For a ballet dancer on the cusp of bidding farewell, at the comparatively young age of 37, to performing in the art form she has dedicated her life to, and thrived in, New York City Ballet principal dancer Sterling Hyltin sounds disarmingly ebullient about the future.
Her voice churns with excitement about the approaching fall season, which will find her dancing repertory classics for the last time, and her farewell performance, on December 4, in George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker.
“I do feel a sense of renewal onstage,” she says, speaking of the company’s return to performing post-pandemic, after Hyltin gave birth to her first child.
Her fall repertory represents a handful of her personal favorites—roles she has performed for years and can slip back into comfortably, but also some challenges that whet her still-strong appetite to find new nuances in the works.
“My favorite things to dance are the Stravinsky ballets; it’s like drinking water for me. I feel at home,” she says. “With the 50th anniversary of the Stravinsky Festival taking place last spring, I thought about retiring then because there were so many ballets I loved.”
But Hyltin will be performing her own miniature Stravinsky Festival this fall, returning to three favorite Balanchine-Stravinsky ballets. “I will be able to say goodbye to Stravinsky Violin Concerto and Symphony in Three Movements, and to make it a trifecta, Duo Concertant. I loved dancing that for a particular reason: It creates a world unlike any other onstage. Being able to watch the musicians, it’s very unique.”
Hyltin certainly doesn’t sound like a dancer weary of the daily rigors of class, rehearsal, and performance when she discusses two more ballets she’s dancing this fall, crediting the company’s artistic director, Jonathan Stafford, with generously allowing her to help choose her repertory. “He was very kind about speaking with me about ballets missing from the fall season repertory that I would like to dance. Those are La Sonnambula and Scotch Symphony. They are both ballets that don’t come back all the time, and I feel very curious about what I can still discover within them. There’s a lot I haven’t figured out. I want to unlock these roles a little bit more for myself.”
Her excitement about the opportunities in the fall would almost seem to belie her decision to retire, when she still commands a sterling (sorry, but true) technique and the curiosity and desire for “reinvention,” as she calls it, in roles she cherishes. But she is equally energetic when affirming her reasons for retiring.
“I decided to retire at this time because I have a daughter who is now 2 years old, and I was getting pulled away from her more than I liked,” she reflects. “I had her at the beginning of the pandemic and had a wonderful 15 months with her before everything started up again. When I suddenly wasn’t there all the time it was a huge jolt.”
Hyltin wants to be as present, and encouraging, as her mother was supportive when Hyltin discovered her love for ballet, which only took hold when her mother nudged her into class. “I cried every day,” she recalls of her first steps in ballet. “My first recital I said I wouldn’t dance. But my mother had bought a costume! And I found out I enjoyed performing. After that I started liking ballet more.
“I’ve been so blessed that my mother put me into something that I love,” she continues. “I feel I need to be available to see what my daughter is good at, so that she can find something she is as passionate about as I have been about ballet.”
But it is not just her own daughter’s future that instilled in Hyltin the idea of retiring from performance. She speaks with reverence about the traditions of ballet, which require that dancers step aside to allow those who come behind to grow and learn and evolve, something that can only take place when they are challenged in performance.
“When I first joined the Company I was promoted very early,” she notes, “so I danced a lot of the major roles quickly.” Indeed her rise through the ranks was almost meteoric: After studying at the School of American Ballet, Hyltin joined the Company as a corps de ballet member in June 2003. She became a soloist in March 2006 and was made a principal just over a year later, in May 2007.
She confesses to being slightly bewildered at the time, and approached Peter Martins, then the ballet master in chief. “I asked Peter, you have so many wonderful dancers in this company, are you sure? I asked at least three times. Finally he looked at me, laughed, and said, ‘Do you think I do things haphazardly?’”
In retiring, she is sincerely motivated by a strong desire to open up opportunities for other dancers.
“It’s time for others to dance; there’s a lot of talent in the company,” she says. “And it is important that these young dancers get into these roles so they can start developing. It’s important for the audiences, too, and for the company, and the ballets.”
“You need to respect the institution,” she concludes. “Sometimes with a ballet, the best thing you can do is give it over.”
She is not, however, turning her back on either ballet or NYCB. A member of the School of American Ballet faculty since 2016, Hyltin will continue to teach at the company’s official school, and notes that her good fortune in dancing so many major roles for many years will benefit the students.
“I am most excited when teaching,” she says. “All that I’ve done and learned is for the next generations. When I look at the roles I’ve danced for over a decade I realize I have a lot of knowledge, and I would love to be able to pass this on.”
She is irrepressible on the subject: “I really do love seeing younger dancers become ballerinas; watching Indiana Woodward in The Goldberg Variations, for instance; she looked like she had arrived. My heart was so full. You don’t notice it with your contemporaries maybe, but when you see somebody younger and watch them develop, I have found these to be among the most rewarding moments of my career—and I’m not even responsible for it!”
When asked what she will particularly miss about being a dancer, she says that, in addition the people she has worked with—“a funny, driven, passionate group”—she will also miss, rather more surprisingly, the lighting booms backstage.
“I will miss hugging the booms—the towers of lights,” she says. “I have clutched those booms while watching somebody make a debut, or when in a state of total nervousness about making a debut, or exhaustion before making another demanding entrance.
“I’ll miss what those booms represent. They are the redwoods of the theatre. They have seen everything. It’s like a tangible item that encapsulates so much of my memories, so much of what being a ballet dancer represents—both emotion and physicality. The performances come and go, but they will remain. After each of us retires they will stay.”
When principal dancers retire, they are traditionally given a choice of which roles they would like to choose for their farewell performance. Many select a small bouquet of their favorite roles, or even excerpts from them. Hyltin has, unusually, settled on the Sugarplum Fairy.
“It is my favorite pas de deux,” she notes. “I just feel exhilarated in it. It’s also the first time I was the central ballerina in any work, so I want to end with it. And being on faculty at SAB, part of my reasoning is that I will get to be onstage with students. It feels full circle.”
She also notes that Martins, whom she credits as one of the most significant people in her career, also retired with Nutcracker. “So it’s also my tribute to Peter.” And finally, “I like the idea of retiring at the end of the year, and starting 2023 afresh. A new year, a new chapter.”
One that, clearly, she is eager to begin reading, or rather living.
Charles Isherwood is currently the theatre critic for The Wall Street Journal.