Sylvie Guillem: 'I don't want to think about my last show – I just want to live it'

She was Rudolf Nureyev’s greatest protege and he nurtured her to stardom. Now, after four decades, Guillem is to retire. She talks about her fights, faults and fears

On 30 December, at 4pm in Japan, Sylvie Guillem will dance in public for the last time. Whatever the new year holds, the life she lives will change utterly. There will be no more early mornings in over-heated dance studios, no more late nights on stage. Gone will be the aching limbs, the ice baths, the bouquets and the rapturous applause that have been her lot for 39 glorious years.

Since March, she has toured the world, saying goodbye with a programme of new work, Life in Progress. In two weeks, the farewell will be final. I was lucky enough to watch as she prepared each piece; we have met and talked throughout the year. During our last exchange, by email, as she travelled to Vienna, I asked her about her last show in Japan. “I do not want to speak or think about it,” she wrote. “I just want to simply live it.”

I wonder if she is thinking of Rudolf Nureyev when she says that. Although Guillem reshaped ballet in her own image – her high leg extensions are now part of the curriculum at the Vaganova Academy, fount of all balletic wisdom – she sprang from a generation whose technique and understanding of their art were deeply rooted in the past, and was nurtured by Nureyev in his time as director of the Paris Opera Ballet.

I once watched as Guillem and her fellow star at the company Nicolas Le Riche discussed how a particular variation was performed in class each morning when they were training: Guillem placed the arms and head in one position, Le Riche in another. Suddenly they leaped into motion, filling the small rehearsal space with a blast of classical grandeur. The choreographer William Forsythe looked on, smiling. “They are like a living definition of the classical tradition,” he said. “What we just saw was a conversation so deeply rooted in dance history that it could only take place between Mariinsky or Paris Opera trained dancers.”

Guillem was Nureyev’s greatest protege. On 22 December 1984, after a matinee performance of Swan Lake, he announced that he was making 19-year-old Guillem an étoile, the youngest in the company’s history. Their working relationship was argumentative, but their affection and respect for one another were constant.

Sylvie Guillem
Guillem, prima ballerina for the Paris Opera Ballet, performs Swan Lake in 1985. Photograph: Orban/Sygma/Corbis le-de-France Photograph: Thierry Orban/Sygma/Corbis

“He was a great man, with such a great personality and strength,” says Guillem. “He had a vision, and was fantastic for us young ones. Sometimes he was really difficult, but I liked to fight back – not to challenge him, but spontaneously when I thought something was unfair. I cannot stand unfairness.”

He partnered her on stage, bringing her to London to dance opposite him at the Royal Opera House in 1988, in a production of Giselle that marked his 50th birthday. She always admired him, even though the contrast between her gleaming, youthful brilliance and his declining prowess must have been acute. “I’ve never seen him dance well. But what was fantastic was the relation he had with the stage, with the audience, what he wanted to do. He was a hostage of his reputation. He might have decided to stop, but he could not. In the end, he didn’t care if he was dancing well or not. I could not be like that.”

Instead, Guillem has made her decision: “I know it has to end,” she says. “Better it is a clean break. I still don’t know if I will cope. I will have to learn to see life differently.”

I read about Guillem long before I saw her dance. In the days before YouTube, cheap flights or trains that whizz you across the Channel, bulletins from Paris came via the critics. John Percival, an early biographer of Nureyev, was one of the first to telegraph his excitement about this young dancer with “her extraordinary physique, amazing feet, tremendous jump and her intelligence and determination”. He noted, too, her dramatic abilities, the way she owned a stage, the detailed care with which she brought each part to life.

Every quality Guillem has revealed throughout her career was visible from the beginning. She always had a sense of what she wanted to achieve, and confidence in her decisions as a dancer. But although she jumped every hurdle with ease, she also suffered. Just as she began to light up the stage, she was assailed by self-doubt in her life off-stage. “When you are a kid, you don’t think, you have no brain. Then as you grow up, you become aware of other people, and that’s when I became scared. I didn’t like people. I was scared of being judged – not as a dancer, but as a person – and I was really uncomfortable around people. They thought I was unafraid and had no feelings, that I was hard, but really I was extremely sensitive to everything. That lasted for a very long time. But slowly,” she says, “I started to accept who I am, my qualities and faults, while still trying to improve myself – I am always trying to improve myself.”

Sylvie Guillem
Guillem in Venice in 2012. Photograph: Mirco Toniolo/Rex Photograph: Mirco Toniolo/REX

Guillem has spoken openly, too, about her feelings of isolation when she first arrived at the Royal Ballet in 1989. In her interview with Deborah Bull for the BBC in August, you can glimpse the shy girl behind the self-assured woman. When she recalls how she had been hurt by events in Paris, and how she struggled with English when she first came to London, she suddenly says “and then I discovered that there were people in the company who spoke French but no one helped me”.

