In the spring of 2002, Sterling Hyltin took my breath away, performing a solo in George Balanchine’s Ballo della Regina in preparation for the annual School of American Ballet Workshop Performances. It was a run-through in the studio, and a crowd of fellow students, clad in tights and leotards, their faces barely masking a competitive tension, watched. But this is how disarming Hyltin is: After she finished, a gasp from one dancer was followed by applause from the rest.
Hyltin, now 23, hasn’t stopped blossoming. Since she became a member of New York City Ballet in 2003, the dancer—who began her performing career as an aspiring figure skater in Dallas—has quickly ascended the ranks. After making her debut as the lead in Peter Martins’s new production of Romeo + Juliet last spring, she was promoted to principal dancer.
How did you become a ballet dancer?
I was a figure skater, so that’s how I started ballet—it was to help my figure skating. Actually, when I first started ballet, I wanted to stop. My mom is the one who made me keep going. I’m very much somebody who, if I know I’m stuck, I’ll place my focus on trying to do well and giving my all to it. I won’t just sit there like a log. I started excelling more at ballet than at figure skating, which came as a refreshing surprise. I stopped figure skating and started dancing.
When did it become apparent that ballet would be a career?
I think it came in layers, like an onion. When I thought, Oh, maybe I could be in NYCB someday, I never in my wildest dreams thought I’d be a principal. And it wasn’t that I didn’t have that goal or that I didn’t believe in myself—I just wasn’t there yet. Bottom line, I like to work hard, I like to be busy, and I like to sweat and exercise. When I got promoted, it was a very happy time, but it wasn’t like, This is what I’ve always dreamed of. I just hadn’t dreamed, period. It wasn’t that I wanted something different. I hadn’t thought that far ahead.
Were you ambitious?
I was very ambitious—because I like to please and I like to work hard. But not for rank. Just for parts and dancing and praise. It was a different mentality. And I think maybe that’s why it did happen quickly for me. I didn’t consume myself with promotions. I was day-by-day. That’s the way I still operate. [Laughs] That’s the only way.
You were only in one year of the Workshop Performances at SAB before you were hired as an apprentice. What do you remember about that experience?
The workshop experience was really good for me. I didn’t know I would join the NYCB—I had hoped, but I didn’t know. I’ve always been sort of shy, and it was my first one. Usually when it’s my first anything I take part, but I really like to observe so the next year I know what it’s all about . But I didn’t get a next workshop. That year, I didn’t have so much of a primary role; I had featured secondary roles, a Ballo della Regina solo and one of the demis in Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet. I was also in Damian Woetzel’s piece. So it was nice; I didn’t just have one focus. I got to perform a lot of choreography, which was really nice because it gave me a taste of what NYCB would be like.
Did it seem like it was happening too fast? Did you want another year at SAB?
No. I did not want another year in the school. I mean, I would have been fine. I wouldn’t have been discouraged if I hadn’t gotten in that year, but I was ready to join the big league. I was ready to perform more.
You were promoted to principal pretty quickly.
Very quickly, yes. I certainly always trust Peter [Martins]. I trust his judgment, I trust what he puts me in. I enjoy working under him very much and I have a very strong loyalty to him. Romeo + Juliet was such an exciting time that my promotion didn’t really sink in until maybe two months later. I think, to a certain extent, it’s still sinking in.
Do you feel like a principal dancer?
Sometimes. [Laughs] I have my moments. It’s the same question as, “Do you feel like you’re a good dancer?” Some days you just feel so fabulous, and some days you just can’t quite pull it together.
What kind of dancer do you want to become?
I want to be versatile. I want to be able to do classical things, but also more modern work. It’s important to be able to move both ways. I think what’s nice, since I’ve been promoted, is that I’m less busy, so I get to rehearse things more. A lot of my opportunities in dancing came so quickly—even last winter. I loved having so many new roles because it gave me stamina and experience, but at the same time I didn’t get to spend as much time on each ballet as I had wanted to. And I don’t mind that because I’m still very young, and there’s always room for growth. I’m looking forward to the growth in each role.
Does it seem surreal in a way that you do something so rarefied and special as ballet? That this is what you’ve chosen, as a young person in contemporary culture, to be?
It’s very funny to walk into work and think, Okay, I’m going to be a fairy. I’m 22 years old and I’m an adult and I have a life outside of this, but I’m going to go in and be a fairy. Or I’m going to be a princess. How many women get to play a princess? It’s certainly a labor of love, and I don’t question it. But there are times when you see somebody hurt; you think, I can’t believe I’m in a profession that does that to you. Sometimes you forget the toll it takes on your body, but I absolutely love it. It’s very unique and very defining.