Rudolf Nureyev made Sylvie Guillem the youngest étoile dancer ever at the Paris Opera Ballet, when she was 19. It was an incredible achievement for someone so young. Guillem is now 46 and tonight she's in London for the official first night of Sylvie Guillem: 6,000 Miles Away – and still a world-class dancer. Some say that she is the greatest ballerina ever. That she is still dancing with no compromise to her performance, and making new work at an age when most dancers have long retired, is extraordinary.
She is one of the few whose fame extends beyond the esoteric world of dance. Her way of dancing is entirely her own, born from strict academic discipline and developed to become something new. On stage, she is spectacular: as powerfully sensual as she is graceful and vulnerable. To dance like Guillem takes more than long legs and flawless technique. She is an artist who brings her own interpretation to a choreographer's work.
Her unique style has excited the top names, from Nureyev to Kenneth Macmillan, Russell Maliphant and Akram Khan. They have all been enchanted by her, created work for her, and perhaps been infuriated by her too. She landed herself with the nickname "Mademoiselle Non" after an argument with Macmillan was broadcast over the Royal Opera House loudspeaker, by accident.
That she has continued to experiment and develop new ways of dance is a testament to the strength of her will and intelligence, as much as to her talent and physique. Her non-conformist approach meant that after leaving the Royal Ballet, she refused to be aligned with any particular company as she moved into contemporary dance. She commissioned choreographers to work with her, and the best of them did.
At Sadler's Wells, she will be performing two new dances, created for her by William Forsythe and Mats Ek. Guillem herself is the inspiration for each. Forsythe first worked with her more than 20 years ago at the Paris Opera Ballet, and was mesmerised the first time he saw her. One might expect him to make concessions, considering her age, but apparently not. These new routines would test a 20-year-old dancer.
Titled Rearray, the new work by Forsthye is rooted in classical dance, although the traditions have been subverted within it. Guillem will dance this routine with Nicolas Le Riche, who was her partner at Paris Opera Ballet. Choreographer Ek has contributed a different kind of dance. Less steeped in tradition, his new work is an intimate solo titled Ajö (Bye). A live video will be Guillem's companion on stage, and the dance will dwell on themes such as excitement and transition.
"Some dancers should stop when they get older," says Alistair Spalding, artistic director of Sadler's Wells. "But not Sylvie. She is still at the top of her game. She brings artistry to the interpretation of each role. It is not only her intelligence but also her commitment. Her sheer hard work means that she is a wonderful artist to work with. We won't see the likes of her again."
Guillem herself has put her longevity down to good fortune; her body is as naturally supple as it is strong, which means that she never had to force it. Her move into contemporary dance from classical ballet required intelligence and a sense of adventure. Perhaps continuous change became a form of renewal. She has admitted to considering retirement, but there is no sign of it yet.
This year alone she has been performing Eonnagata with Maliphant and the director and playwright Robert Lepage. And she has been touring with Push, a duet made with Maliphant. Earlier this year she revisited her classical past and danced Manon at La Scala, performing with the dramatic force that has always been hers. It seems that she remains unstoppable. Spalding has no fears for her legacy: "Guillem will be remembered as one of the greatest dancers of our time."
'Sylvie Guillem: 6,000 Miles Away', Sadler's Wells, London EC1 (0844 412 4300) to 9 July & 22 to 25 September