Little girls often dream of becoming ballerinas after seeing their first ballet. I certainly did, to the great joy of my mother, who also had danced in her youth and happily passed on her toe shoes. Perhaps this is why, when thinking about our current issue on Women, I decided that it was time to honor prima ballerinas, the stars of the ballet world, and the stuff that dreams and fantasies are made of – for both women and men.
Yet the particular prima ballerina that I have chosen, Sylvie Guillem, never wanted to be a ballerina at all. She started off a gymnast in the French Olympic team, and after an exchange that took her to the Paris Opera Ballet at 16, she discovered dance and all of its possibilities. It was at the Paris Opera that Nureyev discovered her, making her an etoile for the company at age 19. This is the woman who transformed our view of ballerinas, redefining the shape and movement that we expect to see. Her dévelopées’ begin at her hip and extend to past her ear with an elegance that is accentuated by the arch of her feet and arms, her body articulating every note of every dance. Her aesthetic is corporeal: sleek, elegant, lyrical, and panther-like. She questions dance and choreography and moves into new places through her body and her interpretation.
And what a body it is! Female in every sense of the word, despite the lack of curves. She is all lean muscle, tendons, and bones, each moving in orchestrated syncopation to her distinct inner call. It is a body that has been good to her. While most dancers deal with injuries on a more or less ongoing basis, Guillem was 36 when her first injury occurred, and she has learned to listen to her body more appreciatively since then. The chronic pain that she wakes to most mornings has taught her to ask different things from herself, and in the asking she has discovered new possibilities.
Her radiant beauty is all the more powerful because of its realness — on stage, pure perfection — legs that become arms and arms that become legs — off stage pure utility, no make up, slouchy clothes, and even grey roots accentuating her flame red hair. Some years ago, she agreed to do a photo spread for Vogue on the condition that she be able to photograph herself. She unilaterally decided to pose naked, wanting to portray herself as the woman that she is: no make up, no air-brushing, no beautifying. She is a woman first and this is the envelope that holds the dancer in her. She is also a lioness in every sense of the word.
Ballerinas have encompassed a frail femininity that is ethereal and beautiful while turning physical strength into silk-like movement.
They have also encapsulated many versions of femaleness that are based on the myth of the sylph, the innocent and pure, the girl that needs taking care of, while at the same time pulsating a powerful sensuality through the femaleness of her body. In the long history of ballet, there have been many remarkable ballerinas who have inspired generations of young dancers to take up ballet and to study dancing intensively, but none like Sylvie Guillem. While Guillem embodies all of the qualities of a ballerina — she is beautiful, supple, strong, elegant and lithe — she also defies many of the attributes involved in becoming a dancer: – She hated the discipline and the classes, the rigidity of the teachers, and the hierarchical structure of the companies. But, she loved the freedom of expression that she found in performance (despite the fact that she has always suffered from stage fright).
“I am afraid…I have always been afraid. I do not have a choice.”
None of this fear is evident in her dancing, as if the act of dancing, the movement itself, frees her from any fear. She is simply magical on stage.
Guillem is an agent provocateur. She has never followed rules and questions anything that does not seem right to her in the interest of greater expressiveness and creative freedom. She has incredible determination and focus when it comes to her creative (and life) choices. In her career she has danced all of ballet’s classic heroines and reinvented them with her own flair. Though a major star at the Paris Opera Ballet, where she was Rudolf Nureyev’s protégée, she defected to London’s Royal Ballet to gain more artistic freedom. There, she was the only dancer allowed to approve partners, ballets, costumes and photographs (taken mostly by her partner of 25 years, Giles Tapie).
