Articles from Ballet2000

Sylvie Guillem, la divine de glace

She is without doubt the classical ballet "diva" of our day, the only one that the public rushes to see as soon as her name is announced, ready to adore her beauty, her dazzling virtuoso technique and her supreme assurance on stage. And yet, something is missing. And as against so many who admire her without reservations, there are those who emphasise the other side of the coin. That’s what divas of either sex have to expect.

If asked "Who are the greatest ballerina and male dancer in the world today?", most people would reply, "Sylvie Guillem and Mikhail Baryshnikov". Curiously enough, it is just these two artists who make no impression on me whatsoever. I’ll try and explain this unreasonable lack of appreciation, if not animosity (to myself, too), conscious that the fault is probably all mine.


I’ve already written about Baryshnikov (in Balletto Oggi), and perhaps I’ll come back to him. So far as Sylvie Guillem is concerned, my problem goes back a long way, that is to say, to the day when, representing Italy on the panel of judges some years ago, I arrived in Bulgaria for the famous Varna competition for young dancers. I got there a few days late: when the first elimination round was over. Immediately, my friend the late André-Philippe Hersin, the French member of the panel for that year, before so much as asking after my health, launched into a speech of enthusiastic, overwhelming certainty that the young French candidate would win hands down, because she was miles better and better-looking than all the rest.

Oh dear, my "relationship" at a distance with Sylvie Guillem was starting very badly. I felt - even if good-humouredly - oppressed and betrayed by André-Philippe and by circumstances. As a result, when the day of the semi-finals arrived, I looked out for another young face and another exceptional technique to exalt. I settled on Katherine Healy, a 15-year-old American girl (who is at the moment a principal with the Vienna Opera Ballet). She was dark, small and a bit plump - the opposite of blonde, tall and slim Sylvie Guillem. Little Kathy jumped about like a cricket and span like a top, in the most virtuosic, acrobatic inventions of the classical repertory. Sylvie Guillem, on the other hand, had chosen a variation in a more lyrical style, not something to show off her virtuosity: she was real, very beautiful, and detached. Too detached, I said to myself, with a certain amount of irritation.

In the grand finale, if I remember aright, there was the third stage of my negative relationship with Sylvie Guillem, who performed Béjart’s La Luna solo, which all Italians identify with Luciana Savignano (who it was made for). Savignano was unsurpassed in this piece - and in no way detached. On the contrary, there was a vein of secret furies running through her interpretation, under the frozen moonlike crust. I said to myself that Sylvie Guillem showed only the frozen outside, with nothing underneath. I voted for Katherine Healy. Sylvie Guillem won by a large majority, naturally, and was awarded the Gold Medal.

Fairness made me feel obliged, anyway, a few months later, to invite Sylvie Guillem as well as Katherine Healy to appear in the "Dance Marathon" that I was in charge of until 1996 at the Spoleto Festival in Italy. There were a lot of stars taking part in that Marathon, including Rudolf Nureyev, Antonio Gades, Peter Schaufuss, Carla Fracci, Kevin McKenzie, Ohad Naharin, Vladimir Derevianko, and Elisabetta Terabust. Sylvie Guillem arrived with Rudolf Nureyev, who had shortly before become the director of the Paris Opéra Ballet, to which Sylvie Guillem already belonged. Nureyev followed her rehearsal with the attention of a true ballet-master, correcting, demonstrating and explaining. She received Nureyev’s teaching with the same air of a disdainful queen, an icy goddess, that she had shown at Varna. She asked me, in an autocratic tone, not to place her after Katherine Healy in the programme, but before her. She left me speechless, almost afraid, with that tone of hers that did not admit of a reply.

I hastened to do as she asked. She danced the "Black Swan" pas de deux: lovely to look at, perfect and cold. I said to myself, partly to justify my irritation and hostility, But the Black Swan shouldn’t be cold towards the Prince, she should be seductive and full of passion. She was very much applauded by everyone, the public and the critics. So much for me.

After that my difficulties with Sylvie Guillem were repeated on several occasions. In the first place in Italy, in various "Nureyev and Friends" performances. The shows may have been a bit hastily staged, but the technical standard was high. The cast was always excellent, with the constant presence, apart from Sylvie Guillem, of Charles Jude, Isabelle Guérin and Manuel Legris (who was said at that time to be her fiancé). I once had the chance to see her with a different group of "Stars of the Paris Opéra", headed by Patrick Dupond. Sylvie Guillem enraptured the audience with her Esmeralda variation, the one where she several times raises her tambourine above her head and strikes it with her foot. She was so pretty, so young, so acrobatic and so impeccable. To myself I thought (through my hostility, which I hid at the official level, amid so much jubilation) on a vindictive note, "She ought to go in for artistic gymnastics rather than dance" (then I read somewhere that she had indeed trained as a gymnast).

Now she’s out of reach: England has taken her over, like a precious stone, and placed her on a throne. What more can one ask? It’s as though the English were to give her the position that was Margot Fonteyn’s, and I couldn’t bear that thought.

But then she reappeared, with Maurice Béjart holding her by the hand at the end of his Bolero, proud and excited, as if Sylvie Guillem were his daughter. I remember nothing of that Bolero, except the applause, the Titian red of her smooth hair, the fringe, the dark red body stocking like a one-piece Jantzen bathing costume of the 1930s, and her almost masculine-seeming muscles. I was unable, in my secret thoughts, to chase away the most unfair and excessive comment on her new image. And when people asked me, after the performance, "Isn’t she fantastic?" or "She’s divine, don’t you think so?", I always replied in a soft voice, "Yes, of course", feeling glad that I didn’t have to write about the performance the next day.

But now things are getting more complicated: I’m going to be seeing Sylvie Guillem as choreographer and principal dancer in Giselle, and balletomanes are looking forward to the great event. With my head in the sand like an ostrich, I’m trying not to think about it. I can imagine her already: beautiful, acrobatic, very elegant in the first act, and pale and as cold as the moon, and with perfect steely pointwork in the second act. And I can already foresee her triumph, while I (being incapable of dealing with this further blow) go home with my tail between my legs, thinking of Yvette Chauviré, Noella Pontois, Carla Fracci, Natalia Makarova, hiding my regret.

Vittoria Ottolenghi

(BALLET2000 n°45 – Février/Mars 1999)