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The coronavirus had barely arrived in Germany just before Sofiane Sylve was hired Feb. 1 as the new artistic advisor for Ballet San Antonio (BSA). Her experiences there in May with strict coronavirus protocols at the Dresden Semperoper Ballett, where she is principal dancer and ballet master, gave her insight into how BSA will adapt its teaching and performances to keep dancers and audiences safe.
“The numbers have been very good, and everybody’s very disciplined,” Sylve said. “Everybody wears a mask.”
Classes and performances are kept at limited capacity to maintain social distancing. “We are sticking with what’s working. Performances are actually happening with a very reduced amount of singers and musicians, but it’s happening,” she said. “So I’m very hopeful that this is the future for us to actually navigate this pandemic.”
That navigation for Ballet San Antonio will begin Oct. 16-18 when it opens the 2020-21 season with Don Quixote. The 35-year-old ballet company also will perform seasonal favorite The Nutcracker Dec. 4-13 before closing the season with Cinderella Feb. 26-28.
BSA and Sylve will begin work on the next season in the company’s new home in Castle Hills in July. Moving into a new studio and administrative space will help in planning for pandemic safety protocols, said CEO Evin Eubanks.
“[We] conducted an exhaustive citywide search for a space, and this was the space that met the professional company’s needs,” Eubanks said.
Sixteen-foot ceilings will allow more elaborate rehearsal setups and help avoid future situations like dancers’ foils clanging on ceiling trusses, as happened during rehearsals for last season’s Romeo and Juliet. The company also will return to teaching classes after a five-year hiatus. Eubanks specifically sought out Sylve, who was then dancing for the San Francisco Ballet, for her teaching acumen. Not only was Sylve a principal dancer with the ballet, she also taught at the San Francisco Ballet school for 12 years.
Regarding BSA’s return to teaching classes, Sylve said, “The school was a big, big attraction for me because education is a massive passion for me.”
Born in Nice, France, Sylve excelled early as a dancer and earned her first professional position with the Badisches Staatstheater in Karlsruhe, Germany, at age 14. She became a principal dancer at 20, and excelled with what one former teacher called “phenomenal” technique.
Now 43, Sylve has learned to navigate leveraging her own demanding creative qualities with dancers’ motivation and abilities. Strict teaching and demanding artistic direction is not uncommon in the competitive world of ballet. Ballet San Antonio has recovered from a difficult period under Willy Shives, its former artistic director who left after allegations of verbal abuse and bullying of dancers. After one year with guest artistic directors for each of its productions, the hiring of Sylve culminates the search for a new artistic leader.
Though she is unfamiliar with Shives’ approach, Sylve said her leadership style will be different. “I’ve been in this business for very long time. And I’ve obviously been abused in many ways throughout my years,” she said.
As she looked toward taking a leadership position, Sylve enrolled in a leadership training and management program at the Harvard Extension School that “teaches you a lot of what to do, and mostly what not to do,” she said.
“I do not see myself as the boss and what I say is the way or the highway,” Sylve said. “I actually want to be a leader that people can come to me, and we can have a [discussion]. I can make the final decision, but I want to make sure people do their very best because they’re being listened to, they’re part of the whole decision making.”
Sylve focuses primarily on storytelling as the dancer’s art, and believes in a collaborative process of achieving authenticity in a dancer’s approach to their role. She characterizes her style both in dancing and teaching as extremely audience focused.
“[What] I’ve always tried to do is try to get the dancers involved [in] what their story is and who they are at that point,” she said. “This company has a quite big range of personalities. And I want to tap into that, to actually introduce the company in a new way.”
A yearly audience favorite such as The Nutcracker offers a good chance to connect with what ballet fans enjoy about the art form, even if the new realities of pandemic restrictions alter what they experience.
“I want to make sure that whatever we’ll be able to do, that we will still convey the story and try to keep people away from the reality of the world today, which is not so fun right now.”
She also looks forward to connecting with colleagues in the ballet world, including choreographer Edwaard Liang, whose rendition of Cinderella the company will perform in 2021 and whom Sylve described as “a wonderful artist.”
Season subscriptions with prices ranging from $99 to $198 are available now on the website of the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, where the ballet is a resident company. Single tickets between $35 and $114 will go on sale July 3.