Dancing from the Heart

Classic Arts Features   Dancing from the Heart
Sofiane Sylve performs with the New York City Ballet this month.

Some dancers have it all. All they have to do is step into the light and the stage gets twice as big. That's how they affect the eye. Sofiane Sylve, who will be performing with New York City Ballet as a guest artist through February 9, is a dancer who transforms the very space she's in. She's one of those rare dancers who project energy from the heart, as well as from the limbs. Ardor and musicality define this Frenchwoman who in the past ten years has also grown into the star principal at The Netherlands National Ballet.

Ms. Sylve, born in Mediterranean France, became a dancer because she would consider nothing else. At barely six years old, with a difficult home life, she turned to dance with the determination that has been her mark ever since. At age eight she left home to live closer to a school where she could concentrate on ballet training. Her grandmother moved with her, accompanying her to every competition.

It was an unusual childhood, Ms. Sylve admits, talking in the Amsterdam Music Theater in late November, just before traveling to New York to begin rehearsals with New York City Ballet. "Friends would go ice skating and do other sports and I just couldn't join them, because of the risk of injuries. And there were all these competitions to prepare for. By the time I was 11 years old I couldn't take it anymore. So I stopped. I just didn't show up in ballet class and went to regular school." For three weeks she was just a kid. And then she got bored. "After three weeks I went back. I had realized that ballet really was what I wanted to do, and once I made that decision I never looked back.

At 14, Ms. Sylve was the named the youngest principal ever at the Karlsruhe State Theatre, in southern Germany, where she danced ballets by George Balanchine for the first time. She still remembers: "My first show as a professional dancer, in Karlsruhe, was an all-Balanchine program. I was cast in Who Cares?, Allegro Brillante, and The Four Temperaments. For me, dancing Balanchine was like coming home. My coach for these ballets was Patricia Neary. She was a principal at NYCB in the '60s, and she was always talking about Mr. B this and Mr. B that, and because of that it has always felt to me that I had this close relationship with someone I had never met."

Ms. Sylve joined The Netherlands National Ballet at age 16, and she moved through the ranks at an extraordinary pace. At Holland's premier ballet company she danced a lot more Balanchine, and immersed herself in the great dramatic repertoire from Giselle to Onegin. The most memorable event in the past season was the night Ms. Sylve danced Romeo and Juliet and took her bows‹and they were many ‹with tears rolling down her face.

"It was terrible," says Ms. Sylve. "I just didn't know how to stop myself, the music is so affecting. You've been though this entire story, Juliet's story, and at the end you're lying on your grave. The drama is overwhelming. If other dancers can do it without getting worked up this bad, fine. But this is my way. As a dancer I feel that I've reached a level at which I'll try to get beyond what I can do technically. That's where it gets really interesting for me, when the audience doesn't see the preparation. It's wonderful when you're at the point where you get to show only the very essentials of dance."

Ms. Sylve is thrilled to be coming to New York City Ballet, where her repertory will include Balanchine's Serenade and Western Symphony. "I have never even been to New York before," she confesses. "If you're talking about Balanchine, it's the place to be. I'm eager to learn and see, and it's all there. In Europe we tend to think of him only as this genius, period, but if you consider the things he did in his time, it was really daring. It took a lot of nerve to throw out costumes and use nothing but tights and leotards, and expect people to come just the same. And that they did, and do, I think is fantastic."

Dutch novelist Herman Stevens writes about fiction and dance for the Dutch magazine HP De Tijd.

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