An audience with Sylvie Guillem

by Ayako Takahashi

Special To The Japan Times

There are many wonderful ballet dancers the world over, but Sylvie Guillem is undoubtedly in a category of her own — and not only because of her famously self-willed ways.

Born in Paris in February 1965, in 1984, Guillem — whose first love as a child was gymnastics — was made the Paris Opera Ballet’s youngest-ever top-ranking étoile by its director, Rudolf Nureyev. Since then it has been said — among unending superlatives — that talent like hers “only comes once in 100 years”; that she is “the most exciting dancer in the world”; and that she is a “true megastar.”

Despite her stellar status at the Paris Opera Ballet, however, Guillem left in 1989 to become a freelance performer and a principal guest artist with the Royal Ballet in London. That unexpected turn of events left France reeling, with pundits and the public bemoaning the “loss to the nation.”

Nonetheless, in 2001 — the same year she appeared naked and with no makeup in a photo-shoot for French Vogue — Guillem became the first winner of the Nijinsky Award for the world’s best ballerina. But true to form, she wasn’t to be ambushed by accolades, and she morphed effortlessly from ballet to contemporary dance. The following year, she parted ways “forever” with the Royal Ballet.

Now 48 years old, and already with such a rich and varied stage career, she could be said to be one of the few “living legends” in the contemporary-dance world where myths and miracles no longer carry much clout. However, she is not a princess locked up in the tower of her own legend. From classical ballet to modern dance, she continues to tackle a diverse range of works, always revealing new frontiers.

This week, with the Tokyo Ballet, she is performing “Carmen,” 68-year-old Swedish choreographer Mats Ek’s sensational 1992 modern-dance version of the classic work; while from Nov. 28-Dec. 1 she teams up in Tokyo in a co-performance with the world-famous English dancer Akram Khan in his work created for the two of them, 2006′s “Sacred Monsters.” [The term "monstres sacrés" was coined in 19th-century France for stage icons, such as the actress Sarah Bernhardt, whom audiences and critics accorded virtually divine status.]

Ahead of Guillem leaving her Swiss home for these engagements, she agreed to the following interview conducted via Skype on Oct. 14. We had a good connection despite dogs barking in the background.

First, please tell me about Mats Ek’s “Carmen” that you are set to perform for the first time in Japan. What kind of piece is it? Do you empathize with the portrayal of the heroine?

The first time I did this production was with the Royal Ballet (in 2002), and I was really impressed. Ek’s approach has poetry, humor, wit and wonder — it’s a little bit different from what I’m used to. Also, everything to do with classical is up — moving and being lifted into the air; but Ek’s choreography lets dancers be grounded. Everything is really toward the floor; very low and earthy.

At the same time, this production is still true to Prosper Mérimée’s original story: Carmen is someone loud and earthy, really kind of an instinctive animal. She lives the way she has to live, and it has nothing to do with the rules of society. She’s very natural. I think she had more battles to fight than me, but I guess there might be a similarity.

What is it like for you in this “Sacred Monsters” collaboration with Akram Khan, because on stage, in addition to dancing, you also speak naturally?

Akram and I are so different — in terms of size, weight, energy, momentum, etc. At the beginning, our collaboration was hard because Akram’s dance is also very fast and very energetic, and mine is a bit slow. But that’s what made it interesting. It was really great to try to find a connection between all those differences.

We also began to have a more friendly, less professional, relationship. Sometimes I just keep a professional relationship but I find this kind of human relationship is more pleasant with a lot of partners.

And in “Sacred Monster,” it’s the first time I’ve talked on stage. Though there was a bit of a problem at the beginning, I really enjoyed it a lot. I love to try unknown things.

Akram Khan and Mats Ek are just two among many artists with whom you have collaborated. What do you get from working in that way?

Primarily, it brings a lot of joy and pleasure, because the experiences are very constructive and creative and enjoyable.

I also learn from them; and I learn how to be with them. So I’ve learned to openly be myself in those kinds of relationships. As a result I’ve evolved a lot, because I was very shy and couldn’t really communicate with people. With these people, I learned to be myself — to know who I was, what amount of knowledge I did or didn’t have. And I’ve learned about my personality, and so on.

