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Sylvie Guillem, Ballerina in Evolution | reviews, news & interviews

Sylvie Guillem, Ballerina in Evolution

Sylvie Guillem, Ballerina in Evolution

The ballet superstar talks about her love of Giselle, Nureyev and modern dance

Sylvie Guillem in 'Push': 'I was a very shy kid. Nobody could imagine that I would put one foot on stage'Johan Persson

The phenomenal French ballerina Sylvie Guillem (b. 1965) has always been a modern woman, for all her classical ballerina dress. She joined the Royal Ballet in 1989 from Nureyev's Paris Opera Ballet, on terms of strictest independence, hardly saying a word to the press, while her image as a brilliant but truculent "Mademoiselle Non" grew and grew.

The image belies the person, though - once you meet her, what’s striking is her lack of side, unblinkered intelligence and polite but firm candour.

This first of four interviews dates from December 1995 when the world’s most imitated classical ballerina had just made an unusual dance film linking modern choreography and avant-garde filmwork, Evidentia.

ISMENE BROWN: There is very little film of you in classical work, but this is totally unexpected. You don't like the usual way ballet is photographed?

SYLVIE GUILLEM: It's because most of the time the dance for television or movie is filmed like a performance - it's two or three cameras in one theatre. You lose what you can have during a real performance and you don't gain anything for a television medium. They used to do it better a long time ago in Russia. I've seen old films where the camera was everywhere, was on stage with the dancing, and it's a good way of doing it. The most difficult thing is to film a classical ballet, because with modern ballet you can always organise it in the studio, it's easier to have different angles and to play with the camera, and there are not so many dancers. The other thing is that when you make a film, it's going to stay - so it can be scary sometimes.

guillem evidentia dvdYou said in the Evidentia film that it's easy to hide instincts behind technique and steps.

It's easy to do but it's what I try not to do. It's true that, when you have a technique and a step, you can just do that, try to do it the best you can, and that's it. But what is interesting and what moves me personally is to go beyond that. And to develop an emotional aspect more than a technical part. But I think many dancers step back behind choreography.

When did you become aware of that trap?

Well, when you are young, when it's quite easy to do all these steps, you don't think of it. But when you feel a need of something else, and you realise there is something beyond it, you start to look around, meet other people, and the people you work with make you discover yourself. I think it's since I left Paris Opéra and started to be on my own. When you are fed up with only steps and choreography, you start to live on stage.

Is there a particular role or piece that sparked this discovery?

Yes, I think it's really when I started to work with Bob Wilson [on Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien, staged at Paris Opéra Ballet in 1988, with Guillem as St Sébastien]. Because he made me unstable, by using another technique. When you feel unstable you are in a state where everything can happen, and you can feel a lot of different things. Fear, and passion, and love... but fear, most of it. And you have to fight against it, and you discover a lot of things. And after Bob Wilson, I met other people, William Forsythe later on. But it's strange, because you realise it rather late, and I can really see who I was before I met Forsythe, or Maurice Béjart, and I can see now the evolution for me, on stage and in life.

So dance has literally formed your character, made you more yourself.

Yeah. I was a very shy kid. Nobody could imagine that I would put one foot on stage and do what I do, so I had to struggle against myself to be able to do that. The first step was not difficult, because like I said I was hiding behind something, I was not myself. But step by step, I learned that I could at the same time live on stage, give some emotion, and discover me, myself. I could know what I had inside, what I could bring out, what I should leave in.

Who helped you in that? Parents? Other dancers?

No, not my parents, because they stayed out of it, never tried to teach me anything, or to tell me, do this or that. Actually I'm very grateful for that. Most of the time it's the people you meet. Many times I think it's nice to work once with this person and start again with someone else, because it's never the same twice.

Is it more formative to do new work or roles that exist?

I like to go from one to another. I'm dancing Swan Lake or Giselle much differently than I used to do before I started working with Bob Wilson or Forsythe or Karole Armitage or Lucinda Childs or Mats Ek. One brings me things I can put in the other side. The discipline and the strictness of classical helps me to do more contemporary work.

Let's talk about [the Royal Ballet-trained modernist] Jonathan Burrows, whose creation Blue/Yellow you dance on Evidentia - you became interested a few years ago?

I saw his ballet Stoics and I saw a film he did called Body that I liked very much. He had a very personal language. The use of rhythm I liked. And the way he was dancing and was saying things was for me a new language, and very specific to him.

Did you give a lot of your own style to him or was it all his language?

There is a lot of him, of course, because it was that which I was interested in, his language. Like for everybody else, I gave all the choreographers total freedom. I told him, I want you do to a piece, do what you want with who you want, it has to be 10 minutes limit. And he decided to do it with me, but he could have done it with someone else … there is a girl in his company who I really like.

...Lynne Bristow - she's very different from you.

Yes, but the way she moves is quite extraordinary, she is really wonderful, she has a beautiful quality of movement.

New choreographers are not easy to find.

No, they are not. And when you do find them it's not easy to work. They are not free, or they have something else to do, or they do not know you enough, many different reasons (laughs slightly)

So you give them carte blanche or are you "Guillem"?

Well, no, otherwise I would not have done this film. That's why there are so many parts to it and all so different. All the people I contacted I said it's your talent that I like and I trust, and I want you to do what you want to do. That's it. It would be ridiculous for me to go and say, "use me as Sylvie Guillem", because if they don't want it, they don't feel like it, if they don't have any idea, it's ridiculous.

