Ballet Stars

From the outside, classical ballet can seem restrictive with its decorum, elaborate costumes and, of course, uncomfortable pointe shoes. Yet as ballet dancers we know that our technique actually allows our bodies to move with incredible freedom. That physical freedom is never more apparent than in watching dancers like Sylvie Guillem and Massimo Murru, both of whom danced with historic ballet companies, take on contemporary masterpieces like Jiří Kylián's Petite Mort. Stripped down to the barest costumes, their musculature and sheer physicality are unencumbered and demand awe.

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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."

Guillem responded,

"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.

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Viral Videos

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.

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Trending
Photo via Miami City Ballet on Instagram.

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 Shoes is 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.


Dance Theater of Harlem's Ingrid Silva (and Pointe's June/July cover star) dressed as a unicorn alongside her dog, Frida Kahlo.

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Sylvie Guillem in Raymonda. Photo via Pinterest.

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!

For more news on all things ballet, don't miss a single issue.

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.

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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.

 

For more news on all things ballet, don't miss a single issue.

 

 

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.

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Allison Walsh and Billy Cannon in Darrell Grand Moultrie's "Differences in Sections." Alexander Iziliaev, Courtesy BalletX.

Alina Cojocaru
At 31, The Royal Ballet’s Alina Cojocaru finally got the ultimate gift for a dancer: a full-length ballet created on her. John Neumeier choreographed Hamburg Ballet’s Liliom just for Cojocaru, tailoring the role of Julie, a poor waitress in love with a tough carousel barker, to Cojocaru’s gentle, vulnerable presence and delicate technique. “I had been longing to work with Alina. She is a choreographer’s dancer,” he says. “I couldn’t imagine anyone else as Julie.” Cojocaru carried much of the ballet on her shoulders, lending emotional resonance to her character’s angelic sense of forgiveness. Every step seemed born spontaneously of her stream of consciousness. Liliom was so well-received that a DVD is in the works, and for Cojocaru, it marks another milestone in her career. —Laura Cappelle


Sylvie Guillem
You can take away the pointe shoes, get rid of the bun, forget the tutu: Sylvie Guillem’s ballerina-ness is in her very soul. Guillem brought her repertory program, 6000 Miles Away, to New York this spring, performing two un-balletic pieces by William Forsythe and Mats Ek. But there were enough flashes of those peerless legs and feet to show us that, at 47, Guillem still boasts impeccable technique. And the elegant ease—almost nonchalance—that made her such an astonishing Aurora? It’s still there, and it still captivates. She may be one of the ballet world’s most notorious rebels, but she’ll always be ours. —Margaret Fuhrer


Emily Ellis
It didn’t take long for audiences to notice Washington Ballet’s Emily Ellis. Last season—her first with the company—she brought deadpan kookiness to Twyla Tharp’s Push Comes to Shove, then showed off her purity of line and refined technique in a classically based pas de deux in Septime Webre’s ALICE (in wonderland). But it was her turn as Daisy Buchanan, the pretty object of Jay Gatsby’s desire in Webre’s The Great Gatsby, where Ellis demonstrated her ability to fully commit to a character. Not quite a heroine, Daisy could have come off as empty or heartless, but Ellis imbued her with deep, lovely sentiment. Girlish in early duets with her Gatsby, Jared Nelson, she evolved into a more self-assured and sensual woman, one familiar with the darker corners of the heart. —Lisa Traiger


Herman Cornejo, Daniil Simkin, Ivan Vasiliev

Le Corsaire
isn’t good for anything, really, except showing off extraordinary men. But when they’re the right men, all the silliness and awkward ethnic stereotyping are worth sitting through. And when they’re Herman Cornejo, Daniil Simkin and Ivan Vasiliev—as they were for one brilliant night this summer at American Ballet Theatre—suddenly the Metropolitan Opera House’s civilized patrons are screaming like teenagers at a rock concert. Between Cornejo’s suave Conrad, Simkin’s gloriously slimy Lankendem and Vasiliev’s outrageous, off-the-rails Slave, there were enough death-defying leaps and endless pirouettes to goad even the most blasé critics to their feet. It was The Man Show, and what an incredible show it was. —Margaret Fuhrer


Allison Walsh
When Allison Walsh stepped onstage in Darrell Grand Moultrie’s Differences in Sections last July, the BalletX dancer resembled a young, glamorous Leslie Caron. But the statuesque poise soon crumbled, revealing a repressed woman full of inner anguish. With sweeping lyricism and Graham-like angst, Walsh plunged full-force to the floor—sometimes rolling violently across the length of the stage—then knelt in moments of tense stillness. For the audience, the solo felt almost uncomfortably voyeuristic, like watching someone’s private breakdown.

