Born in Paris in 1965, Guillem was just 11 years old when she set out to become a ballerina. She joined the Paris Opera Ballet School at 16 where her exceptional physique and extraordinary talent became immediately apparent— as did an intelligence, maturity, and determination rare for her age. At just 19, the school’s artistic director Rudolf Nureyev made Sylvie his star dancer —the company’s youngest ever. Over the following years her performances would include roles in classics such as Don Quixote and Cinderella, as well as ground-breaking, revolutionary pieces such as William Forsythe’s In The Middle, Somewhat Elevated, for which Sylvie danced the central role.
With a desire to work abroad and expand her repertoire, Guillem left Paris in 1988 to become a guest dancer at The Royal Ballet in London where a stubborn, unwavering commitment to her artistic vision earned her the nickname ‘Mademoiselle Non.’ In addition to appearances in MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet, Manon and Winter Dreams (to name a few) Guillem determinedly fought for the expansion and diversification of the company’s program which resulted in performances including Mat Ek’s Carmen and Forsythe’s Herman Schmerman. She also danced for the Kirov Ballet and American Ballet Theatre.
Ever ambitious and insatiably curious, Guillem became increasingly involved in more experimental productions. In 1998 she staged a fascinating adaptation of the classic Giselle with the Finnish National Ballet, which was later reworked for La Scala in Milan and subsequently toured Europe and the United States. It marked a significant turning point in her career. She became ever more drawn to creative and highly innovative productions, which favored modern dance choreography over more traditional ballet.
In 2003 she worked alongside British choreographer Russell Maliphant on Broken Fall which was granted an Olivier Award later that year. It was the first in a series of collaborative projects created by the duo, followed soon after by PUSH and Eonnagata.
After years of defying tradition and pushing boundaries, Guillem announced her retirement in November 2014. ‘I have made my career last as long and made it as beautiful as I could. I want it to end beautifully too,’ she says.
The ballerina’s valedictory tour will see her dancing from New York to Taiwan before taking her final bow in Tokyo in December. Entitled Life in Progress, the show is comprised of four performances – each one slightly peculiar and frustratingly elusive but utterly compelling and undeniably beautiful, everything that Guillem’s extraordinary career has been and thus an apt way for her to bid adieu.
The first of these performances, ‘Technê,’ was choreographed by Akram Khan, whose profound, creative, and extremely emotive work has seen him collaborating with the National Ballet of China, pop sensation Kylie Minogue, and directing a section of the London 2012 Olympic Games Opening Ceremony. He has Guillem scurry and scuttle like a feral creature around the shadowy stage in a dance that completely transfixes the audience both in its eeriness and with the ballerina’s almost inhuman suppleness.
Two male performers then take to the stage to perform ‘Duo’, before Guillem returns in ‘Here & After’ —a duet with Emanuela Montanari in which the dancers elegantly curl and twist around one another with beautiful technical accuracy. The final piece, Mats Ek’s ‘Bye,’ premiered in 2011 but is imbued with added poignancy within the context of Sylvie’s ultimate performance. Schoolgirl-like in ankle socks and a shabby cardigan, Guillem dances freely and gaily, as if in delightful childish play —but with the flawless technique and experienced grace of a woman who has spent almost four decades in the spotlight. She gradually slows, stops, stands up straight, and with a final glance back upon the watery-eyed audience, walks off the stage. The prima ballerina of a generation, Sylvie Guillem will surely be missed and never forgotten.