No, but you do have this particular physical image, the physicality of the way you move. That close-up filming of you on Evidentia by Ha Van makes it very clear. Did you choreograph it?

No, I was improvising. It was the first time I have ever done it so I was very scared (smiles). I don't want it to sound like a choreography, because it's not true. It was very free, and she just stole some moments with her camera. I was scared!

Why do you still dance Swan Lake and Giselle?

Because I think there is such quality in these ballets. It's not just something old-fashioned. It's part of the patrimoine, it's like plays made many many years ago, You have new writers with new ideas but you still have Shakespeare. And I think it's nice to go back to the past, because it's a way of living in the past, at the same time helping people to dream. Because what I do is also a divertissement, you know. I am a dancer and dance is a divertissement, you say an entertainment in English. And to dance Swan Lake, to dance Giselle, to dance Manon, it's part of it. And I like to be other characters sometimes. I like Giselle very much. I like the depth of the character, the freedom you can have for different interpretations every day or every five minutes. And because it's a real love story and she goes to the extreme - and I like the extreme also (smiles).

And Odette in Swan Lake?

She's more difficult. I must say, I find Swan Lake a bit difficult to get into it. I still haven't found the right way to imagine that I can be a swan and a woman and be in love with a man who like calls "Taxi!" and there I come... (laughs quietly). I prefer a part like Manon or Giselle, where you have a character from the beginning to the end. With Odette/Odile you arrive, you have a pas de deux, you get out, you arrive third act, pas de deux, you get out. So it's more technical. It's good for the discipline. It keeps you in shape. And if I was doing only Jonathan Burrows or Forsythe, I would lose this structure that helps me to do it.

How much longer will you stay with the Royal Ballet?

I'm going to do three more years, I think. (In the event she stayed another decade). It's okay, it's a good company. I think it deserves more, because the kids are really willing to do things. But it's very difficult to change this kind of company. There are rules, it has traditions. Strangely enough, we always think the Royal Ballet is very conservative and traditional but it's the most European company I know. I mean that you have a lot of dancers of all nationalities coming from everywhere, you have a lot of guest artists. In Paris Opéra they don't invite many others. In this respect the Royal Ballet is more open. I don't know the reason but they are.

Is it easy to find soulmates? People you can discuss your opinions with?

Well, it's not difficult to find people, but it's difficult to find people who have the same opinion as you! (Laughs.) It's also a problem of money. They don't have a lot of money so maybe it's difficult to invite people. But also this kind of company scares choreographers a little bit, they don't want to come because it's not easy to work with, they don't have the dancers long enough. So I think you need someone who can convince people to come and to do something for the company. You need someone who can fight for it. Rudolf was like this in Paris - when he wanted something, he was like this on it and would not let go. And I think the company needs it now. Especially there is a lot of young people now, and you need to give them more.

And do you tell Anthony Dowell (Royal Ballet artistic director) this?

Yes, I told him this a long time ago, but...

What is stopping them from getting creative things?

Well, they want an English choreographer first.

Is this chauvinism unusual?

No, it is everywhere. But they should not be afraid of losing anything, because you can't lose a culture.

But you could lose an audience.

No, it's not true. I mean, they (the management) hate Béjart but the audience like it. Forsythe at the beginning I think they were a bit afraid of, but the audience loved it. And if they can see Sleeping Beauty in the same week, with Forsythe, people can make the choice.

Are you conscious that your technique is so different from other dancers that they couldn't get it no matter how they worked?

You have a good part of it by chance. Because I have good facilities, good body facility, by nature. And a good part of it is work too. But it's quite unfair actually, because I know a lot of people who work hard but can't get something special out of their bodies.

Is it annoying when people go on about your physical qualities?

Non (smiles). Well, it annoys me if they only see the physical capacity, but I'm not going to... I have it, and I use it, so if they see it it's good. Maybe they see the physical quality and they are also touched by it, I don't know. It's not threatening, it's a different way of creating emotion. It should not be aggressive (her voice is very quiet).

You often dance with bare legs, you make the look of your body very clear, muscles, skin, bones.

Well, I don't want specially to show it, it's just that I feel very uncomfortable in tights and most of the time if I can hide the arm I do it, but I don't always design the costumes. I don't always dance with bare legs. I never did Swan Lake with bare legs, not yet anyway. (Dismissively) I think it's because they are not used to it, they are shocked because it's not the way they used to see for a long time, so they find it very disturbing, or not like it should be.

People still think of the Fonteyn image, porcelain, wispy.

But I remember once someone said to her, don't you think it is too much - and they were talking about me - the way she lifts the legs like this. And she said, "Well, if I could have done it, I would have done it." (Laughs) And it was quite... pleasant to hear it from her. Because most of the time people talk for others, they were talking in a way for Margot, saying it should be like this because Margot did it like this. But maybe she herself is not thinking like that.

sylvie_bejartIt takes the level of fame you have to move around the dance world as easily as you do. You do have to be very famous to say who you'd like to work with.

