Cover story Sylvie Guillem’s high-ten­sile 6000 Miles Away

Sylvie Guillem turns the lan­guage of clas­si­cal dance on its head in three stun­ning works she is bring­ing to Aus­tralia next month, writes Paola To­taro

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents -

is dif­fi­cult to tear your eyes away from Sylvie Guillem. The French bal­le­rina, one of the great­est the world has known, is folded up in front of me, wide green eyes, red waist-length hair cut in a fringe to frame her face. She is with­out make-up, dressed in baggy black T-shirt and sweat pants but could not look more lan­guid, feather-light, ef­fort­lessly ele­gant in the way long-necked birds are when they stretch and un­furl.

This soft-fo­cus Guillem, sparkling water in hand, is a world away from the streak of molten steel that whipped and sliced and flicked her way through the Sadler’s Wells triple bill dances, 6000 Miles Away, at Snape Malt­ings in Eng­land’s Suf­folk the night be­fore.

Hand-picked from the Paris Opera Bal­let ju­niors as a shy teenager by Ru­dolf Nureyev, Guillem, in­cred­i­bly, is now 47; she re­mains a phys­i­cal spec­i­men of such ten­sile strength and pre­ci­sion that not even the frumpy mus­tard­coloured skirt, cardi­gan and dowdy longsleeved shirt she dons for the third of the works can dampen the liq­uid beauty of her mus­cles and sinew.

Guillem has been on the road with this trip­tych of con­tem­po­rary bal­lets, tak­ing it from Rome to New York and open­ing in Aus­tralia at the Ade­laide Fes­ti­val on March 1. Its ti­tle, a muted ref­er­ence to the Ja­panese earth­quake and tsunami of 2011, features the work of three renowned con­tem­po­rary chore­og­ra­phers, Swe­den’s Mats Ek, her great friend, Frankfurt-based Amer­i­can Wil­liam Forsythe, and the Ned­er­lands Dans The­ater Czech founder, Jiri Kylian.

Deeply in­ti­mate with the works — she dances two, Forsythe’s Rear­ray and Ek’s Bye, that were cre­ated for her — Guillem’s fa­mil­iar­ity does not breed con­tempt.

Ev­ery moment she is on stage, you can see the lan­guage of clas­si­cal bal­let pulled apart into a com­plex mor­ph­ing and re-mor­ph­ing of un­fa­mil­iar body shapes and forms. Through­out, there are myr­iad glimpses of her stun­ning arabesque, grand jete, bat­te­ment, in­deed many steps of the old school, but just like the light­ing that fades to black at un­ex­pected mo­ments, they are quick­sil­ver snap­shots that quickly reap­pear in a new guise.

Guillem’s leg­endary power, flex­i­bil­ity and eye-wa­ter­ing in­step are present but sub­dued by socks, with no pointe. (What is en­tirely un­ex­pected is the bal­let star’s head­stands, bare legs akimbo in a stylised, play­ful let­ter Y.)

Forsythe, the de­con­struc­tion­ist who di­rected the Frankfurt Bal­let for two decades, be­gan to re­hearse Rear­ray in Lon­don in 2011, 25 years af­ter he clapped eyes on the young Guillem at the Paris Opera Bal­let: ‘‘ My as­sis­tant said, ‘ You’ve got to see this girl’, and we went to peer into the stu­dio through a lit­tle win­dow at the back. There she was, do­ing her barre ex­er­cises at the pi­ano. She was amaz­ing,’’ he told Lon­don’s The Daily Tele­graph.

Guillem too re­mem­bers this as a pe­riod of enor­mous ex­cite­ment: ‘‘ Ru­dolf Nureyev had ar­rived as di­rec­tor . . . he opened the doors to so many peo­ple and one of those was Bill Forsythe. He was not well known at the time, not to that kind of Paris au­di­ence any­way. The ex­pe­ri­ence was great, he was this crazy guy for us,’’ she tells me, eyes crin­kling, hands wav­ing en­thu­si­as­ti­cally with the me­mory.

