The legendary one-time étoile ballerina of the Paris Opera Ballet turned avant-garde dance master Sylvie Guillem has worked with some of the greatest choreographers of the modern age, and this week she appears in a unique collaboration with three of the most eminent: Mats Ek, William Forsythe and Jiří Kylián. 6000 Miles Away is already being hailed as a masterpiece by insiders and it promises to be a transcendental masterclass in the language of dance from the 45-year-old dancer famed in her youth for a rebellious streak that earned her the industry nickname Mademoiselle Non. In person the CBE-holding dancer is as formidable in character as her lean, toned muscular body, although her eyes and quick smile belie a profound depth of humility and humanity – after all, this is a woman who has shunned celebrity her entire life, despite being widely considered one of the greatest artists of her generation. In this rare interview with John-Paul Pryor the revered boundary-defying dancer and choreographer discusses her drive, her discipline and her penchant for saying non.
What would you say drives you to continually push yourself in your art form?
I think it comes from my personality. I’m still a kid trying to be astonished by things. I have kind of this curiosity to learn, and I’m always learning something new. It’s always about putting myself in danger – putting myself in an uncomfortable situation for a while – and that’s very rewarding because it’s always a step forward. I am used to a routine and discipline as well, of course, because that’s the base of what I do, but if I was not able to go out of that or to use it as a springboard then I would be bored. My problem with dance is that it can follow a recipe that is very efficient but it is only a recipe. In that instance, it will be good but it won’t be excellent – it won’t be exceptional, it won’t be extraordinary.
What made you leave classical dance and move towards the avant-garde?
I have had quite a long career and for a while I was kind of dependent on the image I had, and the specialty I had, so I was responding more to demand. Once I had done everything I had to do in classical, I decided that I could spend more time on going towards people, and I wanted to do that more than doing something that I was trained to do. That’s what drives me – to go towards people and to spend time with them, giving them the opportunity to really understand that I am open to a lot of things, and that I really want to discover what they have to teach me.
You’ve worked for some incredible choreographers, – what’s the push-and-pull like creatively between the choreographer and the personal expression of the dancer?
It depends. Some choreographers like a lot of involvement and improvisation – a lot of proposition. Then you need to really put yourself in danger to show an opinion; show a will to try things that might not be accepted. Others have a very particular idea, and in that case you step more towards their idea of things. With Billy (William Forsythe) it’s a lot of exchange – a lot of participation, a lot of involvement physically and mentally because it’s quite complicated choreography. When you work with Matts it’s more about his way of saying things and doing things, and you are translating that into physical shape… into a shimmer. They are different but what they have in common is that it’s their own thing. That’s what I’m looking for – people who have their own way of saying things. You can meet a lot of choreographers with this or that award, but when you look at what they do, it doesn’t talk to you, doesn’t say anything, doesn’t go anywhere – it has no vision, no special language.
Without that vision is it impossible to transcend into something truly profound?
Well, the work has to be personal, otherwise there is no involvement – you are not there, you are just reproducing something that is not yours, and you are not yourself when you are doing it, so, what is the point? It might be very nice to look at but there is no going towards someone, and no one will receive it. There is no exchange with the audience if it’s not personal, if you don’t have your identity in it. Honesty is really a pure thing and on stage who you are as a person comes across so much. Whether you are doing classical or modern dance, it’s about your choices – your choices of how to do things, how you find your information, how far you go into the work, how far you push the discipline, how much you fight against limits.
Why do you think society so readily applies the term rebel to people who do their own thing?
It’s a very easy sticker to put on someone. In the field I was involved in when I was young the discipline is so hard and there is a kind of a code, and everything has its role inside the box, but to be able to follow that and to be happy within those constraints – those rules – you need to be driven by your dream. I was never driven by a dream. I was never driven by being a ballerina and that gave me a wider opportunity of choices. The Paris Opera Ballet became an open door for me – it was not an arrival point, it was the departure point. The rules that were ruling that system were not for me – what was important to me was that I was experimenting. I had a strong instinct, and was kind of animal in my reaction when someone was telling me: ‘You have to do that!’ If for me it was not relevant or had no purpose I was like, ‘No. I’m sorry. If you want me to do that only then take someone else because I won’t be happy.’ It was already the start of me making a choice. That’s when I started to have problems because a dancer is usually a quite disciplined person and when you ask her to do something she does it. But I realised very early that I did not have a lot of time and I didn’t want to lose time doing things that didn’t matter to me. That’s why I started to say no to things, and for the classically minded people it’s not the way to do things – so, to them you are a rebel.