Who is Sylvie?

She is a dancer of bewitching genius, a woman who gives absolutely nothing away. So why has she published a book of photographs from her personal album? Jenny Gilbert considers what it means to be Sylvie Guillem at 40, while her fellow professionals offer snapshots of a remarkable talent
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

All great performers polarise opinion. The first time I heard the name Sylvie Guillem, in 1991, was in the context of a Victor Meldrew grumble. She was "just a gymnast" according to my informant. "OK, so she's got this fabulous extension. OK, so her legs flick up to her ears. But she's calculating, and cold, and when I go to the ballet I want to be moved." At the time no doubt I nodded numbly, not having anything sensible to add. Perhaps it was true that classical dance was becoming more technical at the expense of its soul. It seemed to be the drift of things in general.

All great performers polarise opinion. The first time I heard the name Sylvie Guillem, in 1991, was in the context of a Victor Meldrew grumble. She was "just a gymnast" according to my informant. "OK, so she's got this fabulous extension. OK, so her legs flick up to her ears. But she's calculating, and cold, and when I go to the ballet I want to be moved." At the time no doubt I nodded numbly, not having anything sensible to add. Perhaps it was true that classical dance was becoming more technical at the expense of its soul. It seemed to be the drift of things in general.

The error of this judgement didn't hit me so much as creep up on me by stealth. The first couple of times I saw Guillem perform was in a jagged, jangly combat number with one of those trendy, all-lower-typeface titles. William Forsythe's in the middle, somewhat elevated wasn't the kind of thing the Royal Ballet normally danced. It had three glowering men in labourers' vests and a ballerina in a red swimsuit. They were engaged in some kind of violent stand-off with the woman getting the upper hand. She'd swear at the men in semaphore, then fire herself at them like a missile. With her steely limbs and blank scowl Guillem was indeed frosty to the point of glacial. But she was also scary and strong and magnificent. If this lacked emotion, I didn't care.

People said, "It's the big story ballets that catch her out," so I was unprepared for Guillem's Juliet, which is to say I forgot to bring a hankie. Where other Juliets I'd seen had been more or less strenuously acting and dancing a part, the Parisian appeared to be coolly allowing the part to find her. She didn't act, she simply was. And instead of dancing steps, she gave you the impression that the creature she inhabited had just that moment taken it into her head to move. You were no longer aware of ballet as a confection of practised gestures. You forgot everything but the predicament of that 14-year-old girl (though the dancer was 30). Yet the sheer craft involved, when you thought about it afterwards, was astounding. When Romeo first lifts Juliet high in the air in their secret dance at the Capulet ball, Guillem's face registered first a flicker of fear, then dawning pleasure, then the kind of riding-pillion thrill that makes a teenager squeal - all in the course of one lift that lasted three or four seconds at most. Blink and you wouldn't have caught it. Subtlety was the name of Guillem's game.

She worked the same kind of alchemy on that other big Kenneth MacMillan heroine, the courtesan Manon. There was Guillem's matchless elasticity of technique, but now with an overlay of chic and an underlay of greed. In the stretch of a foot, the curl of an arm, this supreme dance actress made you see not just beauty but connivance. She made you see beyond the practical workings to the ballet's psychological heart. But nothing is ever fixed in Guillem's reading of a role. When she reprised her Manon in London a few months ago, she'd rethought it from top to bottom. Somehow the spun-glass body still contrived to promise sensual delights, but her courtesan had developed a warped kind of conscience flecked with fear. It was no longer an easy choice for this woman to trade true love for jewels and furs. Contradictoriness seems to have become Guillem's special study.

Is it calculating for a ballerina to work this way? To me it looks like a mark of high intelligence, not least because for all the brainwork that Guillem puts in before a show, once on stage she's all instinct and reactiveness. "The main percentage in art for me is spontaneity," she once told me. "When I'm on stage, I just let myself go." And what about nerves, I'd asked. Is she really as cool as she appears? Nerves are crucial, apparently, to put her "in an unstable state", to make her "doubt, to react, and fully live the role". What's more she demands this of her dance partners as well. If there is something they always do on the left, some nights she will go to the right, to keep them reactive, alert. Little wonder her regular partners are so few: Jonathan Cope at Covent Garden, Nicolas le Riche at the Paris Opera Ballet, Massimo Murru at La Scala, Milan, and any one of them on her global travels. Their partnership with her has been the making of them all.

