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About the Change

Sylvie Guillem...
        ....on Ballet and Dance

by Bruce Marriott

Guillem's Giselle

Guillem reviews

Guillem InterViews

Guillem performances
(the ones we know of)

'Guillem' in Postings

Jim Fowler's Guillem Website

As Sylvie Guillem interviews go this one is rather odd - it concentrates on dance! Sure there are lots of rather sensational stories about Guillem, all great for the Sunday Supplements but few pieces tend to concentrate on Guillem as a professional involved in dance. Indeed there are relatively few pieces anyway - Guillem has too much to do without interviews and the complications they inevitably raise.

The key to my interview was hearing about a Sylvie Guillem production of Giselle in Helsinki. Given that Guillem is who she is and this was a first foray into production/choreography, and a full length piece to boot I, for one, was surprised we had not heard much about it. Few, 'Le Monde' aside, seemed to be aware of it or to have covered it. Then we found out that she was dancing in two performances of her Giselle in February and the plot was hatched for an interview in Helsinki. An ideal opportunity to see the production (which is reviewed elsewhere) and to talk to Sylvie about how it came to be and her wider thoughts and plans.

And after much to-ing and fro-ing, not least on the Intercontinental Hotel's messaging systems (phone, Teletext and hand written notes) I emerge from a lift to find her in the lobby. Gulp. I'm immediately rumbled as a man who needs a drink and she strides off suggesting the bar is the place to chat. I follow, grinning inanely no doubt. She is dressed in black and looks incredibly chic in her massive black moon boots (there is snow everywhere), jumbo black Puffa jacket (it's cold of course) and a scrummy micropleated dress (black also!), doubtless from a favourite Japanese designer. As I consume a steadying beer, Sylvie consumes an apple (the bar being fresh out of Apricot juice). She is constantly checking and adjusting herself - her dress, her hair, her skin even. And she laughs a lot too, not least when I produce my (chic) MiniDisk recorder and an alarm mysteriously also goes off on my electronic organiser. “You're a maniac of the technology!” I admit it, of course.

When we met, I had still to see the new Giselle (that was the next night) and was eager to know more:

“The background is that one day someone said if you wanted to film a classical ballet which one would you do? And I said ‘Well I would start with Giselle because it's not only a role for a dancer it's a role for a woman.’ That's the first one that comes to my mind because I always saw the potential in it, but no production gave me ... what I was expecting from the character. So then I started to think about it and I started to prepare a script, to meet people and to do it exactly like a film. So then the time (came) when you have to go and see the Producer and the TV channel and the TV director and they look at you and say, well unless it's shot by Polanski and danced by Sylvester Stallone we won't do it!

“So I said, well it won't be danced by Sylvester Stallone and it won't be shot by Polanski but it will be with my own people and my own choice! So the project could not be made. The TV are not really interested in classical ballet. Even if it's a new way of seeing it, they are not really interested.”

In preparing, she obviously needed a company and had asked Jorma Uotinen, the Finnish National Ballet Director, if his dancers were free to help. And as if you hadn't guessed, when the film idea came to nought Uotinen had the presence of mind to suggest a stage production instead and after a little more thought Guillem agreed.

Guillem's approach was naturalistic: to try to rid Giselle of its cliches while keeping the classical base. She wanted to make it more logical and relevant to modern audiences:

“You are doing a ballet, so you must have choreography but at the same time, the choreography should not be free, it should not be just because we need choreography. The choreography should be here because it's a logical moment for it to be here. So it was quite interesting to work out and not to fall into the trap of the classical ballet: like we have this amount of music, then we dance, we dance, we dance. And (then) we act a little bit and then we dance, we dance, we dance! (yes!) So that was the most interesting part of it.”

“I found it really amusing to just invent new words, new phrases and playing with the music and the musicality which I like very much.”

On creating her production of Giselle.

She thinks briefly: “In fact one of the most, because what I like very much also is to work with the dancers to try to explain what the characters are and who they were. Also working with the human being that was in front of me, just not treating him like a learner of steps you know. Just to make him understand that the character was this and that, but could be also this and that. The experience I have of acting and trying to express feeling, not just lifting the leg! Or when you lift the leg there is something to express.”

