The world's greatest living ballet
dancer. Born in 1965, she became an étoile
in Paris, their highest rank, at the age of nineteen, under her mentor Rudolf Nureyev
. She became world-famous, quarrelled with Nureyev, and joined the Royal Ballet
. She is an inconceivably beautiful performer, an actor
in her roles as well as technically perfect, and she has the most extraordinary anatomy
, enabling her to reach impossible-looking positions with consummate grace and ease.
Her limbs are unbelievably supple: they can move in ways that seem to require absence of bones. Her party trick is to stand on pointes and move one leg up, up, up, until it's pointing straight up above her head. She can hold this position for what seems like minutes at a time. She can twirl from this position. She can do acrobatics, spinning faster and leaping higher than anyone you've ever seen or imagined.
But as Juliet, the young girl surprised by her Nurse's mention of marriage, unaware till then of her budding breasts, she is all youthful innocence and amazement. You can see her facial expression from the furthest seat in the house, and you can read it like an actor's in close-up. As Manon, dying in the deserts of Louisiana, she is lying on the ground twitching for most of the final act, yet she can make lying on the ground twitching seem as vibrant and erotic and tragic as the Black Swan's wildest passions.
25th February 1965 Sylvie Guillem born to a mother who was a gymnastics teacher; she excelled in that and was shortlisted for the French Olympic team. At the age of eleven she transferred to the Paris Opera Ballet School, and at sixteen entered the corps de ballet of the company.
In 1983 Nureyev became head of that company, and in 1983 Guillem won the gold medal at the Varna international competition. She was promoted to sujet and danced her first solo role, the Queen of the Dryads in Don Quixote. That was a Nureyev choreography, and she now became his protégée, starring in numerous of his works.
19th December 1984 Guillem is promoted to première danseuse, the second highest rank. She is nineteen. She holds this rank for five days.
24th December 1984 She dances her first Odette/Odile, the twin lead in Swan Lake. At the curtain calls Rudolf Nureyev steps out and publicly crowns her étoile, the youngest ever.
6th January 1988 Her London début. She and Nureyev dance Giselle at Covent Garden. Her style, which was simply amazing in France, is by some here regarded as both amazing and shocking. You simple should not be doing things this wild in classical ballet. But instantly she is a star in Britain too. He is slowly dying, and he has so much invested in her, but she now has the confidence to make her own artistic decisions, and they quarrel, both hot-tempered: she will not follow the Paris path he has laid out for her. Her loss is a national scandal: it is discussed in the French National Assembly.
15th April 1989 She dances Swan Lake at Covent Garden, her first performance in her new job, principal guest artist with the Royal Ballet. When she had come to London before, her partner had been her fellow Frenchman Laurent Hilaire. But tonight's Prince is a young man whose career had languished, Jonathan Cope, the right height for the tall and imperious Guillem. They click, and he becomes her favourite partner, an indispensably trustworthy pair of hands.
That is my last date for this write-up. Since then she has continued to dance at Covent Garden, mainly with Cope, and has also returned to Paris, and of course toured elsewhere. She has broken new ground, had choreographers queuing up to work for her, and sets new standards. Other dancers are influenced by her. The staid English style of ballet has changed: both Darcey Bussell and Sarah Wildor, the two best English ballerinas, have opened up and learnt from her.
In the Paris years she began her association with the American choreographer William Forsythe, who created modern disoriented urban works for her, to shocking electronic music by Thom Willems: one was In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated (1987), and another was the cheeky Herman Schmerman, in which her lovely breasts were visible through a sheer black top. Some of these works were probably unperformable by any other dancer at that time. She had to create them, show how the moves could be done.
Another choreographer she was worked with is the Swiss Maurice Béjart
, especially in Sissi
, in which she plays the Empress Elizabeth
of Austria and a madwoman. Sometimes the concocted modern ballets are so harsh that they would be horrible to watch with anyone else, but she turns them into star vehicles.
Guillem is or was notoriously haughty and distant, at least when she first came to London; when she did not speak the language well. She did not mix with the others, refused to be photographed by anyone but her boyfriend Gilles Tapies, didn't talk about that important English subject the weather ("If I want to know what the weather is like I can look out of the window"), and once had a screaming match with their main choreographer, Kenneth MacMillan ("They have come to see me, me!").
But she attracts great loyalty from those she does work with, if she gets her way. She is supportive and works incredibly hard. She helps everyone else to work hard. Once when she was ill (I didn't even think she could get ill or injured), I wrote, and she replied in a very kind hand-written letter: a real one, not a curt form letter on stationery.
She was considered for the post of artistic director of Covent Garden on its recent vacancy, and has turned to choreography with a new version of Giselle. She got an honorary CBE in the 2003 New Year Honours.
The best website on her is http://www.dmu.ac.uk/~jafowler/sylvie.html
Each step trod out a Lovers thought
This began as an E1 write-up; major revision August 2001.
And the Ambitious hopes he brought,
Chain'd to her brave feet with such arts,
Such sweet command, and gentle, awe,
As when she ceas'd, we sighing saw
The floore lay pav'd with broken hearts.
-- Richard Lovelace (1618-1656/7): Gratiana, dauncing and singing