This series is not meant to be a complete retrospective of Sylvie Guillem’s biographical history. Nor is it meant to focus on her retirement entirely because I’ve come to believe that she will dance again, and she will remain an important and active figure in the dance world.
Notorious for not working with others as well as silent, obedient ballerinas were suppose to, Sylvie Guillem started her career with a burning personality to dance the roles she knew she wanted and was suited for at the moment. And later into her life, she’s not only kept that definite fire, but she’s also found room to open up to new choreographers and new styles. This balanced life of “no” and “yes” has caused her to elevate her dancing history with rich ballet roles in classical, contemporary, and beyond. And it’s an important point to note when discussing her, rather than just focusing on her silly ‘Mademoiselle Non’ reputation.
Guillem is much bigger and better than non; Guillem is a cohort countess of dance.
Bejart has said, “It’s like a ping pong between her and me.” Mats Ek has said, “She has a blue flame within her.” And Forsythe has said, “You can’t learn what she does.” With the exception of a few choreographers, Guillem has always made immediate connections to the dance-makers that flock to her (the exceptions being Dowell and MacMillian, whom she fondly recalls later in her life after the fact). This gathering of energy to make dance, and make it extremely exceptional, is something that rivals collaborations between the great artists of time across all mediums and forms.
Personally, when I try to compare her to nondancers–which is so hard to do without them seeing her in motion– I try to use the reference of Wes Anderson and Mark Mothersbaugh. Think of Rushmore; how the scenes would appear empty without Mothersbaugh’s score or Anderson’s specific direction. And that continues with Royal Tenenbaums, into Life Aquatic. And then he expands with other composers for his later films as Mothersbaugh expands with other directors. Guillem does just that with the way she ebbs in and out with choreographers who ride the wave of dance creation just like her.
In terms of technique, she blends the choreography for the situation and the moment. She says ‘yes’ while also being sure of what she doesn’t want to utilize in a performance, whether that includes pointe shoes, tutus, socks, nudity, solos, duets, singing. It’s a remarkable contemporary trait in a professional ballerina and contemporary dancer to know herself while remaining vulnerable to the art form. And Guillem has managed to become both at once with the mindset of an artist to dance rather than for herself. And while it may appear that she is set on pushing herself further with more exposure before everything else, (she did do that fabulously glamorous photoshoot for Vogue, something few dancers in the past have touched) Guillem’s history has proven that she’s really set on pushing dance with the various choreographers of her choosing before selling herself out.
Guillem has stated that in the past she was “less malleable and a bit more stupid and closed,” but let’s not forget that everyone has had that kind of mad life flirtation at some point. I’ve said ‘non’ to many writing assignments in college only to realize I’m not bigger than the art of writing, and all exercises are worth it; I just had to narrowly tweak every writing assignment to include dance. So what made the difference was that Guillem came to the liberating realization, “I could take what I wanted and what I could not take there I would do somewhere else.” Most equally talented, but deeply forgettable, professional dancers of all kinds will just listen and learn in silence and with complete dependence.
To dance is to live, yes little Moria Sheer, but there needs to be more fire behind that life to make for a spectacular, vulnerable, curious star dancer. Guillem’s independent voice coupled with her definiteness in dance allowed her to rise higher and higher, out of reach from her peers while in classical ballet and in direct competition with those in contemporary dance. Without the connections she made with choreographers she believed in, the dance world would not have been exposed to the specific brand of extreme movement and burning passion that is a Guillem-esque collaboration, all in the name of dance.
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