French dance superstar Sylvie Guillem, who turned 50 in Febru- ary, has had a 39-year career, winning a slew of international honors, most recently the Praemium Imperiale, a Japanese prize for outstanding achievement in the arts. She has taken charge of her fate for decades, personally assembling Sylvie Guillem _ Life in Progress, a program of contemporary works in which to say goodbye, and is now circling the globe with it, planning to step away from the stage in Japan on December 30. "It might be too early but at least it will not be too late, so voila," she told The Sydney Morning Herald.
Guillem's swan song, which began its international journey in Modena, Italy in March, includes dances by William For- sythe; Russell Maliphant, with whom she's been working since 2003; Mats Ek, who contributes the solo, Bye, he created for her in 2011; and Akram Khan, who famously partnered her nine years ago in his Sacred Monsters.
The British-Bangladeshi choreographer loved working with Guillem. "She's very direct," Khan says. "She can cut through the ritual, get straight to the point; she's a doer, not a talker. She has an incredible sense of humor. We work in English. When she doesn't like something, she says it in French. When she's speaking French, it means she's not happy with what you're proposing."
The long-limbed French dancer never aspired to be a ballerina. Growing up, she was trained as a gymnast. "I had not even seen a [dance] show," she has said. "I hadn't seen it on TV, I hadn't seen a tutu, I hadn't seen pointe shoes." Now she thinks that gave her an edge. "It allowed me to start one step on from the dreamers," she told The Sydney Morning Herald. "When someone really wants to be something, they just see that one thing. But me, I was more in search of something. In search of emotion and situation and pleasure."
Guillem went to the Paris Opera Ballet school for "finishing" at the age of 11, caught the bug, and switched her ambition to ballet, joining the troupe at the age of 16. Mentored by Rudolf Nureyev, she quickly rose through the ranks to _toile status. Although she sometimes disagreed with Nureyev, he was "a great partner," Guillem told The Guardian in 2003. "I remember his eyes most. He made real contact. When he looked at you, it went deep into you."
Seeking more control over her repertory, Guillem left the Paris Opera Ballet in 1988 and joined the Royal Ballet in 1989, choosing to perform only roles she wanted and gaining the nickname "Mademoiselle Non."
Guillem's independent spirit has inspired numerous dancers: including City Center's first Artistic Associate Wendy Whelan, who retired from New York City Ballet in 2014.
Whelan considers Guillem and Mikhail Baryshnikov the templates for her own second act. "I liked their outlook on their artistry and their art form, going from an esteemed classical career and diving into this other world not based in or supported by ballet," she says.
As for Guillem, she isn't sure what world she'll dive into next. "I need time to see what life is without dance," she told The London Evening Standard. "I have things I'd like to do, like pottery, learning about plants, martial arts." Her increasing commitment to environmental causes: among them, the Kokopelli Seed Foundation and the anti-whaling organization Sea Shepherd: might end up taking center stage. "Unfortunately, I opened my eyes very late to things that I think are important," Guillem said. "Not only for me, but for living creatures."
Elizabeth Zimmer writes about the arts from her base in New York City.