Well, no, it's more difficult when you're well-known. The first man, and almost the only one, I have no problem to work with is Béjart. You could think that with the name he has, with the fame he has, it would be difficult to work with him, but when he likes someone, he's ready to work with all his generosity. It's difficult to find this anywhere else. You contact a young choreographer and they say, well, I want this, that, this money... and you say, wait a second, I just want to work with you. If you don't want, that's enough. But it's already a question of money. I went to Lausanne to work many times with Béjart, he never ask me anything, never any money questions, never any contracts, or whatever, he was just happy to work with me, I was happy to work with him. We had some experiences good and bad, but we had experiences and adventures, and the money would come after, but nowadays it's like - money, first. Not always. Some of them are scared, some of them want to work with you but they don't know how to connect with you.

I assumed a choreographer would be thrilled if you rang up.

They are scared about what you represent. I have the classical image of a dancer, and they are scared, they don't see what they could do with you. And your reputation makes them step backwards a bit, because the image is so clear what you are, what people think you are, that they don't imagine that you yourself are ready to make a big step forward to go and to learn something. It's much more with humility that I go than they receive me, most of the time, except with a few rare exceptions. Even Jonathan at the beginning didn't want to do anything, didn't dare, because he couldn't see... Well, when you meet him maybe he will tell you that he couldn't see what he could do with me. (She says this with an air of inadequacy and frustration.)

You look very much at ease on stage. You look happy with your colleagues. No "side", as we say in England.

What do you mean?

You don't play the big star at the curtain call.

Me? Ah, bon! Well, I don't want to look like this. I dance, I give myself, as much as I could, and I just thanks the people for being here and liking it. I'm not playing a role then. I've done it already by then.

How do your parents feel about your career?

I think they are a bit... it seems like they don't recognise me sometimes.

It must be hard for them to imagine

They never could have. Especially if you knew me before.

Does your father still run a garage?

No, they're both retired.

Do they follow your career?

I don't know. They have their life, they are quiet, and I want them to stay quietly and not disturbed.

Will you dance for a long time?

I don't know (laughs). When I get no more pleasure out of it, I will stop.

Will you have children

If I start to think about it I will have, it's not difficult to do (laughs faintly).

Dancers do and carry on.

Well, of course, it's not easy to... because it's not just the fact of have a kid, afterwards you have to take care of him, and I can't just let it on one side and let someone else take care of him, and going to dance every time, otherwise it's better not do it.

You couldn't be a fulltime mum?

Fulltime, I don't think I could do that. Because I have friends that have children, and I saw that I will never be able to be like this. But I love kids, and I think that kids like me very much. I have good relationship with them. But fulltime... it seems to be very, very difficult

You could carry on dancing.

Yes, but the kid is with someone else. I know a lot of kids that are very... unstable because of that. There's no need for that.

Were you a close family, or did someone else look after you?

No, no, my grandmother looked after me, she was the strong one.

You are close to your four brothers?

One of them. The other two were much older.

I come from a large family and it is difficult to keep in touch with all of them. I have one son, that's enough.

(Laughs) It's strange because people who have big families they usually like to have one child.

ADAM COOPER is now famous as the iconic Male Swan in Matthew Bourne's modern Swan Lake, but before then was regularly Guillem's partner at the Royal Ballet. He talked about her in December 1995:

She's very easy to work with. First of all she's a perfectionist, she won't let any mistake go. She's also great fun. She's very shy, she doesn't offer small talk, but if you make the effort to talk to her, she answers. When I first started partnering her I daren't talk to her at all. I would go into rehearse with her, we'd speak only to work. For me it was both her being this very famous person, and that I am also quite shy. But once she offered some chat, it was like we were more on a level. Still I sometimes find it hard to communicate with her on some levels. If I pass her, when we're not working, I feel that star factor.

She usually does the boys' class. In class I always watch her, because it's an amazing body. She works hard. I would say she retains the same level of work all the time; whereas others probably work harder only when they've got something on.

I have never known her to have a major injury. She's got a very natural body for dance. Also her technique has made her incredibly strong. Does she have privileged treatment? I think she does in the way that she speaks her mind a lot, which we tend not to do. I am sure most people wish they could earn as much money as she does! I dread to think how much it is, but I think the dancers in the company have got used to her. Other dancers can't really compare themselves with her, because she's such a unique talent. What makes her unique? Her technique. The incredible body. She's not really a company person because she isn't around enough. She doesn't spent time often in the canteen. She's different, yes. She's been put up on this pedestal.

Is it justified? Yeah. She can adapt to many more styles than other ballerinas. The fact that she can do Forsythe, Béjart, Mats Ek - yes, she had the chance to do that when others haven't, but when we did the new Forsythe she was amazing, she had the style straightaway. We were struggling to pick it up. What other dancer would you know who could do that? I know there are others who are interested but I guess some Royal Ballet dancers are frightened of new styles. The difference is that Sylvie gobbles them up. People are afraid of the unknown, they're afraid to look stupid. A lot of dancers can only appreciate the classical line to work, and anything else is quirky when you have had just this technique dinned into you since you were 11.

I am quite surprised that Sylvie stayed here. I thought she would do it for three, four years and then go. We definitely feel pleased that she is there. When she came in people didn't know her very well. It was a new experience to have a resident guest artist.

I dropped her once in Herman Shmerman. She whacks her leg up in second and falls, and I am supposed to catch her. She was in the wrong place that night, and she crashed to the floor. I thought, "Oh shit, she's going to kill me." But afterwards she laughed about it, was very humorous, she just said, "Dern't do zat again." Also, I wear flesh-coloured underpants for Herman under the skirt, but she always asks me to take them off for the audience, to give them a flash of bottom.

