Sparkle and Spirit: NYCB's Sterling Hyltin

January 18, 2011

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.