Ismene Brown

Sylvie Guillem interview: ‘A lot of people hate me. Bon. You can’t please everybody’

The Marmite ballerina retires next year. Ismene Brown talks to her about legs, boobs and changing people’s lives

If you follow dance or music closely, make them part of your life, you look on certain performers as your daemon. These are the artists who become part of your inner landscape. They act as a tuning fork for your emotions and imagination. And you mark their progress with particular hope that you won’t be disappointed. When the 25-year-old Sylvie Guillem arrived in London in 1989 from Paris Opera Ballet, with a flaming reputation as Rudolf Nureyev’s prodigal daughter, one’s first reaction was wariness. She seemed so flashy in her incredible bodily gifts.

In Swan Lake, this Swan Queen showed no modesty in her headlong dives — the legs shot up in perfect verticals, they described high circles with the triumphant grace that only ultimate hard work of an ultimate natural ability can bring. We kept talking about those legs. Over at the Kirov Ballet short girls suddenly fell out of favour, and six o’clock legs became standardised in ballet classes.

But you don’t adopt a dancer as your daemon because of her legs. When last week Sylvie Guillem announced through Sadler’s Wells that she’ll retire from the stage next year (she’ll be 50), not only did the nation’s dance critics burst out in lamentation, but the Times and the Telegraph made it page one news. For at least 20 years Guillem has been regularly described as the greatest ballerina of this era, as the art’s game-changer.

‘Ha-ha!’ she laughs down the phone. She has a very infectious laugh, like a peal of bells. ‘Well, I suppose it’s better than being the worst ballerina of the time. But a lot of people will say to you that they can’t stand the way I dance, they hate me. Bon. You can’t please everybody.’

Hate, love — Guillem’s ability to inspire extremes makes her place long-term in ballet quite tricky to assess.

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