You know, I walk quite quietly in the corridor, and I never bit anyone. Not yet.

In spring 2000 the Royal Ballet revived one of its most sacred cows, Frederick Ashton's 1963 ballet for Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev, Marguerite and Armand, which had come to be regarded as the sole preserve of the legendary pair. The idea of Sylvie Guillem as the tragic lady of the camellias caused apoplexy in many places, as the video of the ballet seemed to underscore her total dissimilarity to Fonteyn. This is the transcript of the interview Guillem gave me on that subject.

SYLVIE GUILLEM: I learned the work very fast - I wanted to learn it quickly in three days, so as to get the picture of the character.

Did you look at the film with Nureyev and Fonteyn?

I looked at it once, and I didn't want to any more, because I didn't want to learn it from Margot and Rudolf, but from Marguerite and Armand. Grant (Coyle, repetiteur) is teaching it to us step by step and I've been asking him what Sir Ashton (sic) wanted here or there, and as I know the book and play quite well, I could reconstruct what he was thinking about the character. Everything's there.

How did you go about researching it?

Everyone knows La Dame aux camélias. And Rudolf had shown this video to me, long ago, once at his place. he was very pleased to show it to me. I thought at the time it was a very beautiful piece. Once I knew I was going to do it myself I read the book, I read the play. I tried to take in not only the character, the play and writer, but the time when it was placed. It's important to get the morals at this time, the society, to place the character in her period. Why she reacts like that, why he reacts like that, why she feels she must make this sacrifice of her love. You have to place it in its context. So that's how I tried to figure out who Marguerite was - she is Marie Duplessis.

Marie Duplessis was only 23 when she died, and it's curious that we have this image of Marguerite being older than Armand. But she was a young girl.

Exactly. He was the same age, even a little older. But when they put it on stage there were these interpreters who were so strong and who marked the roles. So that people only think of the ballet as Margot and Rudolf, not as Marguerite and Armand. And it's true, she was very young, the but the real one didn't have this very dramatic tragic end. She did die of TB but she had friends around her. The play and novel are different. She dies alone in the novel, while in the play he comes back at the end. I think Sir Ashton based his ballet on the play.

Well, she has to die in his arms!

It works in theatre to have fewer characters, a more compact story. It's nice to see how Dumas tried to concentrate his story for the play, in the novel he took longer about it, there are more details, more characters. No, I had real pleasure in reading and studying it.

When was it first suggested to you to do the ballet? You told me before you thought it might not work.

They asked me a long time ago and I'd only seen the video, and it was such a strong image of Margot and Rudolf that I thought, no, I can't, it's too soon, people won't appreciate it, I'm too young - I had this idea that she should be older. And I felt it was too soon after the deaths of Margot and Rudolf, so I said, no, I don't want to, it's not the right moment and I don't know if there ever will be a right moment. But they asked me again, and I said no again. And the third time, I thought, why not? And I started to read about it and found it was much better to have more information than just to rely on what you'd heard. There is a time for everything. (Pause.) Strangely enough, I didn't have much problem the last time to decide to do it.

Was it a problem to find your Armand?

Again for a while I was misled by what Margot and Rudolf represented. But if Marguerite can be anybody, Armand can be anybody. You just place it in its time. He doesn't have to be young or blond or whatever. Once you know the characters themselves, you can have any interpretation.

You chose Nicolas Le Riche from Paris Opéra. Did it take you long to decide on him?

No, not too long. I had experienced dancing with him in Paris in Swan Lake, and I saw that he could bring something to the stage. That he could be a good Armand. He was convinced straightaway, even if he didn't know exactly where he would be going with the character. [The pair filmed their performance on tour in Japan.] My other Armand will be Jonathan (Cope of the Royal Ballet). At the beginning I thought of taking a young Armand, but then I felt I should have someone more mature, where there could be great passion. To make this kind of Armand believable you need someone of mature experience.

What about the burden of following Fonteyn?

Oh, I'm not going to do anything about it. I can't stop it, and I can't avoid it. People will be against it, some of them, and what do you do? I only decided one thing, which was that I would not look at the video any more, because Margot was wonderful in it, she had her way of doing it, and I decided I was going to listen more to Marguerite herself. I wasn't going to fight anybody, I was going to get the personage right... You know, I had a letter from someone telling me not to do this ballet, because it was made for only one person to do. But that's not true, I don't care about that. I am very pleased I'm doing this ballet, and the more I do it the more I enjoy it.

Do you find any links between Marguerite and Manon (another French courtesan, on whom Kenneth MacMillan created his famous ballet)?

Yes, it's strange you say that, because in the novel Armand gives Marguerite a book, the story of Manon Lescaut. So all through the novel there is this feeling that Manon is there, like some warning Marguerite should keep in her mind. But it was Armand who gave it to her.

marguerite_dvd_coverHow different are they as characters to interpret in ballet?

Marguerite has more conscience about what she does and why she does it - the sacrifice she takes. Manon has no idea, she is a real libertine, with no morals at all, which means not immoral but amoral. Marguerite - she knows. It seems that she knows from the beginning what's going to happen to her. It's a real sacrifice, giving up Armand, because in the society of the time her place as a courtesan is nowhere; she knows she will never have any real happiness as a courtesan, first, because she's sick and she knows she'll die from it, and because by giving him up it's a kind of suicide. The only happiness that she has, she knows can't last. She tries to lie to herself, but she knows she is lying.

