Guillem is a unique talent considered to be one of the world’s greatest ballerinas. Her early passion was for gymnastics, qualifying at the age of 12 to compete in the Olympics. But the opportunity, through the medium of dance, to be more expressive, more theatrical, led her to abandon gymnastics and join instead, the Paris Opera Ballet School. In 1981 she became a member of the Paris Opera Ballet Company and by 1984, at the early age of 19, rose to the highest rank of Étoile. Her physicality - flexible and strong, gave her the ability to create breath-taking performances of great technical brilliance. Her repertoire included the great classic roles; in Swan Lake
and Don Quixote
. Guillem’s brilliance lies in her ability to combine this physical excellence with a passionate honesty and a desire to explore what can be achieved through the medium of dance. In 1989 she joined the Royal Ballet in London, who allowed her the freedom to perform with other companies internationally. More recently she has focused on contemporary dance collaborating with leading choreographers such as Béjart, Maliphant and Ek. She announced plans to retire at the end of the year and that her final tour in December, will be in Japan – a country that has a special place in Guillem’s affections.
Sylvie Guillem, one of the world’s leading ballerinas, has been hailed as a talent that comes only once every hundred years. It is argued that she was the first to stand en pointe in a perfect ‘six o’clock position’ – with one leg in a vertical position and certainly, with her flexible yet tough physique and beautifully long legs, combined with a richness of expression, she has overturned the traditional image of female dancers relying on the support of male partners.
However, it was not Guillem’s intention to “alter the public perception of the role of female dancers.” As she recalls, “I was just happy to be on stage, and I enjoyed discovering at the same time with the audience what I was doing. Each time was a voyage.” Her goal has always been to achieve an “audience-oriented” approach, unfettered by tradition.
At the age of 12, she qualified to compete in the Olympics as a gymnast, but her interest changed after attending a training course at the Paris Opera Ballet School. She joined the company’s corps de ballet in 1981 and was discovered by the then artistic director, Rudolph Nureyev in 1984, rising to the highest rank of Étoile, at the tender age of 19. She soon became synonymous with the iconic leading roles in the classical ballets such as Swan Lake, Don Quixote and Giselle.
Her supreme physical ability, good enough to reach international standard as an athlete, enabled her to pursue a dance style based on her own aesthetic sensitivity, without depending on male support. In the process, she trimmed off what she saw as unnecessary excess from traditional dance and condensed it into what she herself wanted to express.
Behind all this lay her audience-oriented approach. “What’s important for me is to make things understandable and logical for the audience. I wanted to tell the story.” She didn’t want to reproduce what was done “because it was that way”; her focus was on choreography that was adapted to her own body and the character she was performing, rather than the movement and way of doing things in the past.
“All the hard work in lessons and preparing for performances, it’s all for the audiences who buy the tickets in order to see my performance. Dance is my gift to them.”
In 1988, she transferred to the Royal Ballet in London and became internationally active. For the last 10 years or so, she has become better known for her work in contemporary dance, working with the major choreographers such as Béjart, Maliphant and Ek.
Guillem is a lover of Japan, and has visited the country more than 30 times. “It’s this refined aspect of Japanese culture, its simplicity that I really, really like,” she says. After the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami of 2011, she gave a charity performance for the victims. “I just thought that the only thing I could do was to dance for them and try to raise some money to help the people who were in trouble.”
Guillem has already announced her retirement from performance at the end of this year. The final part of her farewell tour will be in her “beloved Japan” this December.