It was Christmas Eve 1984 and the end of a performance at the Paris Opera of the favourite Russian classical ballet, Swan Lake. As the dancers took their curtain calls, the company's artistic director Rudolph Nureyev appeared unexpectedly on stage much to the delight of the audience. He had come to announce the promotion of that evening's Swan Queen. The willowy redhead who had just made her debut in the famous dual role of Odette/0dile was about to be made an Etoile, the company's highest rank. She was only nineteen years old, yet in three years, her rise through the ranks of the Paris Opera Ballet had been meteoric. That evening's performance proved that a balletic star had been born whose out-standing talent was soon claimed, not just by the French, but the whole international world of dance. Her name - Sylvie Guillem.
Since that evening, this extraordinary ballerina has continued to to develop and refine this talent and now rightfully takes her place as one of the most brilliant and exciting - and one of the highest paid - dancers of the twentieth century. She has brought much needed lustre and sparkle back into classical ballet, humour and often coquettish confidence to contemporary roles, and she liberally seasons all her performances with large doses of glamour and French chic.
Sylvie Guillem brings an electrifying presence to the stage which produces superlatives from the most of her critics and sets the box-office tills ringing. She endows her individual artistry to all her roles fulfilling them with dazzling virtuosity and exotic theatricality. She has been blessed with today's ideal ballerina body, the Stradivarius of her art. She's tall with perfect proportions. She displays long, slim limbs and beautifully arched feet and has striking features, fringed with lustrous chestnut-red hair and luminous green eyes which penetrate to the back of the stalls.
As if this were not enough, she has been endowed with a phenomenal technique – a fluidity of line that reaches every part of her body; natural grace that permeates her movements in both classical and contemporary work; and a stunning pyrotechnical wizardry which allows her to spin in fouettes, to balance with aplomb to tackle the intricacies of swift-flowing footwork. But it is her astonishing leg extension which, while causing some consternation to a few critics, entices and enthrals her audiences. Balancing on one leg, the other effortlessly begins to unfold like a delicate petal in a time-lapse film, rising higher and higher until it makes a 180' straight line with the supporting leg. At times, it goes even further, past the ears. Some seasoned critics say that there is no place for such displays in classical ballet, that it is not aesthetic, even vulgar. Yet it has became her trademark, her individual approach to the ballet world, and it has brought the public out to see her.
Sylvie Guillem was born in Paris on the 25th of February 1965 . Her mother was a gymnastics teacher, and the young girl, who early showed a natural aptitude and great flexibility, willingly began training. Under the watchful eyes of her mother, she developed supple strength in her upper back and arms and an elasticity in her extensions. Soon she was to be found on the competition circuit, enjoying the public's attention and reaching as far as being short-listed for the French Olympic team. It was on an exchange programme with the Paris Opera Ballet School – her teacher also worked with the ballet students there that Sylvie's dreams took a different turn. The director of the School, Claude Bessy, noticed the young girl and saw her potential for ballet. She offered her one of the coveted places at the School. She was 11 years old when she entered and her five years at the school developed in her a solid, structured technique and opportunities for performing at end of year galas which she enjoyed.
When she was 16, she joined the company in the corps de ballet. During the next two years she moved speedily up through the ranks. In 1983, she was suddenly thrown into the spotlight when she returned from the prestigious Varna International ballet competition with the gold medal. The French ballet public was thrilled and now focused much attention on her, scrutinising her specific talents. She was moved up a notch in the company's hierarchy to sujet and she made her first solo appearance as the Queen of the Driads in Nureyev's version of Don Quixote. 1983 was also the year that the great Russian dancer took the helm as Artistic Director of the Paris Opera Ballet, the world's oldest national ballet company. He immediately set about putting his seal on it by focusing on the young up and coming members whom he could groom to carry on his own personal vision of the art. For Sylvie, here was an opportunity to show off what she could do and how she could set her own individual stamp on the roles she was offered. She danced solos in several of Nureyev's own -stagings of the classics and principal roles in works by such contemporary masters as Balanchine, Petit, Robbins, Forsythe, Van Danzig and Armitage, thus expanding her style and ability.
On December 19th, 1984, Sylvie was again promoted to premiere danseuse, but five days later, after her performance in Nureyev's own production of Swan Lake, she became his youngest Etoile. Principal roles followed with Nureyev himself often showing her of as his partner. She danced his Juliet, Kitri, Raymonda. In 1986 she created the title role of his Hollywood-based version of Cendrillon (Cinderella) in which she not only shared the stage with huge models of Betty Grable and King Kong but had to ham it up in a tap routine, dressed as Charlie Chaplin. Later that year, French television filmed her dancing her pristine Auber Grand Pas Classique a technically challenging divertissement but which she performed authoritatively, stressing the purity of her line, musicality, and brilliant control.
One of the vital young choreographers who recognised and used her talent was William Forsythe. In 1987 at the Paris Opera, she created the leading role in his now contemporary classic with In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated. Though Forsythe uses classical ballet language, he reinvents it in complex unfamiliar ways, disrupting one's usual traditional assumptions of theatre and dance. In the Middle started life as a 30 minute piece but was later extended to form the central section of a full-length work Impressing the Czar. In it, Forsythe pushes his movements as far as possible making them look dangerously challenging for the dancers. It was an ideal role for Sylvie to discover and demonstrate another aspect of her talent. Released from the constricting corset of classicism, she was able to catapult her body fearlessly into the wild, speedy attacks of the choreography, contorting it supplely with required lunges, off-balance angles and geometric stances - even her hair was loosened in a natty 1920’s bob - and performed to the pulsating music of Thom Willems. Such productions kept Sylvie very much in the limelight. The world was now before her pink-satin clad feet in awe of her kaleidoscopic range of versatility.