But what is incredible is that she doesn't regret anything. When you heard about Marguerite and Armand, you think she's a light, not very deep woman. But no, she is. She knows, she is resigned to killing herself by going back to her old life.

How about the Ashton choreography? Does it suit you? You are such a big-scale dancer and the Margot signature was delicate and quite polite.

Of course it's not big technique and flying everywhere, but I take more from the character than from dance technique. I like it, I find it very beautiful, and I don't feel stuck inside the choreography at all. It's the moment of finding the character, the fluidity in the phrase that makes the character work in choreography. It's not easy to do, huh? It looks like nothing, because it's all partnering. But there are tricky things. So first you have to make it work physically, and then to let yourself go in it, which is hard for your partner.

How about the music [Liszt's piano sonata]?

It's quite difficult music, because it's really melodic at one point, or suddenly it's in the middle of a step somewhere else. It's strange music, and I have learned to like it very much. At first when I watched the video I thought it's a shame the music is not much of a support, but when you hear it and work with it, you find the support. What is nice is the difference between the easy-to-get and not-quite-easy. Because you are not comfortable all the time in it, you keep having to listen to it.

You say Rudolf loved the film.

He was like a kid in front of something that he was dreaming about, he was so happy to show it me. I don't know why he did. Because he didn't talk much, he just was like this in front of the TV (she hunches up like a child concentrating).

Why do you think he loved it so much?

Because of Margot and because of Sir Ashton [sic]. Because it was for him and for her. For both of them, and by somebody he really admired. He had so much admiration for Margot - he was the one who introduced me to her, he absolutely wanted me to meet her. You could feel that he had such respect for her. It was like being a little kid in front of a woman who he had so much admiration for.

On the video of the ballet he seems to be forcing her to feel the way he feels - he lights her, like putting a match to a spark. He burns her.

They're telling part of their story on that video, and Sir Ashton, by choosing an older Marguerite and a younger Armand, knew that he was doing a Marguerite and Armand that could really have been called something else. I don't know anything about it, you know, but knowing Rudolf, he was someone who could be so respectful and so in love, but at the same time he could not help being himself, to be instinctive and impulsive. And, well, Armand is destroying her. He is killing her by having no understanding of what she going through.

Was this the only role Ashton made for Nureyev? I know he desperately wanted more, but Ashton was reluctant.

I know Rudolf would have loved to have had Ondine in Paris, and I was sent as a messenger by him to Sir Ashton (laughs). With my poor English at the time, ha, I didn't speak two words! He told me, pushed me (she drop her voice conspiratorially), "You should go and ask him tell him I want Ondine at the Opéra". I said, "Well, Rudolf, if he doesn't want you to have it, how do you expect me to get it? I will never be able to convince Sir Ashton."

Nureyev wanted you to dance the title role?

Well, that's what he wanted, I guess. So I tried. Sir Ashton told me he did not want to go back to Paris and work there. He had problems in Paris. Fine. [She slaps her hands together.] Next! I don't remember exactly what it was - I think he was afraid not to be understood by the French. Actually, I don't think Ondine would have been the best piece to introduce him in the Paris Opéra. But once again I think Rudolf wanted it because it was Margot's role. Honouring her. It was like an hommage to her. Because it was when she was really sick.

Will you dance Marguerite and Armand in Paris?

Well, I didn't think about it but that's a good idea. But it's a piece the Royal Ballet must keep for themselves, it's a part of their real repertoire, their old one, their history.

Have you found any other new choreography to do?

No. I think everywhere there is a lack of humility that is very important for this kind of evolution of choreography. I'm always surprised, actually, but people are really too complicated, and after a while one just doesn't try any more. What's the point? I'm not going to pretend I am not Sylvie Guillem. I told you, I think I have more humility than they do! Less ego than they do.

You have a terrible image.

It's true, yes, I do have a terrible image (laughs). It doesn't matter, because the people I'm working with know it's not true. At the end of it all, I go on stage with other dancers and a partner, and it works. They know who I am and why I am and the kind of quality I offer. You can project the image you want, and I could change my image tomorrow (snaps fingers) by doing a lot of things in the media, advertising, whatever. Well, I was never interested in producing this image, and I was not completely responsible for it. It's how people will see you.

People love the mystique around a star. They did the same for Nureyev and Fonteyn. This kind of charisma is not always useless.

Yes. You know, I walk quite quietly in the corridor, and I never bit anyone. Not yet.

In the theatre we do something that maybe should pass. We go on stage, tell the story, and we go. It stays with you, or it doesn't stay

In March 2002 Guillem, after making it quite clear that she thought the Royal Ballet was too hidebound in repertory, succeeded in getting the world-renowned modernist Mats Ek into Covent Garden to stage his cartoonish version of Carmen, set to Rodion Shchedrin's jazzy revision of Bizet's opera music. By now Guillem was the world's most famous ballerina, and probably its most vocal too about changes needed to keep ballet alive. This article was first published in the Daily Telegraph, headlined SYLVIE'S WAKE-UP CALL

GuillemCarmenEk"SHE'S fighting the world most of the time - and she's fighting against herself too. An extreme character, like a wild animal - someone who is not understood, someone who is loved and hated at the same time, who has her own rules of life. A révoltée."

