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
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.