Sylvie Guillem swaps ballet for environmental activism

Sylvie Guillem, typically, isn’t mincing words. Speaking toReview on the phone from London, the world’s most famous ballerina is in full verbal flight. In her sights? A rollcall of sinners against the environment: illegal tuna trawlers off the coast of Senegal, Faroe Islanders slaughtering pilot whales, and companies that “want to play God and control nature”, as she’s put it, through biotechnology (American multinational Monsanto, a leading producer of genetically engineered seeds, comes in for particularly heavy criticism).

“It is booolshit,” she says in a French accent so thick and rich you could slide a knife through it like a buttery terrine — though don’t mention meat to this prima ballerina turned radical eco-warrior: she is a strict vegan, having given up her beloved Italian charcuterie a few years ago. “These companies, they have caused desastres, famines, in India, so many places. People talk about the global financial crisis, about Greece, economic meltdown but the real crisis is urgent, immediate, and that is the environment crisis. We need to live in this world. Without it, we have nothing.” Sighing, she says she “despairs” at the complacency of the West. “I was in Piccadilly Circus on Saturday night and you see all these young people going out at night and not caring … ’Ow do you make people care?”

Guillem, 50, is calling time on her dance career. And as she does, the audacious French dance rebel who reshaped ballet — the skinny, shy “petit rat” from the Paris Opera Ballet school who rose to become the greatest dancer of her generation, saluted by Rudolf Nureyev and William Forsythe alike — has made it her mission to make people care.

In December she will give her final performance in Japan in a rock-star-like farewell world tour, Life in Progress, featuring works old and new by veteran collaborators Forsythe, Mats Ek, Russell Maliphant and Akram Khan, which began in Modena, Italy, last year and takes in Australia this month. After that? A new life as an ecological warrior will begin.

When Guillem last year announced she was retiring, it made international front-page news. Close friend Tamara Rojo, head of the English National Ballet, begged her to reconsider, while dance audiences and critics began mourning the imminent loss of one of ballet’s true game-changers. (Oleg Vinogradov, former director of the Mariinsky Ballet, has called her “the best ballerina in the world” and said: “It is impossible to overestimate the influence she has had on future ballerinas.”) When that final curtain falls, “it will be bittersweet, yah, of course”, she tells Review from London where she is performing two shows at the Coliseum. But any residual sadness has been swept away by a belief that life, for so long circumscribed by the stage and the formal discipline of ballet, is morphing into exciting new shapes.

In recent years, Guillem has crafted a parallel life as an ambassador for radical marine conservationists Sea Shepherd, giving press interviews with her sinewy body clad in a singlet bearing the organisation’s skull-and-crossbones logo, and hanging out over vegan dinners with Interpol-dodging founder Paul Watson, described as the world’s “most wanted” environmental activist. In a BBC documentary, Force of Nature, last year, she documented the plight of traditional fishing communities in Senegal, decimated by overfishing. She’s boarded a ship to stop pilot whale hunts in the remote Faroe Islands, and used her fame — she is often touted as the closest thing dance has to a Hollywood superstar — to advocate for animals rights, for biodiversity through her support of organic seed bank Association Kokopelli, and to raise funds for Japan after the tsunami through her celebrated work 6000 Miles Away. “Doing nothing is not an option,” she says.

Life as a radical activist is not a career transition you’d imagine most prima ballerinas making, but then again, Guillem — mouthy, free-spirited, freakishly versatile, famously uncompromising — has never been like most ballerinas. In fact, radical activism seems a perfect outlet for a dancer who has often seemed like a prickly lone wolf prowling among a field of deferential bun-heads. Jaws dropped when she burst on to the scene, first at the Paris Opera Ballet and later the Royal Ballet, setting the stage alight in all the leading classical roles — her Manon, all harrowing emotion, is still seen as a dazzling benchmark of storytelling through movement. She pushed technical boundaries with her physical virtuosity (think vertiginous leaps, the springiness of a scalded cat, elegant lyricism) and reshaped the look of ballet with her incredible, bendy physique (her ability to extend her long legs like the hands of a clock at six sparked a trend for tall dancers who wouldn’t look amiss in a basketball team).

Opinionated and forthright, Guillem also set a new model for female dancers in ballet’s polite culture of compliance. Her uncompromising attitude led to blazing rows with the Royal Ballet’s Kenneth MacMillan and Monica Mason; her independent streak was manifest in everything from her choice of roles to a 2001 photo shoot for French Vogue where she submitted portraits (taken by her photographer husband, Gilles Tapie) of herself nude and without make-up, to her tart comments about the “supermarket culture” of dance awards after becoming the first winner of the Nijinsky Prize for the world’s best ballerina.

