I have just seen a Culture Show special on the dancer Sylvie Guillem. I have long been aware of her fame as a dancer but I didn’t quite get how good she is.
She began training to be a gymnast and had no interest in dance, but there was an exchange with a ballet school for a year, and at the end of it, she realised that dance was the route she seemed made for. She was accepted into the French Royal Ballet, and became their prima ballerina at the tender age of 19, under the great Rudolph Nureyev. To put this into context, most have to wait until they are pushing 30 for this accolade, but both Nureyev and Guillem recognised she was up to the position. As she said, “I realised, it was time for me to fly” which I find a wonderful metaphor. She remained with the Paris company from 1984-9, but was frustrated by the lack fo freedom to choose her own roles, so she moved to London, to become a guest at the Royal Ballet, where her behaviour was so difficult, she became known as “Madame No.”
She is now 48 and still the best and most famous dancer on the planet, which makes her the finest female dancer ever. Which makes her much more than special. She is utterly unique. She is incredibly strong and flexible, a combination that is rare enough, but to see her in action, well, you just have to hunt her out on YouTube. There is nobody like her, and she has worked with all the great choreographers, exhausting and exasperating them, but also inspiring them with her passion, talent and energy.
She questions how much longer she can keep this up, and knows the end of her career must be approaching, but she has already managed 30 years at the top of her profession, so perhaps the end is still some distance off.
She has also become involved in conservation – well, so do a lot of celebrities – but her chosen group is the controversial Sea Shepherd group who take direct action to protest about illegal fishing, especially off the coast of Senegal, where Europeans are stealing food from local fishing communities. She has gone out to see the group in action, and held fund raising events for them.
There is a lot of doom and gloom about at the moment, and justifiably so. But I am uttely fascinated by anyone who is so unique, so brilliant, so passionate about what they do. Her difficult behaviour is not for the sake of being a nuisance; it is from knowing her art, her body, and something much more. I hope she keeps dancing for a long long time. Or until she chooses to do something else, and whatever that proves to be, I am sure it will be amazing. We all need to fly sometime, and seeing someone so good at it is an inspiration to us all.