It was during her time at the Royal Ballet that she was nicknamed “Mademoiselle Non” for speaking up and questioning her roles and participation in dances, insisting on being a partner in the choreographic process. Her roar has become legendary. She ruffled a lot of feathers at the Royal, where she was known for arguing with both MacMillan and Dowell, yet she was a huge draw and a catalyst for the company’s transition and inclusion of modern pieces. In the 17 years that she danced for them, she modernized the company, pressing them to bring in more contemporary ballet choreographers. Her insistence paid off in her collaboration with the innovative American choreographer William Forsythe. The results are evident in Rearray, which originates in the classical training that provides the architecture behind everything Guillem does. They had previously collaborated while at the Paris Opera, in Forsythe’s celebrated In The Middle Somewhat Elevated, where she dances in perfect union and dissonance (with partner Laurent Hillaire) to electronic music. It was originally Nureyev, with whom she danced many of ballet’s classics, who encouraged her to explore modern dance and seek cutting edge choreographers. This influence can be seen in her early modern work with Maurice Bejart on Bolero, a sexy build up of tension and final release that electrified the dance world, along with Racine Cubique, in which she dances to tango music, and the classic La Lune.
Sylvie Guillem continues to be the first ballerina to hire her own choreographers, negotiate her own contracts, and work steadily on projects that she alone selects. Swimming upstream is difficult enough in the world, and particularly in the ballet world, yet Guillem has demanded the freedom afforded only to a few male dancers. She maintains an ongoing collaboration with Sadler Wells, where she is free to do as she likes. She continues to sell out concert halls around the world because she is simply hypnotizing on stage. Her combination of intelligence, flexibility, musicality, and athleticism is something never before seen in a prima ballerina.
Guillem was born in Paris in 1965. Her father was a mechanic and her mother a gymnastics teacher. Of her early training as a gymnast and her training as a ballet dancer she says:
“It helped me with the spacing. I was not afraid of having my body upside down. I had knowledge of my body. Then I had to learn the discipline of ballet, which was not fun. It wasn’t open-minded. The teachers were very strict and not clever. They didn’t transmit the joy. I was being screamed at every day. It is the same with dance teachers everywhere. It is planetaire.”
Since her days in classical ballet, Guillem has continued to push herself professionally, building a reputation in the contemporary dance world, and commissioning works from choreographers such as Mats Ek, Akram Khan, and Russell Maliphant. Such collaborations have been incredibly fruitful in works like Eonnagata, a piece she devised with Maliphant and the director/playwright Robert Lepage, and Push, a magical duet that Maliphant made with her along with the solo Two, which toured in New York City four years ago. Of her contemporary work, there is also Broken Fall, which Guillem danced with Ballet Boyz William Trevitt and Michael Nunn, and Khan’s Sacred Monsters. Her collaboration with Mats Ek ushered in pieces like Ajo, Smoke, and Wet Woman. While establishing herself as a dancer who can dance anything, blurring the lines between modern and classical techniques, Guillem returned to the world of classical ballet in 2011 at La Scala in Milan. At the of age 46(!), she took on her role as Anthony Dowell’s Mannon, a three act ballet which she danced with such beauty and force it appeared as if she had never left classical ballet. A lionness indeed, and one who continues to roar loudly.
Her approach to the world of ballet replicates her approach to life. She is curious, she questions, she argues, she is interested and needs to understand the why’s and how’s. This spirit has moved her to become a speaker and activist for the group Sea Shepherd, which aggressively promotes ecological awareness and biodiversity. Sea Shepherd bears a relation to Greenpeace, and Guillem sits on its arts and media advisory board along with Sean Connery, Brigitte Bardot, and Martin Sheen. Life for Guillem moves beyond dance, even though dance is her love and the stage, upon which she continues to reach and amaze us. At 49, Sylvie’s repertoire includes some of the most visually stunning and emotionally moving pieces in the dance world.
Guillem refuses to retire in the way that dancers usually do. She is not interested in becoming artistic director of a company, or teaching, or coaching. She talks about stopping at 50. We have her for one more year, after which she plans to turn her focus to the many other things she wants to do: increasing world attention to ecological causes, working on Japanese pottery, gardening and…
Whatever her final roar is, expect it to be huge and outside of any box that would want to contain her.
She is not to be contained.
She is WOMAN. Hear her ROAR.
To learn more about Sylvie Guillem, visit: http://www.sylvieguillem.com