‘‘ When you are used to the Paris Opera, the dis­ci­pline where things are so set, ob­vi­ous al­most, and you know what you have to do and who you have to be [and] you have this chore­og­ra­pher who we could feel was do­ing things that were in­ter­est­ing but there was no point of ref­er­ence for us ... all the young peo­ple had big eyes like that.’’

Guillem says that on that first night of per­form­ing Forsythe’s France/Danse — ‘‘ a great piece, a bit eu­phoric, a bit crazy’’ — he fid­dled with his chore­og­ra­phy right un­til the very moment the cur­tain went up. The dancers, she says, adored the ‘‘ buzzing ex­cite­ment of go­ing out­side the rules’’.

Rear­ray, the pas de deux cre­ated by Forsythe for her a quar­ter-cen­tury later (danced with La Scala’s Mas­simo Murru or her long-time favourite Ni­co­las Le Riche on tour) re­vives that fris­son of dan­ger, al­low­ing her to ‘‘ play’’ and im­pro­vise around its struc­ture: ‘‘ When you im­pro­vise alone, you don’t risk a lot but do­ing an im­pro­vi­sa­tion when you are two is even more dif­fi­cult be­cause you need to lis­ten ex­actly to un­der­stand what is go­ing to hap­pen.

‘‘ It is like this,’’ she says, snap, snap, snap­ping her fin­gers to in­di­cate speed, ‘‘ be­cause you don’t have two hours, it is really a de­ci­sion on the spot and that too is what makes it a lit­tle bit dan­ger­ous.’’ FROM the be­gin­ning, Guillem found it im­pos­si­ble to stay still in her art, push­ing bound­aries and chal­leng­ing her­self even as a young bal­le­rina.

Born in Paris in 1965, she be­gan learn­ing gymnastics with her mother, a gym teacher, as a lit­tle girl and trained hard with an eye to­wards the French Olympics team. She ex­celled thanks to a preter­nat­u­ral flex­i­bil­ity and strength (‘‘my fa­ther had the curved feet, my mother the legs, so I am a bit of both’’) but it was her love of per­for­mance as much as the ath­leti­cism of gymnastics that saw her join the Paris Opera Bal­let school aged 11. From this be­gin­ning, in 1976, she quickly re­vealed an am­bi­tion matched only by her physique, em­bark­ing on a ca­reer tra­jec­tory that would shoot her from the com­pany’s corps de bal­let in 1981 to its youngest ever etoile — star dancer — pro­moted by Nureyev at the age of 19.

This, matched with a rest­less spirit and de­sire to keep test­ing her bound­aries, how­ever, would ul­ti­mately clash with the tra­di­tions and rigid­ity of the Paris Opera Bal­let and when its direc­tors re­fused her a flex­i­ble con­tract so she could per­form with other com­pa­nies, she re­signed, mov­ing to Lon­don’s Royal Bal­let as guest artist.

The de­fec­tion, in 1988, aged 23, in­fu­ri­ated Nureyev and, it has been said, broke his heart.

The two en­joyed a mer­cu­rial re­la­tion­ship: both sure of their art, driven and com­pelled to ex­plore and, al­ways, push­ing, push­ing.

When she thinks back to that time, Guillem’s love for Nureyev be­comes vis­i­ble in her ex­pres­sion. She re­mem­bers him as a ‘‘ wild an­i­mal, very in­stinc­tive’’ who knew he didn’t have much time left to live: ‘‘ He was taken in this kind of tour­bil­lon of fame, he was an idol for many peo­ple, still is ac­tu­ally. But he knew what work was, he knew what a com­pany needed. Ah, we were ready, buzzing, it was so ex­cit­ing . . .

‘‘ Even be­ing older and not danc­ing so well, Ru­dolf was putting the best dancers around him and not only les etoiles; he would find in the corps de bal­let the one that for him, maybe, had a chance to show some­thing and he never, never hes­i­tated to put next to him peo­ple in bet­ter shape than him, younger.’’

Guillem be­lieves that this abil­ity to give was a sign of in­tel­li­gence, and vi­sion: ‘‘ It was said he was not gen­er­ous but that is the most gen­er­ous ges­ture I have ever seen.

‘‘ I would not have had the chance to do what I did and so early if I did not have Ru­dolf.

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