Prima ballerina Sylvie Guillem prepares to take her final bow

Published
04/11/2014 by

Sylvie Guillem, arguably the greatest ballerina of her generation, has announced details of her final performances before she retires 39 years after she joined the Paris Opera Ballet school as a “little rat”.

Guillem will be 50 next year and has decided “to take my final bow”, she said on Tuesday. “Next year will be my last world tour as a dancer, with a brand-new production to say goodbye with gratitude and a great deal of emotion.

“I have loved every moment of the last 39 years and today I am still loving it in the same way. So why stop? Very simply because I want to end while I am still happy doing what I do with pride and passion,” she said.

Guillem joked that she had a friend to whom she’d given a “licence to kill” should she carry on too long. “Frankly, I’d like to spare him this task.”

Her friend Tamara Rojo, the artistic director of the English National Ballet, said she had tried to talk Guillem out of retirement. “She is such a gifted human being and it is a great loss for all of us,” she said. “Of course we don’t want her to stop; we want her to go on for ever. She said to me it had to happen at some point, why not now? To which I had many answers.”

Guillem’s final UK performances will be at Sadler’s Wells in London where she has been an associate artist since 2006.

Alistair Spalding, the theatre’s chief executive and artistic director, said: “She is the most significant ballerina of our time, no doubt about it. In the future, looking back, we’d say she was the one really. She is remarkable, a once-in-a-generation dancer.”

He said Guillem’s technical ability was extraordinary and “top of that is her artistry ... she is one of the greatest performing artists.”

Guillem has had a spectacular career as the leading ballerina at both the Paris Opera Ballet and the Royal Ballet and an equally impressive one in contemporary dance.

Recalling her training in Paris, where all the students were nicknamed “little rats” and obliged to bow to all teachers and dancers, Guillem said: “The dancers always seemed so solemn and aloof and whenever we were in a hurry they always seemed to appear out of nowhere, causing us to come to a skidding halt to take our bows. The very old floor, waxed and made slippery by skids from previous generations, made this task relatively dangerous.

“At full speed, we tried to hold, for at least half a second, the ‘bow’ – a genuflexion with arms stretched downwards in a V shape, palms down, back foot pointed behind the supporting leg. And, this done, off we went, trotting to the next class. These wobbling marks of respect were far from gracious, but for us it was a mission accomplished!”

Guillem will bow out with a world tour called Life in Progress beginning in Modena, Italy, on 31 March, stopping at Sadler’s Wells in May and ending in Tokyo in December. It will include two new works by Akram Khan and Russell Maliphant as well as a solo piece written for her by Mats Ek, called Bye.

Details of Guillem’s retirement came as Sadler’s Wells and the English National Ballet announced a new partnership. ENB is to be Sadler’s Wells’ first associate ballet company, performing spring and autumn seasons each year.

Spalding said it was an important moment in the history of Sadler’s Wells and praised Rojo for injecting “a fresh energy” into classical ballet. “In the two years that Tamara has been artistic director at English National Ballet, she has developed a distinct and exciting vision for ballet to ensure it remains a dynamic and vibrant artform.”

Rojo said she was committed to bringing new works into the company’s repertoire “while honouring our classical origins”.

ENB will continue performing at the Coliseum, she said, as well as touring nationally and abroad. For Sadler’s Wells, the company will perform new works by William Forsythe, John Neumeier and Jiří Kylián, and an autumn 2016 production of Giselle choreographed by Akram Khan.

The announcement was made as Sadler’s Wells also published its annual report, which revealed audience numbers were up by 12%.