Forsythe's in the middle, somewhat elevated uses the battement like an attack. Photo by Alexander Iziliaev, Courtesy Pennsylvania Ballet
Just before retiring in 2015, Sylvie Guillem appeared on "HARDtalk with Zeinab Badawi," the BBC's hard-hitting interview program. Badawi told Guillem,
"Clement Crisp of the Financial Times, 14 years ago, described your dancing as vulgar."
"Yeah, well, he said that. But at the same time, when they asked Margot Fonteyn what she thought about lifting the leg like this she said, 'Well, if I could have done it, I would have done it.' "
They were discussing Guillem's signature stroke—her 180-degree leg extension à la seconde. Ballet legs had often flashed about in the higher zones between 135 and 160 degrees before. But it wasn't until the virtuoso French ballerina regularly extended her leg beside her ear with immaculate poise in the 1980s that leg extensions for ballet dancers in classical roles reached their zenith. Traditionalists like Clement Crisp were not taken with it.
The 1980s were an exciting time at the Paris Opéra Ballet, with Rudolf Nureyev as its director and virtuosic étoiles, like Sylvie Guillem and Patrick Dupond, onstage. These two young stars made a dream team. With raw energy and sublime technique, Guillem and Dupond, only 19 and 24 years-old respectively, are brilliant in this 1984 performance of the pas de deux from Le Corsaire.
For dancers, every day is like Halloween. You don't have to wait until October to try on new personas and elaborate costumes. But that certainly didn't stop the ballet world from going full out yesterday. We rounded up some of our favorites across Instagram to help draw the *spooky* holiday spirit out for one more day.
Matthew Bourne's New Adventure's production of The Red Shoesis nearing its final performances at New York City Center this weekend. American Ballet Theatre's Marcelo Gomes is guest-starring in the production as Julian Craster, the composer boyfriend to protagonist Victoria Page. But for Halloween, Marcelo donned the infamous red shoes himself to dress as the leading ingenue.
Every year, a select few dancers join the Paris Opera Ballet. An even smaller percentage make world headlines like former étoile Sylvie Guillem, who joined the company in 1981 at age 16. Three years later, after winning gold at the Varna International Ballet Competition, then-director Rudolf Nureyev made her the youngest étoile in the company’s history. Her promise was as undeniable as her decisions were bold. In 1989, Guillem left POB to join the Royal Ballet as a principal guest artist, a move that allowed her to freelance with companies around the world.
Although Guillem was young when she began performing soloist and principal roles, her maturity and self-awareness translated beautifully into her performances. In this clip from the television documentary Sylvie Guillem at Work, her precise footwork and elegant upper body mirror the grace and sophistication of Raymonda’s Act III variation. I love how she dramatizes her movements by contrasting expansive port de bras with sharp arm gestures. Her piqués at 1:48 (besides being perfectly placed) are taken with just enough momentum to sustain her flowing balance before relinquishing it into a series of bourrées. After a demanding series of sissonnes and pirouettes, she completes the variation with a renewed sense of composure.
Sylvie Guillem commanded the stages of both the Palais Garnier and the Royal Opera House. Although she retired last December, she set a precedent for artistic freedom, leaving a lasting impact on the dance world. Happy #ThrowbackThursday!
Sylvie Guillem in Mats Ek's Bye. Photo by Bill Cooper, Courtesy New York City Center.
Sylvie Guillem once said, “I have a lucky physique." Lucky is an understatement; my adjective of choice would be “perfect." As the Paris Opéra Ballet's youngest ever étoile, Guillem effaced previous technical standards with one whack of her leg in William Forsythe's In the middle, somewhat elevated, which he choreographed for her and fellow POB étoile Laurent Hilaire in 1987. Nearly three decades later, we could call the work a classic, but my awe renews with each viewing. There's plenty of stunning film footage of the two in the piece, but I like this clip for its close-ups. From a distance, the ease with which Guillem raises her legs to her ears almost seems like apathy. But here, as the camera zooms in on her kohl-rimmed eyes and silky smirks, we can see her intensity burning through. Guillem's precision is both steely and lyrical, her connection with Hilaire both cool and sensual—her command in the role still unparalleled.
Guillem in Mats Ek's "Bye," photo by Bill Cooper, courtesy New York City Center
November in NYC is rich with stars and shows that can't be missed.
From November 3–8, Wendy Whelan and Jock Soto reunite onstage at the Brooklyn Academy of Music for Hagoromo, a production that uses elements of Japanese Noh theater to tell the story of an angel who falls to earth. Though Whelan will always remain an iconic ballerina, the show will undoubtedly reveal new elements of her artistry by pushing her into uncharted territory.