In 1988, the Royal Opera House celebrated Rudolf Nureyev's 50th birthday by inviting him to dance in a Gala performance of Giselle at his old 'home' with the Royal Ballet. Nureyev accepted and took his new young protegee as his partner to introduce her to London audiences. On January 6th Sylvie made her London debut in the role of Giselle with Nureyev as her Albrecht. She had no trouble in winning over the audience for they quickly saw her pure, lucid virtuosity. In Act 1 she conveyed an innocent sweetness in her character, shy at first but radiantly blossoming as the action progressed. From the conservative British public who normally reserve judgement until the final curtain, her solos received cheers and applause.
But there were also those who were uncomfortable at the soaring leg, feeling that it was more like a 'good trick' and should be reserved for showy numbers and not be seen in Romantic ballet. (Guillem was to respond to criticism of her extensions much later by stating that just because in Britain audiences were not used to seeing such height and in France they were and had no problems in considering it aesthetic it did not necessarily mean that it was not good.) Early in Act 2, much to the consternation of the audience, she fell heavily, but she continued to dance full out demonstrating great control and balance in the slow adagio movements. For her, the gala was a huge success, with much admiration for her virtuosity. For Nureyev, however, it was not such a happy occasion. Sylvie's outstanding technique only emphasised his diminishing abilities and declining health. They repeated their success the next night and then returned to Paris. No one at those two performances could have foreseen the future and guessed that a year later Sylvie Guillem would return to become principal guest artist with the Royal Ballet and make London her home base.
By 1989, still dancing in Paris, she was determined to forge out her own career – one that would give her the right to perform with other companies. But Nureyev would not agree. He had been her mentor, coached her in the subtleties of his Russian schooling and had propelled her into stardom. In return, he expected her to follow his commands. She, instead, walked out. She has since admitted to being impulsive and like Nureyev, not a patient person, and with both being volatile characters, Sylvie took this opportunity to move on. She knocked on the door of the Royal Ballet, ironically the company that Nureyev so loved and had spoken so highly to her about and was instantly admitted. Her departure caused an outcry in France and the topic was even brought up at the National Assembly where cultural minister Jacques Lang had to answer questions. April 15th marked Sylvie's debut at the Royal Ballet as a principal guest artist. She danced Anthony Dowell's production of Swan Lake with her new partner Jonathan Cope whom she has said that she greatly admires. Her performance brought excitement but again, she was criticised by the purists for allowing her physical feats of virtuosity to take precedence over expression and sensitivity. Others wrote of the finesse and understanding she brought to the White Swan and the daring and drama of her Black Swan. Whatever, her very presence sent a buzz of excitement throughout the whole auditorium and for most of her audience, the performance was brilliantly executed.
Life at the Royal was very different and difficult for her. Stardom backstage at the Opera House meant sharing a smallish dressing room with up to six other principals (she had had her own at the Paris Opera) and she got the reputation of being stand-offish because she did not want to eat in the company canteen. She was nicknamed 'Mademoiselle Non' because she was unwilling to give interviews, allowed only certain photographers to take her picture, caused some mini-scandals by adapting her costumes or wearing only her own, altered steps to suit herself and made it clear as to what she would and would not dance. She kept very much to herself both at the theatre and in her private life. But she makes it no secret that when she comes to the theatre and to class, it is to work and not to talk about the weather.
During her time with the Royal - and in 1995 she signed her third consecutive contract - she has learned and mastered more balletic styles. After successfully dancing both the Gamzatti and Nikia roles in La Bayadere and Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty, she scored a huge success as Juliet in Kenneth Macmillan's Romeo and Juliet where she delighted all with her interpretation both dramatically and aesthetically. She accepted the challenges of Ashton's filigree technique with varying success and her Cinderella was sprite and confident, but some thought her miscast as Natalia Petrovna in A Month in the Country, for not being able to convey the nuances of the character nor the melting smoothness of the choreography. In November 1990, Sylvie returned to the Paris Opera to give three performances in MacMillan's Manon. The event sparked off great excitement and the atmosphere was worthy of a pop concert. Her performance showed only too well what the French had lost to the British.
Along with the classics and coping with British choreography, she has been able to show the British her Forsythe style in the Royal's production of In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated, and Herman Schmerman in which her tongue-in-cheek provocative competitive dancing with partner Adam Cooper gave her ample opportunity to lift those legs and flaunt her supple body - the upper half of which was encased in a sexy see-through bodice. But perhaps it is her relationship with Maurice Bejart which has brought out the most interesting aspects of her contemporary side. She performed her first Bejart dance without his permission at the Vama competitions and later worked with him at the Paris Opera but it is her recent performance as Sissy in which she explores the mind and character of the Empress Elizabeth of Austria (or perhaps just a mad woman deluding herself that she is the empress), that shows the chemistry between choreographer and muse. With the character's rapid descent into madness, Bejart has challenged Sylvie to look deep into her inner self and use her body as the instrument for expressing her turmoil. Sylvie Guillem has been honoured with several international awards and has been invited to dance with many of the world's major dance companies including the Kirov in St. Petersburg and American Ballet Theatre in New York and all this while still in her 20s.
One asks, what new facets of her artistry will she reveal in the next twenty years!
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