On the phone, she’s fun: sly, earthy, droll and passionate. Like the clean power and line of her dancing, the make-up-free face and a very unballet-like lack of artifice (she often sports ragged, badly hennaed red hair, leads a largely anonymous life in Europe, and cocoons her tiny frame in huge coats and moon boots), there is something naked and direct about the dancer. There are blunt rejoinders about her infamous spats with MacMillan (“Was I rude? Non!”), her accidental start in ballet (“I never dreamed of the tutu, you know?”), the importance of fear (“Oh, very necessary”), and dancing with the ageing maestro Nureyev (“incredible”).

There are also passionate, almost operatic verbal peaks, especially when the topic of environmentalism comes up — and it does, often — along with a quick puncturing of any form of hagiography. “Who me?” she seems to shrug whenever her legend is mentioned. Critics have noted her farewell tour is remarkably low key.

Born on February 25, 1965, to a car mechanic father and gymnastics teacher mother in working-class Paris, Guillem was spotted at 11 while on exchange at the Paris Opera Ballet school as a junior member of the French national gymnastics team. Initially, she says, she “really ’ated” the brutal discipline of ballet. But an end-of-year performance sparked a love of performance that proved life-changing.

At 16, she joined the company, dancing in the corps, but not for long. Nureyev, the dance legend who joined the POB as director in 1983, spotted her singular talent, underpinned by a singular physique — strong, curved feet, hyper-flexibility, a spine as supple as a cat’s, astonishing extensions. “She has heavenly proportions,” he raved of his protegee, “superb muscles, musicality and good will. And she glows on stage.”

By all accounts, Nureyev was both father figure and combatant: “Oh yah, we had terrible fights, over dance choices, repertoire, everything. He was shy, terrible at communicating, me too. But I learned so much from him.” Nureyev once asked her if she got scared before a performance; when she said yes, he laughed and said gleefully, “Oh, it will only get worse.”

“And yes, I still feel fear every time I perform. It is necessary for good performance,” she says.

Guillem is reflective. “He changed Paris Opera, you know, he introduced new choreographers and it was like opening a window, it was so exciting.” There’s a rich, smoky chuckle. “He applied for a job at the Royal Ballet but they didn’t want him. So we need to thank them. We are very lucky they made that decision, non?”

At 19, he anointed her as the company’s youngest ever etoile, or star, following her performance in Swan Lake in December 1984. Nureyev was a “huge” influence on her, she says, introducing her — and the venerable company — to contemporary dance stars Robert Wilson and Forsythe.

In 1989, Guillem shocked the ballet world by leaving POB to take up the role of principal guest artist at the Royal Ballet. It was a defection that scandalised France and was debated in the National Assembly as a “national catastrophe”. Guillem says it was born of frustration at being restricted in taking on guest roles elsewhere. There’s that dry chuckle again. “No one leaves Paris Opera. No one. But I did.”

Forsythe has said “she was the first ballerina to take her career into her own hands”. She agrees: “I wanted freedom, to be able to make my own choices.”

At 25, she arrived in London in a blaze of publicity, quickly rising to stardom on the back of her virtuoso technique. Some envious peers sneered at what they termed mere “circus tricks” born of her gymnastics training, but Guillem would go on to be lauded by everyone from Margot Fonteyn to Maliphant. She chuckles when asked about her famous six o’clock extension, which sparked a cult and prompted some critics, such as Clement Crisp, to dismiss it as vulgar trick and a “means of identification rather than a truth”. She snorts dismissively when Crisp is mentioned, but nevertheless downplays her virtuosity. “Yes, I set up a trend other dancers tried to follow.” She adds wistfully: “But you know, I wish I had changed dance in other ways.”

Surely she’s being too modest. Guillem blazed trails with her astonishing versatility: witness her striking sculptural poses on a table in Maurice Bejart’s Bolero, or whipping out perfect fouettes in Paquita or her sensual Kathak-inflected routines with Khan in Sacred Monsters, bony legs wrapped around his waist. There was rare artistry in roles in Frederick Ashton’s A Month in the Country (as Natalia Petrovna) and Marguerite and Armand, where she famously became the first ballerina since Fonteyn to dance the role. Mention her now legendary performances as Giselle, Odette, Juliet, Aurora and especially Manon, which she immortalised dancing with her “Rolls-Royce”, Jonathan Cope, and she is all blazing animation. For Guillem, technique is “nothing”, just the mechanical movement of the body in space. For a performance to be more than mere “tricks”, to be art, it has to have storytelling truth and integrity. “These roles, these women, they are not stupid, they are real, and to dance them you have to be honest,” she says.