The French ballerina Sylvie Guillem is describing her next role at the Royal Ballet, that of the cigar-smoking Carmen in Mats Ek's modern dance version of the Bizet opera. Might she be describing herself, too?

"Ha! I was expecting that!" she says with a laugh, as she sits in her dressing room picking at a plaster on her heel, still red from rehearsal. For 13 years the tall, wiry Parisienne has been both queen and outcast at the Covent Garden company. She has the biggest fees, the biggest dressing room, and unique choice over her roles. She has a freedom to perform anywhere that is unheard of at the ensemble-minded Royal Ballet. She sometimes refuses the costume prescribed for her, or dances with bare legs. "If I do not feel comfortable, I will not look comfortable," she says.

Such power isolates her; so does her high intelligence. But there is a wilfulness there, too, which can exasperate those who would like to love her artistry. So she remains a phenomenon people are wary about, rather than one people learn from.

Take two recent events. A year ago she was awarded the first Nijinsky Prize for the world's best ballerina in Monte Carlo. She made her speech into a disdainful attack on the "supermarket culture" of such awards. Her serious point was buried in the fury at her ingratitude before the Monegasque royal family.

There was also her shocking photo-shoot in French Vogue. It is not unusual to see ballerinas in fashion magazines. They make elfin, maidenly clothes-horses, their modesty in front of the camera radiating a more delicate, timeless sort of femininity. When Guillem did Vogue, she wanted to do something "free and 'appy. Natural, simple, joyful. It was the real me, non?" So she photographed herself in the nude, with not a scrap of make-up on. She was accessorised only by her undressed hair and a bashed camera.

Outrage ricocheted around the world. "I think it was the picture with the two legs apart and the camera in the middle mostly," she says, deadpan. Just as shocking, I would guess, was seeing in a fashion magazine a 35-year-old woman's body not as a vehicle of illusory prettiness, but one of sheer hard work and much experience. Long, taut legs, yes, but facial lines, elbow wrinkles, protuberant muscles and veins, and feet as craggy as the Rockies. It wasn't so much the monstrous camera that unnerved the hyper-sensitive French, maybe, as the lack of Touche Eclat under Guillem's eyes.

There isn't any Touche Eclat on her views either. Christened "Mademoiselle Non" when she escaped from Rudolf Nureyev's Paris Opera Ballet to the Royal Ballet, she attracted overwhelming, often hostile attention for her exotically gymnastic body and rather snotty independence. Her extravagant "six o'clock" leg lifts kept her apart from the main Royal Ballet stream, but so did her special contracts with the company's director, Sir Anthony Dowell, who spied something more than just a miraculous physical specimen. To general amazement, he cast her relentlessly against type, as dramatic, vulnerable women, and she flowered gratefully.

When Dowell retired last summer, Guillem surprised many by leading the tributes to him, eloquently describing her "fear" for ballet without him and his like to lead it. For all her reputation as a one-off, her views are deeply traditional - almost too serious for the British.

Dancers should realise that they are really lucky. Dancing is not a job. It's people who are chosen

"Dancers should realise that they are really lucky," she says urgently. "Dancing is not a job. It's people who are chosen. And you must realise that you are chosen. Sometimes I see a performance that makes me really angry - I think, those people are lucky and they don't realise it. There are so many who are not so lucky, and they wish they could be here, even if it were only for five minutes of their life. But these dancers are blasé. And I want to say, come on, wake up, whatever you do, please do it well and do it with all that you have."

This outburst will bring balm to the souls of all those who feel a lurking fear that ballet is changing from an art into a cultural product at Covent Garden. Guillem feels it, too, "but not just here - everywhere. Things are now becoming very commercial, empty. As long as you have good promotion, you can sell anything. And I think at the time of Anthony Dowell and Rudolf Nureyev, those passionate people were making more news, with their talent, their love and need to be there on stage. It was genuine."

She is infuriated that the Royal Opera House sells tickets for the public to watch rehearsals. "I can't stand it," she protests, dragging at her messy auburn plait. "Yes, I sell myself at the time of the show, which is what I work for. But the time I need for working before is mine - I don't want to sell that." She quotes Jean-Luc Godard's answer, when asked why he made films: "Supprimer le pourquoi." To make asking "why?" redundant.

Although there are new names rising to the top at the Royal Ballet, Guillem's performances remain transcendentally able to supprimer le pourquoi. Her rendition of MacMillan's courtesan Manon has a natural force that makes an uneven, over-literal ballet convey something irresistible about woman's power over man. Three years ago, her revival of Ashton's Marguerite and Armand, created for Fonteyn and Nureyev, aroused considerable public opposition, but she triumphantly repaid the risk. (Ashton's heir, Anthony Russell-Roberts, says that, despite many requests, he will not currently consider any other interpreter.)

guillem nikiyaBut Guillem will no longer battle with ballets in which she does not believe. Of work by the neoclassical genius George Balanchine, she says, "I like to see it, but I don't like to dance it. Musically it is fantastic, but afterwards you feel you have danced into a box." She also turned down the offer at Covent Garden this spring of the splendidly exotic 19th-century classic La Bayadère [Guillem as Nikiya, pictured].

