A Sugarplum’s Swan Song
It began with a dream. Sterling Hyltin, a principal dancer at New York City Ballet, was starting to prepare for her final repertory season in the fall when she dreamed that she saw a dancer walking onto an empty stage in a long white satin dress, accompanied by a quiet passage from “Der Rosenkavalier.” “Oh, that’s me,” Hyltin recalled thinking.
The moment, grand but also elegiac and intimate, happens in the closing section of George Balanchine’s “Vienna Waltzes” (1977). In the dream, Hyltin said in a recent interview, she felt someone come up behind her and place his hand on her waist: It was Robbie Fairchild, her most frequent partner at City Ballet until he left to pursue a career on Broadway in 2017. “My heart stopped, because I realized I had been missing dancing with him so much.”
With the help of Jonathan Stafford, the director of the company, the dream became a reality. On Oct. 13, Fairchild returned to dance with Hyltin at the David H. Koch Theater, where they performed the “Rosenkavalier Waltz” for the first and last time.
That waltz came at the end of a season in which Hyltin, 37, bid farewell to ballet after ballet, nine in all — including George Balanchine’s spiky, modernist “Symphony in Three Movements,” Jerome Robbins’s highly theatrical “The Cage” and Alexei Ratmansky’s stylish, sporty “Concerto DSCH” — a testament to her range. And it was a prelude to her last bow, which comes on Sunday, as the Sugarplum Fairy in “George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker,” a role she has danced since 2006.
“My debut in Sugarplum was the first time I really led a ballet,” she said. “It was a role I felt at home in right away. Being around all the angels” — danced by young girls from the company school — “I felt I could just smile at them, and it took my nerves away.”
Sugarplum dances a solo filled with pinprick steps and coltish jumps, both of which come naturally to Hyltin, who loves to move quickly, and whose dancing combines lightness and delicacy in the footwork with wafting arms and a playful, teasing use of the shoulders. “She has a lightness in her bones,” her longtime friend and dressing-room roommate, Megan Fairchild, said. “She just flies through the air.”
Hyltin as the Sugarplum Fairy with the Angels, students from the School of American Ballet.Credit…Erin Baiano
She performs the role with warmth, drawing the other characters into her world. And she seems particularly attuned to the kids onstage, which may reflect a reality in her life: Hyltin is the mother of a two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, whom she cites as one of the reasons she is ready to retire, though she says she still loves performing.
“I want to be with her,” she said, “I want to be her mom, and I want to see what she’s good at, like my mom did with me.”
Hyltin’s lightness of touch onstage is undergirded by a formidable strength. “It’s deceptive,” said Jean-Pierre Frohlich, a repertory director for the company with whom she has worked closely. “She’s so slight and she has these long limbs, but she’s extremely strong.”
In conversation, Hyltin, who has never suffered a serious injury that forced her to sit out a season (or even a company tour), comes across as levelheaded and calm. “She’s always been very well-adjusted about everything,” Megan Fairchild said. “She knows her strengths and her weaknesses and she works around them.” Growing up in Dallas she was athletic: She played tennis and was a competitive ice skater, in addition to taking ballet. It was only after seeing the musical “Cats,” on a family trip to New York, that she realized that performing could actually become a profession. “It was a big moment for me,” Hyltin said.
The next revelation was seeing dancers in Balanchine ballets during her first summer at the School of American Ballet, the company’s affiliated school: “I couldn’t believe how fast they were moving, how they were so on the music and how they looked like they were really dancing.” She found that the ballet style taught at the school fit her natural inclination to move through positions quickly, driven by a strong rhythmic impulse. She is especially fond of the Balanchine-Stravinsky ballets, and has danced many, including “Rubies,” “Duo Concertant” and “Stravinsky Violin Concerto.” “I love the structure, the architecture and the intensity of the musicality in these ballets,” she said.
Hyltin started dancing with the company at 17,and was quickly promoted to soloist and then principal by Peter Martins, then the director, who cast her in “The Sleeping Beauty” in 2007, and soon after in his new “Romeo + Juliet,” with Robbie Fairchild.
Hyltin considers Martins an important mentor and credits him with helping her develop as a dancer. “We would have these long conversations and he would ask me questions about why I was doing something a particular way,” she said. “He wanted to know that everything we were doing was for a reason.” The period after his abrupt retirement from the company in early 2018, amid accusations of physical and verbal abuse, was difficult for her. “It devastated me,” she said, her voice catching slightly. (Martins denied any wrongdoing, and an investigation commissioned by City Ballet’s board did not corroborate those allegations.)
But she kept dancing. Since 2016, she has also taught at the school and is now seeing her first students enter the company. One reason she gives for stepping aside is the desire to see younger dancers be given the same opportunities she had. On several occasions, Stafford said, Hyltin has come into his office to talk about giving up a role because she thinks another dancer should have the chance to dance it. During the interview, she spoke admiringly of many younger members of the company.
“She’s always concerned with the younger dancers, how well they’re doing and making sure they have the support they need,” Stafford said. She plans to continue teaching and to begin coaching more.
And she’s looking forward to spending more time with her daughter, Ingrid. “I had her at the beginning of the pandemic and had a wonderful 15 months with her before everything started up again,” she said. “When I suddenly wasn’t there all the time, it was a huge jolt.”
First, she will dance that final “Nutcracker,” the highlight of which, for her, is the pas de deux. “I love dancing with someone else, even more than dancing alone,” she said. Several partners spoke of her easygoing attitude in rehearsals, and her ability to roll with the punches onstage. “I’ve never felt like I had to worry about whether everything was going to be perfect when I’m dancing with Sterling,” said Andrew Veyette, with whom she will dance her final “Nutcracker.” (He was also her first “Nutcracker” partner — another full circle.)
At a performance with Veyette a week before her farewell, in the pas de deux, the two kept seeking each other out with their eyes. When she fell back into his arms, he could not repress a smile.
Their pleasure in dancing together was palpable. The last few months, Hyltin said, she had been enjoying dancing even more than usual. “There’s a certain freedom in knowing you don’t have to push anymore,” she said. “I have felt a liberation in my dancing because I know it’s the end.”