Remarkably little of Guillem's work exists on video, so little that you suspect some personal veto, rather like the one the ballerina has consistently operated on all published images of herself. In bringing out Invitation, a book of her personal album - the closest to autobiography we are ever likely to get - she's clearly hoping once and for all to slake what she sees as a tawdry thirst for private details, as well as a perfectly healthy desire on the part of her public to take a little bit of Sylvie home. There is a snap of the miniature gymnast, having won some junior prize on the parallel bars. There's the twig of a girl with her fellow "petits rats" at the Paris Opera Ballet school. Her mum doing handstands on the beach (it's in the genes). A larky teenage Sylvie doing the splits in the air over a swimming pool. The chic fashion mannequin. The photographer's muse. The tutu'd princess. The whip-thin powerhouse of contemporary dance, forever both Garbo and gamine.

But what next? At 40, Guillem's future as a performer is narrowing. Always wary of repeating herself in the 19th-century repertory, she's now put the brakes on the Giselles and Swan Queens. Twentieth-century narrative ballet still has a place for her - but you can imagine her calculating the effort it now takes to take on ingénues like Juliet and Manon. And why should she even want to when there are other territories to explore? Never one to wait for opportunity to come knocking, Guillem has been busy cultivating the most exciting choreographers around. Last year she stunned London audiences with the neck-risking audacity of her work with the Ballet Boyz. Now she's invited the creator of that work, Russell Maliphant, to tailor a new duet for her. The "Mademoiselle Non" of the 1990s (the nickname ruefully given to her by Sir Anthony Dowell) is still turning down roles, but now it's because she has a whole new game plan in view - a new language of movement, a new challenge, a new direction. And later, perhaps, a film, or directing a company, or founding a school. This is no longer a woman willing to be hired to display her accomplishments. She is making the world dance to her tune. *

Guillem next appears in Frederick Ashton's 'A Month in the Country': Royal Opera House, London WC2 (020 7304 4000), from Thursday; 'Invitation - Sylvie Guillem' is published by Oberon Books, £35

'I pick out the Liquorice Allsorts that she likes'

Jim Parsons, stage door, Royal Opera House

I've been here 15 years and seen Sylvie mellow a lot in that time. I remember once, not long after she arrived, she came down from her dressing room to greet the fans wearing a bowler hat and this full-length coat which she whipped open to show a tiny miniskirt. "How do I look?" she said to me. Well, what's a bloke to say? Then there's this other side to her that regularly cycles to the Opera House from her Kensington flat whatever the weather - imagine, she fights through all that traffic round Hyde Park Corner. We at the stage door like to show our appreciation. We get in Liquorice Allsorts and pick out all the plain black ones that she likes, then we leave them in an envelope in her pigeonhole.

'She's more than a marvellous ballerina'

Gillian Lynne CBE, director and choreographer

The thing about Sylvie is that she's a rebel, and she's turned that to a wonderful cause. If she had been simply a marvellous ballerina she wouldn't have had the impact that she's had. The remarkable quality from my point of view is that she's an actress's actress, rather than a ballet actress.

There is a certain way of delivering powerful emotion in ballet. But there's another way, as an actor, that changes the way you hold your spine. As an actor you think, what is the physicality of this person I'm trying to be?

Sylvie starts with that - and then she somehow adapts the techniques of ballet around it. I think it comes from high intelligence, to be honest and it's what sets her apart.

'We did smack her chin on the floor the other day...'

Michael Nunn, one half of the Ballet Boyz

People often say to me, isn't it scary having to catch Sylvie Guillem? I mean, if I drop her in Broken Fall [the trio made for Guillem and the Ballet Boyz by Russell Maliphant], she'll break her neck. Occasionally it does go through your head how much she's potentially worth. But at the same time we're always upping the stakes, adding that bit of extra daring, throwing her higher, catching her later, pushing the risk. And Sylvie's always up for it, that's the amazing thing.

We did smack her chin on the floor in rehearsal the other day. There wasn't much impact, but it's getting more and more dangerous the more we do the piece. Sometimes when the curtain comes down we all three look at each other as if to say, well we made it, but it was close.

Comments