"I thought, I will see only all the things that are wrong with it, that will stop me having any pleasure, because I can't believe in it any more. The best part of it is the Shades act, and the rest of it is naff. Non?"

Non, I say. The aesthetic style, the magical impression of La Bayadère counts, surely, more than its third-rate story. "For an audience maybe, yes, but as an interpreter physically it's hard, this kind of ballet, and if you can't be mentally supported by intelligence, by emotional logic, by musicality, it's not worth it. I mean, it's not that I don't want to be tired - Mats Ek's Carmen is a killer, it's 45 minutes, and you finish dead. It's just that you don't have the courage any more to get tired for nothing."

Guillem turned 37 last month, and I wonder if she is discomfited by the chatter about younger ballerinas such as Alina Cojocaru and Tamara Rojo. "No, I feel comfortable with the way it is," she says mildly. But, in the current climate of injuries at the Royal Ballet, she advises them to say "non" more often to roles. "If you take everything, it's like doing four jobs at the same time, and none of them properly. You pay for it one day."

Rarely injured herself, she refused to do Giselle and Carmen at the same time (which Rojo is doing). "They don't go together. I don't want to aggress my body so much. Going from one style to another would be a nightmare, and neither would be done very well."

She is now increasingly known for cherrypicking dramatic "English" roles, Ashton and MacMillan heroines, rather than technical showpieces. "I did enjoy for a while the physical things. But after you've been around all that, proved what you can do, you feel dry emotionally."

She longed to perform Cranko's tragic Onegin at Covent Garden this season, but the owners of the Cranko rights did not even see her. "Well, yes, it did surprise me. I don't know the guys. Maybe they have something against me that I don't know about But then I saw that they didn't want Jonathan Cope, the senior man at Covent Garden, for the part of Onegin either, so I started to laugh. Frankly, these are people I don't want to meet."

Ten years ago, it looked as if Guillem might change the face of choreography, as well as of ballet classes, with her extraordinary physical gifts. But the innovative roles, apart from the odd William Forsythe or Maurice Béjart, have not come forth, and there is no film of her in her finest roles. Fluttering her hands dismissively, Guillem says, "In the theatre we do something that maybe should pass. We go on stage, tell the story, and we go. It stays with you, or it doesn't stay. That's it."

I dance, I give myself, as much as I could, and I just thank the people for being here and liking it.

In November 2003 Guillem took things into her own hands and commissioned a new work for herself and two other disaffected Royal Ballet dancers, Michael Nunn and William Trevitt, also known as 'The Ballet Boyz'. The choreographer was to be Russell Maliphant, whom the Ballet Boyz had successfully used to help them reinvent themselves in modern ballet. The trio, Broken Fall, was a choreographic sensation, toured around the world. Today Guillem and Maliphant are a world-famous partnership in new work he has made for them both to dance. This article, charting the beginning of this new creative relationship, appeared in the Daily Telegraph, headlined SYLVIE AND THE BOYZ

"TRUST me," says Michael Nunn, grinning untrustworthily. Sylvie Guillem, superstar ballerina, grimaces as she sits on the floor. Suddenly, electrifyingly, she launches herself into the air, to be caught by her bird-like hip-bones by Nunn, way over his head. "Don't worry, you're insured!" he quips. "I'm not!" she protests, looking like Concorde being plucked out of the sky.

My jaw drops. I have never seen any dance look so fantastically risky as what is going on in rehearsals for Broken Fall, the new ballet for Guillem, Nunn and William Trevitt - popularly known as the Ballet Boyz - to be performed at the Royal Ballet next week. It is by the choreographer Russell Maliphant, whose male duets have become the Boyz' signature demonstration of their exceptional partnership in work for their own company, George Piper Dances.

Maliphant quietly films the three, letting them bicker. The movement he's getting from them feels as light as tumbleweed spilling down a windy road. But achieving it is all bumps and grinds. Plummeting downwards, Guillem's cheek grazes Trevitt's stubbly chin and they wince as shoulders collide. It's extreme sport, until - with any luck - it turns into extreme art.

Later, in her dressing room, Guillem bubbles over with delight. At 38 she still combines a wiry tomboy body and green-eyed beauty, even if the roots of her long red hair glimmer with grey. She is much mellowed from the spiky, shy girl who rebelled against Rudolf Nureyev's regime at the Paris Opera Ballet and defected to London 15 years ago. Nowadays she is not "Mademoiselle Non" but "Mademoiselle Oui", willing to walk the highest wire for a choreographer whom she admires.

"Yes, it's really exciting to do. You feel really powerful but at the same time you need to keep it really calm - and it gives you a headache! Your head is upside-down so you need to get a different view of the space, and you need to concentrate not just for yourself but for the two others. Because my body is quite long and I'm not so close to the floor, for me to go on to the knee and come back can be painful - things I knew I needed to work a little bit on. I told Russell, 'Don't worry! It's going to come!' And I hope he trusted me and he saw that it would come eventually. I mean, I just had to work it out a little in my head. But I have bruises everywhere!"

GuillemMaliphantPic_000Maliphant's way of moving (pictured with Guillem, left, by Johan Persson) captivates her - when he demonstrates, he moves in a boneless swirl, like water down a pipe. "So soft it looks. But when you try it, my God, you use every part of your body, every little muscle. And also as a partner he is so soft! It's really pleasant, because you never feel any shock. It's smoothed away."

