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Dancing as a home. An interview with ballet dancer Sofiane Sylve.
GEPLAATST: 6-1-2002

Chances are Sofiane Sylve would never have been the riveting dancer she is had she been born in a happy home. An interview with New York City Ballet dancer Sofiane Sylve

Talking doesn't come naturally to all dancers, particularly when they are asked to talk about their dancing. Dancing comes from a non-verbal place, and few dancers are eager to spend their precious downtime discussing their art with outsiders. No dancer has been harder to get to talk to than Sofiane Sylve, who is either furiously working in the studio, or travelling between Amsterdam, New York City and other major ballet cities. The only chance I had to talk with Ms Sylve to any extent was in late 2002, in Amsterdam, where she'd been the most exciting dancer with the Dutch National Ballet (DNB) since she joined the company at age 16.

The interview occurred at a pivotal moment in Ms Sylve's career. She was a star dancer in Amsterdam and the only way to go forward was to go elsewhere. She'd been booked to guest-perform at the end of the New York City Ballet's annual Nutcracker run, as the Sugarplum Fairy, and when she returned to Amsterdam it was clear her Dutch days were numbered. A year later, when she danced Aurora in DNB's Sleeping Beauty, captured in a sumptuous DVD-recording, she was a NYCB principal, and henceforth her (frequent) Amsterdam performances were to be guest appearances, often with her partner flown in from New York as well.

Sofiane Sylve had an international career right from the start, and it's interesting to note that she never danced in her native France. Born in Nice, 1976, she got her fundamental training in a provincial ballet school. From age eight ballet was all she really cared about. When she was fourteen years old she was hired by the Karlsruhe Ballet, and artistic director Patricia Neary (a former Balanchine dancer) made her a soloist instantly. Two years later Wayne Eagling invited her to come to Amsterdam's DNB, where she rapidly moved through the ranks, dancing story ballets, Balanchine classics and new pieces by Hans van Manen.

At first glance Ms Sylve does not look like a typical ballerina. Big-boned, with a big pale face, she's no porcelain princess. She radiates raw energy. Rehearsing in the studio she's one of the noisiest dancers I know, moaning like Monica Seles on the tennis court. She's one of those rare dancers who seem to move from the diaphragm out, and it doesn't matter where you're seated in the theatre; you can't miss the power of her dancing. As soon as she enters the stage the space gets twice as big, and it's al hers.

Chances are Sofiane Sylve would never have become the riveting dancer she is, had she been born in a happy, stable home. Her parents broke up when she was just a little girl; her father moved back to Italy, and Sofiane, who up till then had just been going to ballet class as an outlet for her physical energy threw herself into ballet as a way to isolate herself from all the grown-up problems around her.

"At first ballet was just a form of gymnastics to me," Ms Sylve recalls, in a sunny spot in Amsterdam's Music Theatre, just a week before she flies to New York for the first time ever. "However with things becoming so complicated at home I needed something to shield myself off from the world. I was so into ballet I didn't even see what was going on between my parents, and I didn't ask any questions. As a kid you take things as a given. My mother was busy taking care of my brother and sister (I'm the one in the middle), while I spent most of the time with my ballet teacher.

"Ballet became my home away from home. I think I would have become a dancer anyway. It's just that your true nature comes out sooner under this kind of pressure, and that's why I danced so hard so soon. When I was eight I left home to move closer to a sports-etudes-school with a full ballet program. I lived with my grandmother, who loved ballet, and I spent a lot of time at my teacher's home, too. If my grandmother and Sylvie Maradei hadn't been there as surrogate mothers, I don't think I would have made it. Mme Maradei entered me in ballet competitions from the first year on, and I did receive an invitation for the ballet school of the Paris Opera. It's the best school in France, but I needed just one look at the cold glass building and think of living there without my grandmother and I knew that I would never be able to endure that kind of loneliness.

"At these competitions people used to tell me I had great potential, if I just worked as hard as I could. Nobody asked what I really wanted myself, except Mme Maradei. By the time I was eleven years old it began bugging me that all the other kids where doing things I couldn't do. They were skating and skiing, while I had to avoid injuries. I didn't have any time for such pursuits anyway, with the heavy schedule for competitions.

That's when my teacher told me I should just stop if ballet was not what I wanted to do. I should take time off and see what I wanted. So that's what I did. For three weeks I went to regular school, just like the other kids. And then I got bored without ballet. In this way Mme Maradei made sure ballet was my own choice, and I never looked back from that point onwards."

Sofiane Sylve is a true soloist. The moment she's on stage the rules change, with her taking unpremeditated risks, stretching the music in her inimitable rubato, and all this with an insouciant expression on her face. Finding the right partner for Ms Sylve is a big problem. Tamas Solymosi, Federico Bonelli and Gael Lambiotte have danced with her in Amsterdam and Charles Askegard and Marcelo Gomes in New York. And yet Ms Sylve always seems to be several steps ahead of her partner.

