Sylvie Guillem: Dancing queen

In a rare interview, Sylvie Guillem talks to Nadine Meisner about life as the world's greatest ballerina - and why it's good not to be too famous
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The world's most celebrated ballerina is drying her long hair in the sun. Everything about her is long: her skinny arms and legs, her delicate, alert face. She is a Giacometti sculpture, seated on a bench outside her local restaurant in Notting Hill, west London. Yet passers-by don't give her a second look. Do people ever recognise her? "No. From the stage to the street, it's such a big difference, it's very rare." To be recognised all the time, she adds, must be a nightmare.

The world's most celebrated ballerina is drying her long hair in the sun. Everything about her is long: her skinny arms and legs, her delicate, alert face. She is a Giacometti sculpture, seated on a bench outside her local restaurant in Notting Hill, west London. Yet passers-by don't give her a second look. Do people ever recognise her? "No. From the stage to the street, it's such a big difference, it's very rare." To be recognised all the time, she adds, must be a nightmare.

Sylvie Guillem is a physical and mental phenomenon, created by an incredible trick of nature. Her unique body and mind have taken ballet into unimagined realms of virtuosity and beauty. She is a freak, in the nicest or nastiest sense, depending where you stand - although, by now, she seems to have won over even her most bilious opponents. Time was, these might even have called her a monster, because of the fierce independence with which she has pursued her own path. In 1989, as the most exciting étoile of the Paris Opera Ballet - the oldest ballet company in the world - she suddenly left, ditching Nureyev's dynamic directorship to become a globe-trotting freelance.

Inside the restaurant, Guillem orders a bottle of sparkling water - and gets still water instead. It's only when the waitress returns 20 minutes later that she diffidently points out the mistake. Sylvie Guillem the impossible prima donna is evidently not here. This person is unassuming and fun; she expends great energy in giving detailed answers and sets no time limits or out-of-bounds topics. Yet the other, demanding Guillem apparently insists on approving all her photos. She redesigns her costumes. She chooses her partners. She scrutinises the repertoire of the Royal Ballet, where she has a guest contract. Would she like to dance this ballet? Non. How about that one? Ah, non. What about Ashton's Marguerite and Armand, previously only danced by Fonteyn and Nureyev? Also, non. (She has since relented.) Anthony Dowell, then the Royal Ballet's artistic director, teasingly nicknamed her Mademoiselle Non, a name which she, with characteristic humour, has adopted.

In the early days you were for her or against her. Audiences loved her. Fellow dancers admired her - even if some found her personally remote, a trait which Dowell puts down to a protective veneer "when you are jelly inside". Her teachers were filled with pride. "There is only one dancer like that every century," says one of them, Claude Bessy. But sniffy British critics said she was cold, unclassical and - perhaps the worst sin of all - French. They claimed she was all technique. They blamed her for exploiting her extreme flexibility and lifting her long legs to her ears. They said she was distorting ballet's shapes and influencing a whole new generation of dancers to do the same. "I don't think I overdid it just to prove I could do it," Guillem says. "I think a high leg is sometimes nicer than a low one. But people saw only that."

Guillem joined the Paris Opera Ballet School in 1977, when she was almost 12, a late age for a beginner. Her mother was a gymnastics teacher and she was part of a gymnastic team preparing to compete in the Moscow Olympics. "We were providing a short ballet course for them," remembers Bessy, f recently retired as head of the school. "Russian gymnasts all have classical training to heighten the beauty of their movement." Guillem soon became interested and the teachers took notice. "Her physique was quite extraordinary. She had natural placement, exquisite, arched feet, a tremendous jump," says Bessy. "There was not much to improve on, even though she had never done classical dance. She quickly made up for lost time. She always came first in the end-of-year exams." Because her parents lived some distance away, she became a boarder at the school and fitted in easily. "But she was also determined, rigorous, serious. She was already someone who led others."

Once in the Paris Opera Ballet, promotion came quickly. Like many great artists, Guillem pursued her own delighted absorption and resisted the distraction of comparisons: "You don't start by saying, 'Well, am I better than her?' Because that goes nowhere. Instead, all your work, your passion, your will has to go into what you do. And then if there is a result, if people like you, if you are a bit different, then fine." She competed against her own perfectionism. "Everything I do, I try to make it the best I can. So I go my own way and give it all I have."

In 1984 she became première danseuse, the second highest stratum in the company's hierarchy. Just five days later, at the end of her début in Swan Lake, Nureyev walked on stage to announce before a delighted audience that he was nominating her to the highest position of étoile. In time-honoured tradition, it was a complete surprise, followed by a champagne reception for her family and colleagues. At 19, she had reached the pinnacle of her profession. But what was important for her was the sense that she could at last really start her career - "Now I had finished my schooling."