Guillem has put most of the classical tutu ballets behind her, declaring that she has lost interest in The Sleeping Beauty, La Bayadère and the like. With her tall, idiosyncratically limber body and restless nature, she has spent much of her glittering career yearning for new choreographers to use her. With Maliphant, it looks as if she is finally getting something special - and yet the unthinkable is looming. Her contract expires this year. Talks have yet to be held in Covent Garden about this potentially momentous event, and Guillem's mobile face clouds doubtfully. "I do Prodigal Son with Carlos [Acosta], and then Romeo and Juliet may be my last performances. Because it depends what I can do here. I don't want to get bored."

She brightens again. At last, after years of being perceived as her burden, her gymnastic childhood is coming in handy to meet Maliphant's challenges. "Yes, it brings back the feeling I had when I was a gymnast, when the body was freer. I like to push myself as far as I can go."

Then, she learned to face terrors such as the hated beam with the support of her parents; now it is Nunn and Trevitt whom she must trust, or "I will break my head, like anybody. But they are strong, and when I tell them, 'Listen, this is scary for me', even if they are joking I know they will be there."

The work is so interdependent that if one of the men is indisposed for any of the five performances, she will not risk it with a substitute - an understudy trio will step in. If she is off, though, Nunn and Trevitt can pull in their George Piper Dances ballerina Oxana Panchenko.

Because, for all the Royal Ballet lustre of this engagement, it is a George Piper commission. Nunn, 36, and Trevitt, 34, are back at their old home, this time as masters. They left the Royal Ballet five years ago, relatively unknown, but set on running their own innovative company; now, just back from a lauded US tour, they are world stars.

Deceptive casualness is their hallmark: their larky video diaries and TV documentaries have won them a Channel 4 series for next year. A danced Messiah is in planning with the National Theatre's Nicholas Hytner and star choreographer Christopher Wheeldon. "Everything we've done I'm pleased with," says Trevitt. "We are pretty much where we wanted to be, and we haven't had to compromise with our beliefs too much. We've done some things - usually stupid things for marketing to sell the show - but in terms of what we've produced on stage, I have no complaints at all."

Meanwhile they dance, and the new Maliphant heads the attractions of their next GPD tour from March, with possible Guillem appearances. "It depends what else she's doing," says Trevitt. "Six weeks in the studio with Sylvie and Russell has been a big treat. She's probably the world's most spectacular ballerina, but it's her intelligence and integrity that I admire. I am super-impressed that she hasn't lost her hunger for new challenges. We pestered her to come and see Russell's work for us at The Place and she really liked it. I guess what's happened now is a unique arrangement with the Opera House, because the Royal Ballet have scheduled it, but it belongs to us."

The combined celebrity of his dancers is lost on Maliphant, fortunately a man of Zen calm. The serenity of his dances is as interesting as their powerful fluidity; they draw poetically on the hyper-control and elasticity of martial arts such as Brazil's capoeira and Japan's judo, and yet they throb with expression. What intrigues about his duets is that they carry such a clear message about men together that does not demonstrate sexuality, and yet evokes strong feelings.

This was what attracted Nunn and Trevitt, lifelong friends as well as colleagues. Maliphant was on their wish-list when they helped found the breakaway company K Ballet, under another Royal Ballet colleague, Tetsuya Kumakawa - only K Ballet didn't turn out as innovative as they'd hoped. "And then they left Teddy," recalls Maliphant, "phoned me up and said, 'We'd like to do (his male duet) Critical Mass, we've been learning sections from the video.' And they'd actually learned the whole thing. I thought, well done, guys."

He was also rather envious of their relationship. Now 42, he had a long Sadler's Wells Ballet career, but had found it offputting that "there wasn't much understanding if you were two straight men together." The Ballet Boyz were refreshing: "They weren't afraid of being intimate."

sylvie-guillem_laughGuillem observes that their intuitive dance partnership owes much to their being "a real couple - in their friendship they match each other, complete each other. As two people in the street and in the work, it's the same. They are made to be friends, real friends."

Bringing in the lustrously feminine Guillem, I suggest to Maliphant, could rock the happy male boat. On the contrary, he says, it has enabled development. "I've heard that she can be a prima donna if she doesn't like the work she's doing. But she's been fantastic. We grew it, in a way. We tried to do things bigger. So it's not a pass, it's a throw; a lift isn't just up here - it's way up there. Hopefully the intimacy can still work, but I think we've been able to go further because a less fearless dancer would have said `no' earlier than Sylvie has."

The Royal Ballet's artistic director Monica Mason is intensely looking forward to opening night. She keenly watches contemporary dance, and thinks it's time for Covent Garden to lasso in the fine ballet-grown choreographers who escaped into that world: "It's so easy to overlook people closest to you. Hence my interest in Russell." And in Wayne McGregor, another contemporary man whose new creation appears on the bill with Maliphant's. Her eye is also on commissioning Christopher Bruce, Michael Clark and more Maliphant in time.

I sense that this programme will be significant for all its participants. For Mason, as a declaration of faith in British choreographic talent; for Maliphant, hitting a major stage; for George Piper Dances, returning to Covent Garden as world players; and for Guillem. It may be among the last things she does at the Royal Ballet; then again, she may have found the role of a lifetime.

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