Remarkably, Walsh stepped into the role at the last minute to replace an injured colleague. But she found the lack of rehearsal strangely helpful—Moultrie didn’t want her to overthink her interpretation. “He told me not to show a representation of repression, but to really expose myself,” says Walsh. The result was thrilling. —Amy Brandt


Grace Shibley
One of the defining characteristics of a dancer with star potential is the ability to maintain focus in the face of daunting setbacks. Grace Shibley, a striking member of Oregon Ballet Theatre, was already considered an up-and-coming ballerina when, in 2010, a serious foot fracture threatened to derail her career. But the injury only sharpened Shibley’s resolve. With unshakeable will and keen intelligence, she used the rehabilitation process to propel her technique to new heights. When Shibley performed Stravinsky Violin Concerto’s Aria II pas de deux this April, a new physical strength matched her natural ability to explore a role’s nuances. Dancing with a hint of mystery, Shibley gave a mesmerizing performance that foreshadowed an even brighter future ahead.
—Gavin Larsen


The Royal Ballet Live
Peeking into The Royal Ballet studios as the company prepares a new season sounds like every balletomane’s fantasy. Thanks to the internet’s magic, a global audience tuned in when The Royal livestreamed an entire day on March 23. It began with company class at 10:30 am, and by the time U.S. ballet fans woke up, the day was well underway. Four camera crews roaming the building gave the broadcast the feel of a random stroll through the halls: Dancers threw themselves into a sword-fighting rehearsal, Christopher Wheeldon coached soon-to-be soloist Beatriz Stix-Brunell, Liam Scarlett worked on a pas de deux, Wayne McGregor lent commentary, Marianela Nuñez ran her Prince of the Pagodas solo with Monica Mason. Before it ended, Royal Ballet Live reached around 200,000 viewers, and #rblive trended on Twitter as fans chatted with their counterparts across the world. For ballet lovers, it was an unprecedented international moment, a sense of belonging to something bigger than they had ever imagined. Visit The Royal’s YouTube channel to see the highlights again. —Hanna Rubin

Justin Peck
New York City Ballet’s 25-year-old corps member Justin Peck is expertly balancing two careers these days: Movie-star handsome, he alternates partnering ballerinas with creating dances of his own. Peck began making work through the New York Choreographic Institute in 2009. His setting of three movements from Sufjan Stevens’ song cycle “Enjoy Your Rabbit” made such inventive, surprising use of School of American Ballet students that it stole the show at NYCI’s 10th anniversary celebration. Peck’s ability to create exciting phrases and intriguing stage patterns earned him the institute’s first year-long residency in 2011.

This year, his In Creases, set to Philip Glass's Four Movements for Two Pianos, was the first NYCB premiere given at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center in over 25 years; MOVES, the company’s touring group, promptly took it to Colorado and Wyoming. In the fall, Year of the Rabbit, Peck’s expansion of his Stevens piece, also entered the repertoire.

 Peck even found time to create Distractions for City Ballet principal Daniel Ulbricht’s summer pickup troupe. “Maybe that title was ironic, considering how busy he was,” says Ulbricht, “but the guys loved it. So did the audience.” —Harris Green


Héloïse Bourdon
Paris Opéra Ballet dancers are famous for elongated lines, incredible elegance—and a stage presence that can seem too chic to connect with the audience. It’s a kind of look-don’t-touch allure. Yet during the company’s U.S. tour this summer, one soloist tore down the stereotype of what a French ballerina could be. In Giselle’s peasant pas de deux, Héloïse Bourdon created a real character in a role that’s all too often used as a show-off divertissement. She looked completely at home in the imaginary village onstage, dancing with a youthful charm and a playful affection for her partner. And underneath her ease and warmth were hard-as-nails technical chops: Her jumps were preternaturally sprightly, her turns dynamically precise. She had the beautiful POB épaulement, but her sunny personality made it enchanting. —Jennifer Stahl


Amber Neumann
Part of what makes Amber Neumann so intriguing is that, while she looks like a 1950s-era girl next door, she fearlessly attacks even the most radically modern choreography. In The Joffrey Ballet debut of Wayne McGregor’s Infra last winter, Neumann brought a palpable warmth, expressiveness and humanity that melted her role’s stylized, automaton-like moves and chilly edges. Blissfully free of classical ballet affectations, Neumann gave us a lonely, anguished character without doing any obvious acting; all the emotion was channeled through her body. A veteran of several major ballet competitions, Neumann has plenty of technique, but in this case it was in the service of an inner emotional fire that was lived rather than demonstrated. —Hedy Weiss




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.

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