume her studies there in the future. But first, she'll dance.
Lots of college groups do stepping—a form of body percussion based on slapping, tapping and stomping—but Step Afrika! is the first professional dance company to do it. They are currently at New York City's New Victory Theater, presenting The Migration: Reflections on Jacob Lawrence, a show based on the painting series by Harlem Renaissance artist Jacob Lawrence about The Great Migration of the 1900s, when millions of African Americans fled the Jim Crow South and traveled by train to the North for a better life. The Great Migration transformed the demographics of the country, and Jacob Lawrence's paintings became famous for their bold color and evocative power.
As we approach Thanksgiving, there's much to be grateful for. Perhaps one of the most important things on your list is dance. Whether you're a full-time company member, an aspiring professional, an audience member, or you simply delight in dancing in your daydreams, this art form is a creative escape.
That's not to say that being a dancer is easy: Pursuing such a competitive career can be heartbreaking, especially when you're faced with rejection.
La Folía, a short dance film by director Adam Grannick that was recently released online, echoes these sentiments in under 12 minutes.
It took two years of intense nutrition counseling and psychotherapy to pull me out of being anorexic. My problem now is that I've gained too much weight from eating normally. Is there no middle ground? I can't fit into my clothes, but I don't want to go back to being sick.
—Former Anorexic, Weston, CT