She laughs as she says it, but this contrast between Guillem the person, gentle and shy, and Guillem the artist, steely and decisive in defence of her vision, is one of her most striking qualities. In any case, she tells me, the isolation did not matter. “My friends were not in the company. I had Gilles, my partner. I was going, coming, living, rehearsing, dancing, living again. They thought I was this and I was not. But I didn’t really care.”

Guillem’s eyes were always fixed on the prize. She had faith in her talent and wanted to explore what she could do. Audiences wanted to see her do it and, like many great artists, she is fully alive when she is on stage. It feels natural for her to be there. It was in Japan at the age of 15, touring with a group of youngsters from the school, that she discovered the impact she could have on an audience. “It was like – wow, what have I done.”

From that moment, the directness of her communication with the people out there in the dark became a guiding principle. “It was pleasure.” That is why she has always fought to give her best, to make her performance as perfect as it could be. She talks about exploring every corner of a part, and puts her formidable technique absolutely at the service of that dramatic, communicative endeavour.

When I look back on her performances, it is the emotion and passion I remember: her terrifying death scene in Manon, where she leaped so fearlessly across the stage; the way her Odette glanced fearfully over her shoulder on her first encounter with her prince; the tenderness and tragic intensity of her Juliet, the ferocious bravura of her Carmen, or the incisive jazzy grandeur she brought to Forsythe’s In the Middle Somewhat Elevated.

As she took on more contemporary work in the last decade, different choreographers unlocked new qualities in her movement. On stage as in life, she often seems to be voyaging, journeying to new terrain, exploring space in Russell Maliphant’s Push, or the entire shape of the classical vocabulary in Forsythe’s ReArray. For me, every part she has danced, she has burnished – and made her own.

Sylvie Guillem
Guillem and Laurent Hilaire in In The Middle Somewhat Elevated, part of the Royal Ballet triple bill in 1992. Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Not everyone agrees. For some, she was – as she says Kenneth MacMillan described her – “a boring French star” whose daring extensions distorted age‑old traditions. But even they might grudgingly admire the clarity and purpose of her art, the way she applies her considerable intelligence to every moment. She works harder and cares more than any dancer I have ever seen.

“At the end of the day, I am doing the show,” she says. “I don’t mean that in an egotistical way, but I am responsible, I am the one on stage, so I have to make it work.”

This attitude explains a lot, from her arguments at the Royal Ballet that earned her the nickname Mademoiselle Non to her decision to go on a farewell tour. She is, as WE Henley might have put it, the master of her fate, the captain of her soul. Or to quote Frank Sinatra, she has danced it her way, and now she wants to say goodbye and thank you to the people who have supported her.

At every point, from Modena to Sydney, from Singapore to Moscow, audiences have crammed the theatres in response. They’ve brought their children to see her, knowing that one day people will talk about seeing Guillem in the same hushed tones in which they once talked of seeing Anna Pavlova. She has changed everything.

Virtually the first thing Guillem did, when she landed at the Paris Opera Ballet School as a gymnast on a year-long exchange programme, was to break the rules and climb up on to the roof. That transgression was a marker for everything that has followed. She has always been someone who wants to look at the wider world, beyond the sometimes etiolated concerns of the dance studio.

In person she is always asking questions, about dance, theatre and art, but also about life. Since buying a house in Italy, she has taught herself Italian; when she warms up at the barre, she listens to teach-yourself Japanese on her headphones. Her veganism and environmental activism are informed by wide reading and political awareness.

As a result of her many interests, the next chapter of her life looks set to be full and varied. There is no doubt her support of the marine conservation organisation Sea Shepherd and the seed foundation Association Kokopelli will form part of her future; she has been careful not to rule out any involvement with dance and theatre. Simply, she will not dance again.

I said my goodbyes when she performed for the last time in Paris, appropriately enough at the historic Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, the place where Nijinsky’s Rite of Spring caused a riot. With her mother and friends looking on, Guillem took a bow that seemed to go on for ever. Claude Bessy, the great ballerina and director of the Paris Opera Ballet School from 1972 to 2004, presented her with a bouquet, comedian and actor Guillaume Gallienne recited a long poem, and Le Riche danced a little tribute to her grace. Guillem’s smiles were full of tears.

The final piece of her Life in Progress programme is Mats Ek’s Bye, a solo to Beethoven’s last piano sonata, Op 111. When she first performed it in 2011, it seemed to be a piece in which a woman bade farewell to youth. Time and circumstance have made it something else, as Guillem mines its meaning more and more deeply. Now she appears to be on the cusp of two worlds – torn between the idiosyncratic freedom of dance and the crowd of loving people who appear on film, watching her from the back of the stage, and ultimately absorb her.

At one point, she nods her head twice. I love that moment because it seems to say yes to everything – an affirmation both of the life she has shared with the world as a dancer and the next steps that she takes.

  • This article was amended on 18 December as it had been incorrectly attributed to Sylvie Guillem. The piece is actually by Sarah Crompton.


Sarah Crompton

The GuardianTramp

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