As many will know, Giselle has always presented a huge contrast between the first and second acts and this has been maintained or even broadened in Guillem's production:

“I wanted something more free, more human in the first act - more colourful, more active. I try to have a different view of a village and different characters also. I wanted the dancers to be people with a life before they go on stage and after they go on stage. All the history of a character. Even the small characters in it. So they were not treated as trees or scenery! - I don't want to use dancers like that - I wanted them to participate and to live and to make this village alive.”

“I like classical ballet as much as I like modern ballet”

The second act is changed less - Guillem, like many of us, appreciates the power of white acts - “it makes the people see something extraordinary”. However she “... wanted the Wilis to be more feminine, more witty, more like mermaids”, indeed more like the Wilis in Heinrich Heine's original story. “So I gave them a bit better heart because normally they are like zombies! I wanted them more feminine, so I tried to put that also in it. But I wanted to keep what is effective in the second act - it's all the girls together. It's mixed up. So they have some moments where they can use their eyes and their smile.”

In all Guillem spent 8 weeks with the company creating her Giselle, but this was spread over a longer period because of her schedule. It would have been rather longer had she not prepared so much in advance. But even so, as a project it grew a little bit in the making...

“So at the beginning I wanted to keep all of the choreography and do more like a ‘mise en scene’ (stage production). But then I couldn't keep the choreography and do a ‘mise en scene’ so I had to change a little bit the choreography, and little bit by little bit it's a lot! Especially in the first act it's quite a lot.” she smirks! “Actually I almost change everything in the first act and I kept a few things in the second act!” So much for the best-laid plans.

The Giselle is indeed quite different, as we report elsewhere and hopefully readers will be able to see it in the UK next year sometime. Suffice it to say that it works rather well - particularly the naturalistic Act 1.

Photo: Kari Hakli

So what was it like creating so much choreography for the first time? “Well I didn't want to think of it as a creation of choreography. It just happened to be that I had to change some steps and to put them together and it end up as choreography.” Guillem is keen to avoid unnecessary tags and to make it clear that this is no wholesale change of direction for her. Anyway for Guillem choreographers are those with a burning need to express themselves in a language like no other and that's not what she is about, although she clouds the issue by adding “.. er, it starts to appear in my mind, maybe the will of doing something from nothing. Not just taking a ballet that exists and doing something out of it. And this a few years ago would not have crossed my mind.”

If you ignore what it's called she is ready to do more in this area and particularly to help breathe new life into classics that she believes are slowly dying and becoming less relevant to people. But the position in 'new' or contemporary ballet is maybe even more worrying to her, since that represents the classics of tomorrow.

While she might not like the tag, Guillem very much enjoys working with choreographers - “I like to try and understand them, I like to try and bring them things from me..” Naturally it leads to questions about who she likes working with. The initial answer is surprising:

“Well I never had any problem to work with someone like Forsythe but it's a long time I haven't worked with him. So I won't say that I would not have any problem now!” It's an odd answer in itself and illustrates something that came up a number of times in the interview - a careful use of words that takes nothing for granted. If something was fine in the past, it doesn't mean it will necessarily be the same in the future. People change: Guillem changes and those she works

“He has been such a revelation for people who didn't know anything about dance. And he freed the dancer very much. I mean it was like a huge explosion when he arrived.”
Guillem on Bejart

with do too. And in any event, she is aware that answers given off the cuff in earlier interviews can assume an almost permanent and stultifying significance as the years go by.

Anyway, getting back to choreographers, aside from enjoying working with Forsythe, there is Bejart (she laments that in Britain he is not so well liked), Kylian, Ek, Burrows, (Bob) Wilson and (Pierre) Darde.

It's obviously not exactly a list crammed full of classical choreographers but of course Guillem herself is a dancer rather than a ballerina. Indeed at one point in the interview she says "But I'm talking classical, classical, classical - I just like dance!"


“Classical ballet I hate and modern ballet I hate! .. there is only good dance and bad dance..”