Guillem had been all too aware that the majority of premières danseuses remain stuck at that level for the rest of their careers - locked in a garage, she calls it. "So I was relieved," she explains and then she laughs. "I had already stayed there five days!"

As well as natural talent, she must have had tremendous ambition. "Ambition? No, never." The answer is so unexpected, I nearly fall off my chair. It was, she says, the activity or process that plunged her into a Zen-Buddhist absorption, rather than the goal at the end. "I never dreamt of becoming a ballerina. I was just curious about it, it was something to explore." But didn't the Paris Opera Ballet's hierarchy spur her to compete? Non, not that either. She was driven not by a need for status, but by the desire to take her dancing further. "When you discover the company hierarchy, well, you try to climb it in order to discover what's next."

Sylvie Guillem made her London début in 1988 - while still with the Paris Opera Ballet - when she danced the Royal Ballet's Giselle with Nureyev. Like a proud father, he presented his favourite daughter to the British public. She astonished us with her musicality, maturity and a physique like a slender, supple blade of steel. We oohed at her high extensions and balances - and gasped when, at the start of the second act, she slipped backwards, her head banging audibly on the floor before she scrambled up into an immaculate arabesque. (She too remembers the fall, like it was yesterday.)

In Paris, in 1983 and again in 1987, she was the first to play the lead role in new ballets by the American avant-garde choreographer William Forsythe. She appeared on British television in an extract, her sensational, hyper-flexible body a peerless tool for Forsythe's dangerous, modern extremes. "That is the future of ballet," said the director, Ken Russell, who was in the television studio audience, "and I've just seen it." She returned to dance with the Royal Ballet. Wearing a Louise Brooks wig and chic black tutu, she performed a virtuoso showcase, Grand Pas Classique, with the company's tallest leading man, Jonathan Cope. The audience laughed incredulously at her endless balances and she grinned with elation. It was at this point that Anthony Dowell, watching in the wings, decided to offer her a guest contract. He remembers being struck by "the incredible steeliness of those very fine, beautiful limbs, the strength of her arched feet and a personality that really projected."

Guillem is currently on tour with ballet's funkiest group, George Piper Dances (aka the Ballet Boyz), performing Russell Maliphant's choreography in Italy and France. The tour comes to Sadler's Wells in the Autumn. And next month, Guillem and the company she has assembled for a week at Covent Garden will perform a programme of three complete ballets which is a far cry from the party pieces of other ad hoc troupes.

She loves London enough to own a garden flat in Notting Hill Gate. (She also has a house in the South of France, near St Paul de Vence.) Her travelling sounds guaranteed to pitch even the sturdiest biorhythms into complete chaos. If he can, her partner, the photographer Gilles Tapie, accompanies her. But otherwise it must be quite isolating. Maybe that's one reason why she stays loyal to a small number of stage partners - Jonathan Cope, Nicolas Le Riche, Laurent Hilaire and Massimo Murru. Cope, who has partnered her in guest engagements abroad, feels he could not live the way she does. "It takes a lot to catch a plane, check into a hotel, face new people in a studio and then perform in front of 2,000 people, and then start all over again somewhere else. It takes a lot of strength. And for a woman, it's even more incredible. I don't know any ballerina who has guested all over the world like her."

Yet she enjoys travel, and doesn't mind living in hotels. "It's starting something else all the time," she says. "What I don't like is unpacking my suitcase. And also what I don't like - at all - is when you come back home and find a pile of letters like that." Her hands demonstrate. "That can put you off travelling!" Especially when, like Guillem, you do all your administration yourself, with an agent to check the contracts.

What drives her? "Pleasure," she answers. "At school, either gymnastics or dance, it was the same. It gave me pleasure to move. And then when I worked to achieve something new and out of the ordinary, it made me feel good. I felt I had surpassed myself."

But for all her love of dancing, she suffers badly from stage fright. What is she scared of? "You are always scared that it's not going to be like you want or as good as last time. It's hard to make a performance look easy, because it never is. It's like a thread that is so tense, just one false step will break it." But, once on f stage fear usually yields to a rush of adrenaline and the sensation of being hyper-alive. "Performing is something abnormal, with a lot of question marks, and that is quite exciting. It's like a bullfight: you need that sense of risk, both for the performer and the audience."

