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 audi-
ence, 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
“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, im-
perious Siren in Balanchine’s Prodigal Son, then broke hearts with an
excruciatingly tender Odette in Tomasson’s Swan Lake.
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.”
San Francisco Ballet’s enigmatic ballerina opens up.