Troy Schumacher's BalletCollective will have its fall season at the NYU Skirball Center on November 4–5. Invisible Divide will feature two world premieres and two older works. The company includes dancers from New York City Ballet, performing Schumacher's athletic, vibrant choreography. After his second successful premiere for NYCB's fall season, we're all looking forward to what Schumacher will do next.
The legendary Sylvie Guillem will grace the stage in the U.S. for the last time, November 12–14. Her touring show, Life in Progress will stop at the New York City Center and will feature work made especially for Guillem, as well as a tribute to influential choreographer William Forsythe.
Guillem in Mats Ek's Bye. Photo by Bill Cooper, Courtesy New York City Center.
Legendary ballerina and contemporary dancer Sylvie Guillem will give the only U.S. run of her farewell tour, Life in Progress, November 12–14 at New York City Center. The extensive tour has already hit Italy, Poland, the UK, Greece, Russia, France, Spain, Australia and Taiwan. It will continue on to Austria before the final performances in Japan, in December.
Before I even stepped in the theater last night, I knew I was biased. Sylvie Guillem was performing in 6000 miles away, a program of William Forsythe, Jirí Kylián and Mats Ek pieces, and although I'd never seen her in person before, videos and stories already had me convinced I'd love her. And I did. Guillem uses her limbs the way Van Gogh uses brushstrokes, Waugh uses words or Prokofiev notes. Her movement is so liquid, but she's in complete control at every moment—there's authority and specificity without looking arduous. The woman seems as comfortable on relevé as she would be if she were on a couch eating bonbons.
I know, I'm being a bit hyperbolic and effusive here. But if any dancer invites hyperbole, it's Guillem.
When dancers dream, they imagine having Sylvie Guillem’s arched feet, long limbs and impeccable ability to extend, accent and suspend any movement she desires. Her technical mastery and unique sense of artistry make her a choreographer’s dream as well. William Forsythe created In the middle, somewhat elevated on the Paris Opéra Ballet, where Guillem was an étiole, in 1987, a time when ballet was just emerging from the classical realm. Since then, dancers are required to be more versatile than ever, using their classical technique to control movement that challenges typical verticality.
It’s difficult to blink during Guillem's solo. She matches Thom Willems’ score with a quality that cuts through its punching sound—but still challenges the beat with breathtaking suspensions. Guillem's dancing remains unparalleled. This video stands as proof that ballerinas can do it all. Happy #ThrowbackThursday!
Last week, ballet superstar Sylvie Guillem announced her retirement slated for 2015. She will conclude her 39-year career with a world tour—called Life in Progress—in which she will dance works by Akram Khan, Russell Maliphant and Mats Ek. This season is shaping up to be a tough one for ballet lovers—first Wendy Whelan and Carla Körbes announced their retirements, only to be followed by Paloma Herrera, Julie Kent and Xiomara Reyes. Alessandra Ferri’s distinguished return to the stage is a small comfort.
Guillem has always possessed ideal proportions and astonishing technical facility. Throughout her career, her inquisitiveness has pushed her to explore beyond the boundaries of classicism. She began at the Paris Opéra Ballet, where she flew through the ranks—Rudolf Nureyev promoted her to the highest rank of “etoile” when she was 19 years old. She originated a role in William Forsythe’s In the middle, somewhat elevated, cementing her abilities (and her notoriety) as both a contemporary and classical ballerina. In fact, her performance and physique in In the middle set the standard for the cool extremities of early contemporary ballet.
Guillem performed as a principal guest artist with the Royal Ballet for ten years, and for the last decade of her career has focused exclusively on contemporary work. Guillem’s professional partnerships with choreographers like Ek have paved the way for ballerinas like Diana Vishneva and Wendy Whelan to cultivate their own contemporary projects.
There are many YouTube videos of Guillem, especially in contemporary work. We’re lucky that this once-in-a-generation ballerina is so well documented, so that she can continue to inspire dancers with her drive for both perfection and independence as an artist.
Happy New Year, ballet lovers! As we plunge into audition season, 2015 will bring an abundance of new challenges and opportunities. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by our New Year’s resolutions, but what better way to keep us inspired than a throwback of Sylvie Guillem? In our dreams we have her feet, her legs and her forever-motivating extensions. No doubt, she has helped push expectations for ballet dancers to new heights. That’s why 2015 arrives with a sense of closure and sadness. After an over three-decade long career, Guillem will retire at the end of the year.
In this recording of the Esmeralda pas de deux with Patrick Dupond, Guillem had already been a member of the Paris Opéra Ballet for six years—and she’s only 22 years old. Watch how she attacks each pivotal balance and subtle transition with a quiet, confident energy. In honor of Guillem’s final year of performance, Happy #ThrowbackThursday! Click here to watch.