But of the two forms, she currently feels the need to defend classical ballet, seeing that “everybody is pushing it down”. Modern dance she perceives as being talked up - “With modern dance it's different because they (critics, audience) are so afraid of missing the genius and the intelligence of a choreographer that they are ready to accept anything! And this pisses me off!” She laughs and wonders aloud if she is allowed to say this. I do my ‘man of the world’ bit and assure her that while I haven't heard words like this in years it's probably ok to say such things in a broad-minded Finnish bar... Covent Garden might well be different though!

Guillem is however a torch-bearer for the best of modern work, as her video Evidentia showed, and she has consistently pushed for a wider repertoire at the Royal Opera House. Most notably she was instrumental in bringing the Forsythe pieces into the repertoire. She is perhaps not so impressed by the reopening season at the Opera House as many fans are - there is too little modern dance - but she applauds the Celebration of International Choreography bill and knows also that it's easy to talk and more difficult to do: “I don't want to judge” she says diplomatically.

Photo: Kari Hakli

Of course one of the much-applauded facets of the rebuilt Opera House is the new Studio Theatre, and indeed the rehearsal studio which converts into an even smaller performance and demonstration space. Guillem naturally supports the extra stages but she is concerned not to see segregation develop with classical ballet in the big house and modern pieces by unknowns in the small, for example:

“I think that one should choose the theatre - size and atmosphere - in relation to the piece and the style of the choreographer, and not on the fact that he, or she, is part of a 'young wave' of unknown or new choreographers.”

She notes that some large opera houses put on evenings of experimental and new work on in the main stage for an audience that is more than aware and this she applauds. What is needed is for those at the top to have the “guts to impose their opinion” as well as having an ‘eye’ to spot talent in the first place. Diaghilev is mentioned “Talk about an eye!” she exclaims.

Bound in with all this are concerns about elitism and the widely-held feeling in society that ballet and opera is old, not relevant and, worst of all, for rich people only:

“I can tell you that the people who come to see me, they are not all rich people. I mean they are every night at the stage door, every night they find a ticket even if it is not easy. It is true that the seat prices could be lower, and I agree they should bring them down. But people should stop thinking that it is for elitists. The only kind of elitism I see is intellectual. It is the passion that drive those people to do everything they can to see a performance, even if they have to queue for a few hours under the rain to have a standing ticket. We certainly cannot talk about financial elitism

“I'm always surprised to see the people coming at the end to the stage door. And it's wonderful to see it because you feel passion, you feel that before the performance, during the performance and after. ... That's what it is all about really.

in this case. When someone spends much more money for a football game, do we have to consider football as being elitist!? It's fashionable to talk of (financial) elitism in art... and it pisses me off really!” (I immediately look around, but Finnish bar inhabitants are obviously very tolerant of swearing ballerinas.)

If there is not so much new work, then Marguerite and Armand is one thing in which old and new fans can look forward to seeing Guillem in the opening Royal Ballet season at Covent Garden. A legendary piece of Ashton created for Fonteyn and Nureyev, it is not something brought back lightly and indeed Guillem refused to dance in it when a production was mooted a few years ago:

“It's more like a homage I'm doing - dancing it. It was not really healthy for me to do it. Because it was Margot, because it was Rudolf, it was still very fresh and er... I didn't feel comfortable for their memory to do it. And I don't know why now I'm more ready to do it and see it more like a gift. But a lot of critics will hate it and I know that - it doesn't matter!” We both start to giggle at this, “It really doesn't matter” she repeats.

What matters very much is who she dances with and Guillem insists on dancing with whom she wants. Her regular partners are quite a select bunch: Laurent Hilaire, Nicolas Le Riche (both of Paris Opera Ballet), Jonathan Cope (of Royal Ballet) and occasionally Oliver Matz. In Finland appropriately she danced with a local Albrecht - Kare Lansivuori - and at La Scala she is going to “try (Roberto) Bolle. He's a very nice dancer... I need to see if he has guts and emotions there!” she says pointing to her tummy, “.. I hope he will be a good partner!”


“We are all here to improve”

There is a particularly special relationship with Jonathan Cope:

“Well....(long pause) he's my favourite partner. (another pause) Well it's stupid again to say he is my favourite partner because, you know, it's like communication, you feel great with someone in one character and then you will find also ... a nice way of conversation with someone else. Its just a question of the right feeling with the right person at the right moment.