"I am demanding,í says Ms Sylve. "But I'm never difficult. Right now I'm at the point that I'm really trying to get past the technique when I'm working on a pas de deux. Technique is what we're working in the studio every day, but when youíre dancing a story ballet the technique looks best when you're not seeing any. This requires a lot of work, but it's interesting work, and the audience is not supposed to see any preparation. The steps should arise naturally from the story. It's the same with ballets without any story. They only get interesting when you're showing the essence of dance.

"I'm getting increasingly interested in roles that ask for more than just ballet technique. Tatiana in Cranko's Eugen Onegin is a role I wanted to do for a long time, just like Manon. Sleeping Beauty is different. All night you're on stage in pointe shoes and tutu, and it's hard work if you want to do it right, especially in the first act with the Rose Adagio. And as youíre getting older the work is getting more arduous. Your technique is improving, and yet you need to maintain classical purity in Beauty, there's just no way you can change it. Even as youíre getting older, you need to be this sixteen-year old girl, and every time it will get harder not to show any development in the role. It's the same thing in Nutcracker. I'm looking forward to ballets that allow for more dramatic growth, such as Onegin and Marguerite and Armand.

It's another sign of Ms Sylve's precociousness. Sooner or later every dancer will stop and reconsider what ballet is about. Is it just dancing or is it a form of drama? Usually this issue becomes more urgent for dancers d'une certaine age, whose technique is getting less reliable. For instance, Ashton choreographed Marguerite and Armand for Margot Fonteyn when she was entering the long, last phase of her career.

What's unusual about Ms Sylve is that she is thinking through the acting issue at the height of her technical prowess, when the pathos of a Romeo and Juliet can still hit her with all the force of her youth. That's why tears were streaming down her face when she took her bows after a The Hague performance of Rudi van Dantzig's R & J - although these tears may also have been induced by the divorce she was going through at the time.

"It was terrible, terrible," Ms Sylve says. "There's something in the music for the grave scene that I just can't stand. It's killing. Even if I were just watching the show I would be unable to control myself. You're lying on the grave, you are Julia, and so much has been building from the third act. It's not difficult technically, but it's just very hard work emotionally. Van Dantzig's Romeo is a ballet where you can be very natural. You don't always need to be a ballerina. At the end you have lived an entire life, and that's why itís so affecting. You start as a young girl and you die a woman. It's the complete opposite of Sleeping Beauty, which is supposed to cover a hundred years and nothing changes. There are a lot of colors to show In Romeo, and that's what I'm looking for now.

Ms Sylve's move to NYCB was doubly surprising in light of her growing interest in dramatic ballets. After all, apart from a truncated Swan Lake and the annual Nutcracker grind, NYCB doesn't really do story ballets. Under Peter Martins' direction the dramatic power of Balanchine's ballets has suffered so much that some afficionados rather go to Edward Villela's Miami City Ballet and Suzanne Farrel's new company for their Balanchine. Over the years however a kind of balance has been established and Ms Sylve dances story ballets in Amsterdam (where she is permanently listed as a "guest principal", just like her fly-in partners Charles Askegard and Marcelo Gomes), while she dances Balanchine in New York, to great acclaim.

"I have a funny relationship with Balanchine," says Ms Sylve. "The first company I worked in, in Germany, was run by Patricia Neary, who used to work with Balanchine, and she was always talking about Mr B this and Mr B that. And as I went on in my career I found there are a lot of Mr. B's, since every single dancer who worked with Mr B has her own relationship with Mr B. Even I feel I have this close relationship with someone I never really knew.

"The first program I was in, in Karlsruhe, was Who Cares?, The Four Temperaments, and Allegro Brilliante, and I was first cast in two of these pieces, so I was dancing three Balanchine ballets a night, and I was fourteen years old. Now I'd never do something like that, but dancing Balanchine is like returning to something I know, because it's the choreographer I started with. I have a special relationship with him, even though I have never even been to New York, so far.

As the interview is drawing to a close, while Ms Sylve is eagerly looking at her shiny gadgets - a state of the art cell phone and a snazzy pair of sunglasses - she reconsiders her life thus far.

"I guess it was unusual, if not abnormal, to grow up away from your family, the way I did. But that's the way I am. I have no doubt I liked ballet that much as a kid because I wanted to be different. It was the only choice I had. If I compare myself with my brother and sister I can tell that ballet made me very different. I have a fantastic life. Ballet has opened many doors for me. However, I have also become a very demanding and impatient person. But I'm very demanding on myself too. There is only so much time.

"In the final analysis it's all about the time you get to be on stage. The time youíre on stage is total freedom. Before, you rehearse, you do the steps as in the choreography, but once I'm on stage I do what I want to do with it. No one is behind me telling me what is right and what is wrong. The show is mine. I don't change things, it's just that I'm making the performance. There's no one else around. I do the same steps as the other casts do, but what I do with it, and how far I'm taking it is all mine. That's a wonderful feeling."

Earlier versions were published in HP De Tijd, December 10, 2002, and New York Playbill, January 2003.

Sofiane Sylve pictures