New blood for an old ballet

The ballerina Sylvie Guillem brings Giselle to London next week. And this time, she tells John Percival, she will dance it her way
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The Independent Culture

Sylvie Guillem was 22 when she made her Covent Garden debut as Giselle, partnered by Rudolf Nureyev and guesting with the Royal Ballet. And didn't we all go mad for her: that dazzling speed, such tremendously springy movement, high and light, and – most important of all – an amazing illusion of spontaneity, so that the virtuoso technique was used to build up a credible character.

But one person was not satisfied – at least, that's how she remembers it now. Guillem told me, in her dressing room the other day, talking about all her early attempts at the role, "I knew that there was something there; but I was not rich enough in emotion, in experience, to do it the way I wanted." Then, and for quite a while thereafter, she had to do what others told her, even if she did manage to put her own gloss on it. But now she has her own production of the ballet, so what she will dance at Covent Garden next week represents her personal thoughts on one of the most enduring and famous of all the ballerina roles.

What attracted her to tackle this particular work? "It's so beautiful to tell a story," she says, and although this story has been danced continuously now for 160 years, she finds that "it is a timeless one. To die of love, not so much for a man as for loss of love." To die, but not perchance to sleep, because the French romantic poet Théophile Gautier who conceived the plot took inspiration from his German fellow-writer Heinrich Heine's account of the legendary Wilis, ghosts of girls betrayed before marriage who return at night to enjoy the pleasure they were denied in life, dancing with any man who stumbles into their haunts.

The intentions of Heine and Gauthier have survived, but Guillem reckoned that over the years they had been buried beneath incoherent conventional gestures, so "I wanted to rediscover Giselle and make the blood flow again in the veins of the various characters". The opportunity came in October 1998 with the National Ballet of Finland. She tried to rethink every moment of the ballet, not changing the traditional steps for the sake of change (although there is quite a bit of new Guillem choreography) but working on the structure of the ballet, with the cinema as a strong influence.

She also insisted on long, detailed rehearsals with all the cast, on the grounds that "the story is not only for the principals". A film of the studio sessions shows how incisive her comments could be, but also reveals a lot of humour and enthusiasm. She wanted all the performers "to work with their characters not just as dancers, but taking an actor's approach", and her ideal is that every figure should have a past and a future: "Your character doesn't start only when you set foot on stage."

That Helsinki production came to Paris early this year, to the Châtelet Theatre, and was well received, but now she has remounted it with the Ballet of La Scala, Milan, taking the opportunity to rework and, she believes, improve her ideas. Again she took a long rehearsal period to prepare her cast, wanting every detail right, and in particular she commissioned new designs. For Helsinki, Ramón Ivars had provided big, solid structures that were moved about during Act I, so that the scene repeatedly changed as in a film. This was not very practicable for touring, however.

Then Guillem was bowled over by Paul Brown's designs for the Almeida Richard II with Ralph Fiennes, and decided he was the man to provide what she wanted. The outcome, as she describes it, involves a wall that turns to provide the changing scenes, and she seems happy about the result. For the Wilis, she insisted on following the illustrations in Heine's book, all of them in their wedding dresses with influences from various countries. She has restored the importance of the circle in their dances, and sees them not as angry seekers of revenge but eager to enjoy the dancing they were cut off from in life.

Guillem's other chief collaborator was the English musician David Garforth, who has worked often for ballet in Paris, Monte Carlo and elsewhere, besides conducting for operas, concerts and recordings. He found a helpful score in Helsinki which prompted him to change some of the brass instruments from the 1841 original, to suit modern players better. He has restored various passages usually cut, on the grounds that they are important musically as well as dramatically. He has also avoided the heavy orchestration of most recent treatments, and suggests that what we shall now hear is closer to the sound its composer Adolphe Adam intended.

Several of Guillem's usual partners are out of action at present: Laurent Hilaire and Nicholas Le Riche with injuries, Jonathan Cope unwell. With a self-deprecating laugh she denies any malign effect on them, and speaks enthusiastically about the new partner she has found in Milan, Massimo Murru.

"He has eyes", she says (her way of indicating that he uses them to good purpose), "and an instinctive way of acting that is true. He lives the story with you, not just his part and your part separately."

Giselle was not quite Guillem's first choreography; earlier in 1998 she had made a short work, Classic Instinct, for the Holland Dance Festival, partly as a homage to the great German dancer Mary Wigman. I remember it as uneven, even chaotic, but original and spirited, and had to admire a ballerina with enough courage and humour to end a number hanging upside down from her toes.

Might she consider doing further original ballets, I ask, and a sly smile lights up her face as she admits, "It has crossed my mind, but now I must wait for it to cross back again." One thing holding her back is the time a production takes. "I'm a slow worker – not in the studio when I prepare my roles, but to put on a ballet I have to work until it pleases me, and that's a long time."

Time lost from performing, and at present she has plans for a lot of performances, in Australia and Japan as well as in London and elsewhere. Among her new roles next season will be Mats Ek's Carmen, and Ek is also adapting his television ballet Wet Woman for her to dance on stage.

And – since we know how hard she works at it – does she still enjoy dancing? She laughs as she says, very emphatically, "More and more". Clearly we are likely to be seeing her for quite a time.

'Giselle' is at the Royal Opera House, London WC2 (020-7304 4000) 6-11 August