She always had emotional spontaneity in performance and over the years this has deepened. "She radiates such intensity with her gaze, it inspires you to react back," says Cope, who believes, as do many, that he gives his best performances when he dances with her. "She's often criticised for being cool. But when you're with her, tears run down her cheeks. She's completely absorbed in her role and that stirs you to pour out your own heart."

With abstract choreography, she is no less potent. "I realised that she's the kind of performer who only fully happens when she's performing," observes Jonathan Burrows who in 1994 made Blue Yellow, a film solo, for her. "She focuses every fibre of being on the task in hand. Watching her dance is like watching a footballer take a penalty. It's about doing, not showing - that's what makes it so alive."

She is also a notoriously quick learner, as Burrows, less experienced at the time, found out. "She was phenomenal to work with, because she's got this extraordinary machine of a body and she's interested to find out what it can do. I found it quite daunting, because she could arrive at something very fast and it gave me little thinking time. I was throwing everything at her I could think of."

She has enjoyed working on Maliphant's distinctive style for performances with George Piper Dances. "I was starting from the beginning. I had to learn everything step by step. And that is very interesting, but very painful: going on the floor, my knees, my shoulders ..." Having danced so many different styles, she thought her muscles would be used to it by now. She flashes one of her amused grins - how wrong you can be!

William Trevitt, co-director of George Piper Dances, was not only impressed by her talent for learning but, like her other collaborators, by her hard-working professionalism. "Not for an instant was she in any way difficult. She was totally dedicated. If there was anything she couldn't do in rehearsal, you could be sure that after, in the evening, for as long as it took, she'd practise so that next morning she'd arrive able to do it."

This is the same woman who clashed on several occasions with the venerable Royal Ballet choreographer Kenneth MacMillan. But with other choreographers she is apparently as good as gold, striving to do what they want. She tends to reserve her argumentativeness for classical ballet, where the choreographer is long dead and received ideas are glibly handed down from generation to generation.

Like Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov, she wants choreographers to challenge her. Her latest project is to work with Akram Khan, who fuses Kathak, a classical Indian form, with contemporary dance. It's bye-bye to the big 19th-century ballet classics that helped make her famous. "When you start you have to do the big classical roles, to prove you can do them. It's part of your apprenticeship and I enjoyed it. But I started when I was 19. You see the bottom of it quite soon."

SHE RUNS her hands through her henna-auburn hair. It is now dry, straight and very glossy. She has gold rings on her strong, elongated fingers. She can dress to kill in Issey Miyake, but today Guillem is in comfy sports top and trousers, her amazing feet bare inside trainers. How can anybody look like that? "My grandfather was very tall and thin," she says. She has two half brothers and one full brother, a year older, who works in an office. The thought of a male Guillem walking the streets of Paris is too tantalising for words. She was born 39 years ago in Paris and partly brought up by her grandmother. "My parents were both working during the day and after school I had to stay somewhere." It doesn't sound like a close family: she says that they don't regularly see her performances.

Would she ever want children? "When I was younger I wanted them. But now, I don't know. It would really change my life." She muses that maybe she would regret it later and that the physical experience might be incredible. "But then I would have to give it to someone else to look after." For her, there's no such thing as an average day. "But the training is constant. If you stop, then you have to climb the ladder again and it's hard. So you try to keep in shape." The daily ballet barre is boring. "You can't imagine how much!" She laughs. "I try to do it as early as I can, to get rid of it." She often uses a camcorder, enabling her to scrutinise what she does in the studio. In London, she cycles an hour every day, to and from work. She complains about the traffic fumes. How can she when she smokes? "Well, only three or four a day, and when I smoke, it is my decision!"

She loves reading, gardening and eating. If she had more time, she'd ride horses, play the saxophone again, practise aikido and improve her Japanese, to add to her Italian and English.

Does she regret anything? "I don't regret any decision, even if it was hard. I'm pleased that I didn't lose my spirit, that I stood fast and kept to an honest way of doing things, even if it wasn't always within the rules. I was not trying to be difficult. I have a clear conscience because I gave 200 per cent each time. And if people didn't like it, then I am sorry, because I didn't do it to antagonise."

Where does she see herself in 20 years' time? "I don't want to see me in 20 years." Does she want to be doing what she is doing now? She grins. "I hope for the audience, no!"

Sylvie Guillem presents 'Carmen', 'Winter Dreams', and 'Marguerite and Armand' at the Royal Opera House, London WC2, from 9 to 11 August, tel 020-7304 4000. 'Sylvie Guillem and the Ballet Boyz' is at Sadler's Wells, London EC1, from 28 September to 2 October, tel 0870 737 7737