So are you saying that your collaborations are a way to get to know yourself?

It’s not my first motivation, but it is a part of the process. It’s a way to discover how you can push a bit more; how you can take more risks. It’s also a way of learning about yourself because, if you always do something you know how to do, you get comfortable, but there is never any surprise.

When you push yourself into unknown territory, there are always these questions: Am I going to do it? Am I going to be able to do it well? There is always this kind of doubt that makes things much more exciting, and there is much more reward when you manage to pass this kind of test that you have set for yourself.

You went from being the youngest-ever étoile at the Paris Opera Ballet to being a guest principal at the Royal Ballet, and now you’re entirely freelance. What led you to make those decisions?

For me, the Paris Opera Ballet was not only a company but also something like an institution offering safety on many levels. There are lots of advantages there that some of those people are looking for. When I left that huge institution, I also left behind all the safety, the comforts and the advantages it offered. So it was a big step.

However, if I had stayed there I would have had to compromise so much that my life would not have been mine anymore. It would have been like giving my life to the Paris Opera Ballet. What I care about is taking my own life in my hands, so that I make my own decisions for myself and take responsibility for what I do.

At the Royal Ballet, I had that kind of freedom because I was not tied to such a contract. I think mine was for about five years at the beginning, stipulating a certain number of performances. The rest of the time I was free. So I already had a freelance way of thinking. But I left the Royal Ballet because I hate the politics of that company’s director, Monica Mason, and I had already done some collaborative work as a freelancer.

You have said you love Japan, and you’ve been here many times over the years. Why is that?

I love a lot of Japanese arts — the minimalist way of thinking about things, and the kind of refined architecture found in many ancient places. I also like kabuki, bunraku, Japanese fabrics, paper umbrellas, calligraphy, poetry … so many things.

But at the same time, you also have very modern things next to all this. That works very well: It’s a kind of open mind kept between all the tradition that needs to stay from the past, and an advanced sense of the modern time.

I feel the same about dance. Since I come from classical ballet, I have a lot of people telling me, “Classical is better.” Some others, though, say, “Contemporary is much better.”

But classical is a discipline, a part of history; it has that quality. Contemporary dance should use that, not discard it, because it’s a springboard from which a choreographer can learn how to do things and produce things. It’s about keeping the best of what you have. When I was with Mats Ek, though he is a contemporary choreographer, every morning he’d lead a classical class.

For me, Japan signifies a very modern country that keeps the best of those things it has.

With Japan still recovering from the effects of disasters that struck the Tohoku region in March 2011, what would be your message to everyone here?

Stop nuclear power; it’s a time bomb. Now is the best moment to insist on that. You are the ones who suffered from it, and you’ve got to say, “That’s enough!”

Even if the government doesn’t agree, one person plus one person plus one person becomes stronger than just a government — because the government depends on those people.

Of course many people in Japan hope you will return here to dance again and again, but how do you see your future from now?

I’m working with many associations for the protection of nature and animals: the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and Voiceless, an Australian animal-protection institute. All of that takes up a lot of my life, so I guess that one day when I stop dancing, I’ll be more involved with that. But because I am an instinctive person, if there’s a theater project like a play, I may try that.

Maybe in a few years, I will decide to stop when the pain gets to be too much. I enjoy dancing but there is a time to say goodbye to it as well. I’ve been preparing myself for a long, long time — but for the moment, I’m not there yet. I’m enjoying it as fully as I can.

This story’s introduction was translated by Claire Tanaka. Ayako Takahashi questioned Sylvie Guillem in English, which the dancer also used for her replies. “Carmen, Études” with the Tokyo Ballet runs Nov.14-17 at Tokyo Bunka Kaikan, outside JR Ueno Station. “Sacred Monsters” runs Nov. 28-Dec. 1 at U-Port Hall, a 5-min. walk from JR Gotanda Station. For more details, call 03-3791-8888 or visit www.nbs.or.jp. Kagoshima Shimin Bunka Hall, Kagoshima. Nov. 21. 7 p.m. ¥4,000-¥9,000 (099-257-8111). Aichi Arts Center Concert Hall, Aichi. Nov. 23. 2 p.m. ¥5,000-¥16,000 (052-957-3333).