Sylvie Guillem is a brat. But that doesn’t matter to the man who comes to every one of her annual New York appearances with the Royal Ballet, throwing her six bouquets after each performance for the better part of a month. It makes no difference to her audiences, who stand with tear-stained faces through 10 encores. They don’t care. At 26, the former Olympic gymnastics hopeful with the effortless 180-degree leg extension has become the uncontested queen of international ballet, and to watch her dance is to reimagine what the human body and spirit are capable of.
Guillem is a star, and she knows it. Her fellow dancers say she demands special treatment, that the smile she offers during her bows is seldom seen offstage. Called ”the Garbo of dance,” she rarely permits interviews and will pose only for photographs by her live-in boyfriend, Gilles Tapie. The French-born Guillem kicked up her first storm in 1989, when she left the Paris Opera Ballet after a feud with its director, Rudolf Nureyev. ”Too much hierarchy, too many rules,” she said. French critics bemoaned her departure as nothing short of ”a national catastrophe.” Now she’s principal guest artist with the Royal Ballet in London, where she begins performances of ”Giselle” in January.
Not everyone is pleased by her dancing; British critics in particular have complained that she’s all technique and no passion. But with Guillem’s ability to act, and that same single-mindedness that chafes her fellow dancers, she brings a gritty, contemporary vitality to classical ballets. In her interpretations, characters who die for love, such as Giselle or Nikiya in ”La Bayadere,” become somehow heroic. As one reviewer noted after a New York performance of ”La Bayadere” last spring, ”Guillem is the strongest victim who ever lived.”
And has one of the strongest egos. Her first teacher, Claude Bessy, once said, ”Sylvie is the only dancer in the world no company can afford to lose.” Guillem is not about to let anyone forget that.