This single-minded pursuit of authenticity has often led Guillem into stormy waters. Her unwillingness to take on certain roles won her the tag “Mademoiselle Non” from the Royal Ballet’s Anthony Dowell, and a reputation as a dance diva. A screaming match with MacMillan was once accidentally broadcast to the whole company over the public address system.

Then there was an infamous spat with Mason, whom she once described as “stupid, frustrated, no vision”. She says: “I just wanted to be able to take risks, to make choices, not go back to how things were at Paris Opera — what would be the point?” There’s a pause. “But perhaps I could have been, I don’t know, more diplomatic, perhaps.”

The key to understanding Guillem is realising that under that carapace of brusqueness beats a shy, awkward heart. She says she finds it hard to communicate, like Nureyev. Only truth is important. “I am motivated by injustice.”

In 2007, aged 42, Guillem shocked the dance world again by departing the Royal Ballet for contemporary dance. The fires had been lit earlier, first with Forsythe at POB, then in her 2003 Royal Ballet work Broken Fall with Ballet Boyz duo Michael Nunn and William Trevitt, and Maliphant. In 2005 came the landmark Push with Maliphant, followed by her 2006 collaboration with Khan on Sacred Monsters.

For Guillem, contemporary dance appeals on a visceral level. She pays tribute to classical technique, saying “of course” it’s the essential platform on which great dance is built but, personally, it doesn’t hold her in thrall. Tellingly, no classical excerpts feature in her farewell program. “I danced my last Swan Lake years ago and that was it.” She says bluntly she now finds “watching classical ballet very boring … there is no truth, nothing real in the performances I see now, it is all just movement, no honesty”.

And so on to her farewell tour, Life in Progress, which begins with two new works — ­Techne by Khan and Here & After by Maliphant, featuring her in a solo with La Scala dancer Emanuela Montanari in Maliphant’s first female duo work. “Russell knew I had never danced with a woman, so this is very exciting and interesting.” Then comes Forsythe’s Duo, danced by Brigel Gjoka and Riley Watts, followed by Bye, Ek’s beautifully elegiac, quirky 2011 piece for her, showcasing Guillem dancing the various phases of her life.

There is one of those rare, wistful pauses. “Mats is retiring, too, you know, so for me the work has a lot of meaning.”

Guillem, at 50, is still performing at a superlative level: why pull the plug? “For me, it was the right time. I have loved every moment of the last 39 years but I have known for some time now that one day I will stop, and that day is come.” With characteristic abruptness, then, she has made a clean, surgical cut. Not for her, she says, a slow sentimental dance into decay and decline. “I want to end while I am still happy doing what I do with pride and passion. The time is right, I don’t want to cling on.”

Perhaps her body will miss the daily routine of tendu, rond de jambe and port de bras begun at the Paris Opera Ballet school, but her mind, she insists, will not. Her great stage rival Darcey Bussell reportedly lapsed into depression when retiring at 38, a glumness only alleviated when she returned to public life. It’s different for Guillem, and she is typically insightful as to why. “You know, for me, ballet is not everything.” Asked about her great legacy, she is modest. Greatest ballerina in the world? There’s a dismissive laugh. “I wasn’t thinking it, planning it. I was just doing it at the time, in the moment.”

So then, when she bids sayonara to her dance career in Japan, a country she has long loved, where to? Environmental activism aside, what about a memoir, a film, theatre, perhaps a leap into choreography at a time when ballet is lamenting the dearth of female choreographers?

Guillem, who crafted a typically feisty Giselle for the Finnish National Ballet in 1998, demurs, saying if she did, it would be more likely to involve restaging existing work instead of original creations. She’s looking forward to some downtime, meanwhile, in the home she shares with Tapie and her beloved white Swiss/German shepherds, high in the Swiss Alps, where she indulges her passion for growing roses (Dowell once quipped she loved gardening “because she was burying her enemies”.) She laughs: “I like the peace and quiet of the high mountains, you know. It’s good to relax. To stop, breathe, enjoy life, think.” Sylvie Guillem — a force of nature to the very last.

Sylvie Guillem performs Life in Progress at the Sydney Opera House, August 19-25.

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