“Jonathan is very masculine - beautiful partner! Wonderful artist and the only thing he lacks is a little bit of confidence in himself! And I can kick his bottom every time I want, but he is still (the same) - I don't know; it's like second nature with him... no ego at all.”

One of the next pieces you can see Guillem and Cope dance in is Swan Lake, on the Royal Ballet's Far Eastern Tour this April. I raise my eyebrows when she says Swan Lake and mention that there are not so many months left until the year 2000. (She once said that she would not dance it beyond 2000). She giggles, well knowing how many times this has come up in pieces about her:

“Well I said that like a joke and now it's written everywhere!”. It is, it is, I say. “So I better go on until to 2001!”

‘So can I announce it was a joke?’

“I must have meant it when I said it! Because I mean if you see me 5 minutes before Swan Lake I will tell you I stop tomorrow - I stop dancing Swan Lake tomorrow, if you see me before the show! If you see me after the show I can go on a little bit more! (laughs) So it was said like maybe just before the show and I said well I need to stop at one point because it's really not a ballet I like. Mind you I start to like it more and more.. I would like to find something to enjoy and to like. It's not so easy. It's so important in classical ballet, this kind of ballet and it also make me sad to see it done the way it is done.”

‘It sounds like you want to do a production of Swan Lake in the same way as Giselle’, I lead.. “Why not, why not” she says candidly, and I wonder if anybody has snapped her up for this yet...

The Swan Lake retirement sums up Guillem's reticence at times on interviews - it's perhaps not a particularly serious example but it's another myth, half understood, that gets slotted into the ‘astounding facts’ paragraph that begins most Guillem pieces. And each piece builds on the previous ones, of course. But it's impossible to talk about Guillem without considering the controversy she sometimes stirs.

She does have definite views and no way will she do or say something if she feels it's perhaps not the way it should be. Hence her notable disagreement with Kenneth MacMillan about the quality of some of his steps; the walking out on Nureyev and Paris Opera Ballet at age 21; the fact that she is her own agent because she can't see that a manager adds anything at all (“Because at the end, even if you are covered by an agent you are the one who take the decision.”) And then there is her absolute insistence that she must agree which photographs/images of her can be used.

We don't talk about all of these, which must be something of a record, but she always seems to have clear and logical reasons for wanting things to be as she believes they should be. That these are things that most other people don't worry about is not her problem, she would say. ‘A control freak’ would be a harsh way of describing her concern to get things right and not perhaps to trust others to do the right thing.

“She is tough” was the short view I got when I asked somebody about dealing with her. It's apt because she is tough within herself but she is also tough for others at times. Guillem obviously has some trusted advisors but you find yourself wondering what more might be achieved - in taking her art to the widest possible public - if she was able to concentrate on key aspects of her work and trust other professionals to contribute and do what they do.

But that's all so negative and unfair isn't it? You can't dismiss these things totally, but Guillem is the best because of her drive and the decisions she makes. They might not be the decisions others would make but then she is the best dancer in the world and people do fit in with what she wants to produce the results that we all enjoy.

Photo: Gilles Tapie

It's tempting to think that all Guillem does is work, as she guests here, there, and everywhere it seems. But she likes doing things with her hands and did lots of pottery while in Japan recently. And then there is her gardening, and love of film and books. She completes the list: “I like er.. doing things (said rather emphatically), it can be anything - I just can't stop in a way. It's very difficult for me to stop. I would like to have a day of 58 or 60 hours!”

She sets a blistering pace and next year she will be spending much time in Japan again. In 1998 she was there for over 6 months. Lucky Japan I think. I ask how much longer she can keep up the pace. “I don't know the answer. I think, hopefully I will get it at the right time - the right answer. But I don't have it now. I follow my road. It's not right now the end of it. It's not the time to take another road. ...I'm waiting for the wisdom to stop.”

‘Do you find as you get older you get more mature?’ I enquire innocently only realising late-on that I'm practically accusing her of being immature earlier in life, and I quickly add ‘I'm not suggesting you weren't mature when you were younger of course!’

“No - it's true - I was not! But I was not meant to be. (I laugh)   It's true. (and she is laughing too) I was not meant to be. So yes I am more mature, but not with wisdom. I don't have the wisdom yet, but I am working on it!”

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