Onstage with Sylvie Guillem

Art November 29, 2011 00:00


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France’s best-known ballerina shares |her thoughts on classical and contemporary dance

While some of dancers, mostly male, in their 30s retire from professional dancing and become choreographers, and others, mostly female, become teachers, Sylvie Guillem is not interested in either – she’s still dancing on stage.

 In our exclusive interview in Singapore, where she performed in “6,000 Miles with Sylvie Guillem” – she danced in “Bye” and “Rearray”, two new works by Mats Ek and William Forsythe – as part of the Esplanade’s da:ns festival 2011 last month, she shares a secret on how to still be dancing with such roof-raising energy and extraordinary grace, in her mid-40s.

“I’m not a workaholic. I’m not someone who’d go into the studio and practise hour after hour every day, but I work a lot and I know how to manage myself physically. I know which kind of training I should do for each particular production. I always try to work in a very short time, but very efficiently. All my training now is very well thought of. Physically, you cannot do more than your body allows. If you want to do more, then you have to take from the storage of your energy, and then it’s bad.”

“I realised early on that there’s another way of working that’s not physical. That’s why I always say to dancers, ‘Use your head – it’s less tiring and much more efficient.’”

Apart from dancing, she prefers coaching to teaching.

“It’s a different mentality. When you teach dance, people come to your class every day –whether they like it or not. It’s just a matter of discipline and I don’t find it interesting. It becomes a kind of daily job and I don’t like that. But in coaching, when they’re passionate about it, they have a will to understand, to ask questions and to take it further. I find it interesting when it’s like an adaptation for each individual dancer.”

Occasionally, Guillem worked as repetiteur for classical ballet productions and finds that classical ballet today has a major problem.

“I find there’s a huge lack of information and the dancers’ will to know [deeply about the story, characters and themes they’re performing onstage]. They either don’t want to know or don’t know what kind of questions to ask. And the people who answer these questions don’t really know the answers. So no one will ask anything and it goes on and on and on. It then loses a little bit of freshness, spontaneity and intelligence. And in the end it becomes classical ballet that’s just physical – the audience recognises the techniques but the performance isn’t touching.

“When the stage performance is intelligent and you understand that it is, it comes across much more. When it has no kind of sense but is just pretty, it doesn’t come as deep as it should be.”

Guillem says she’s quite shy in person, but when she’s onstage, portraying a character she’s analysed and truly understands, “I feel free, I’m more daring and less shy.

“It’s like returning to your childhood, when anything is possible and many doors are open. It’s a place where you can be someone else, trying to explore different emotions, sensitivity and experiences of life. Onstage you’re protected always by the character you’re portraying, and this protection gives you more freedom to explore. Of course, there’s always a lot of yourself in your performance.

“It’s about human beings’ integrity. When you’re supposed to transmit something, you try to transmit as much as you’ve known and experienced. So it’s not just about your experience, because it comes from someone else who has a soul and imagination. You have a responsibility not to just reproduce the choreography. You have to also analyse not only what the choreographer said, but also why he said so, and think about how you will reproduce and communicate. It’s much more about human beings than about seeing or hearing the right thing.”

Guillem admits, though, that for a dancer to actually analyse, truly understand and efficiently adapt the choreography to fit herself is “almost impossible”.

“In my career I’ve only met one woman dancer who worked with Balanchine, understood the man and had a lot of respect for him. She’s very intelligent and she’s never simply reproduced things. She’d go from the mind of the person to her mind and then the mind of the dancer. It’s very rare that it goes at that level.”

In addition to “6,000 Miles with Sylvie Guillem”, she is now also performing contemporary works like “Sacred Monsters”, her collaboration with Britain-born and -bred Bangladeshi dancer and choreographer Akram Khan; “Eonnagata”, her collaboration with Canadian theatre actor and director Robert Lepage and Canada-born British choreographer Russell Maliphant; and “Push”, another collaboration with Maliphant.

These internationally acclaimed works are touring major cities around the world. Bangkok is not on the itinerary yet.

These works are keeping her so busy that there’s no new work in the plan yet.

“Also, I need to be triggered by something that interests me. Lately I really work with great people whom you don’t always find. These recent collaborations are very exciting for me – they put me into danger onstage, and they’re the works that I don’t already know and just reproduce. They give me energy too. To do something that’s not as good just doesn’t interest me.”

Nonetheless, she’s still considering invitations for occasional returns to classical roles. Earlier this year she performed in “Manon” at La Scala, and last month in “A Month in the Country” with the Tokyo Ballet.

“It depends on which roles are being offered. I won’t go back to ‘Swan Lake’ or ‘Giselle’ – I’ve been doing that since I was 19 and I think it’s time to stop. And I stopped when I was at a high level.”

At a special talk “In Conversation with Sylvie Guillem”, well attended by Singaporean dance students, a student asked how difficult it was to switch from classical to contemporary, and her reply was that it’s like adjusting when one works on a new production.

She explains more in our interview. “It’s also difficult when you go from one classical work to another. It’s more work for the body because the mind can switch more easily. I like that because it’s exciting. I also discovered early on that what I was doing in contemporary works was helping a lot with my approach to the classical works. And that’s why I like switching back and forth.

“In contemporary works it’s more about human relations and collaboration – trying to understand the choreographer you’re working with. There is always this human notion. Whereas in classical works there’s no more collaboration. The people you’re working with are not the ones who imagined the piece. So there’s a lot of misinformation and a lot of things you don’t know and will never know. And so it’s quite difficult.

“Classical can sometimes be very fake. But if it’s done with heart, as human being, it has a value.”

The writer thanks the Esplanade’s corporate communications team for all assistance.