Fond Farewell

W‘s arts and culture director’s must-see for August.

Sylvie Guillem

The career of Sylvie Guillem, arguably the most celebrated ballerina of her generation, is something of a feminist parable. In 1984, at the age of 19, she became the youngest dancer in the history of the Paris Opera Ballet to be given the top rank of étoile, a promotion awarded by the troupe’s then-director, Rudolf Nureyev. A technical prodigy who pushed her body to extremes, Guillem was branded headstrong and difficult early on when she insisted on having a say in creative decisions. In 1989, the glamorous ballerina decamped for London’s Royal Ballet, where she not only infused classical roles with a modern sensibility but also parlayed her box-office clout into pressing the company to commission bold, contemporary new works. She was the only dancer who had approval (or, in her case, refusal) over partners, ballets, costumes, and photographs. For that she was dubbed Mademoiselle Non, a sexist sobriquet that cost her opportunities, she told me, because her reputation made people wary. Still, rather than minimize risk, as dancers are wont to do as they age, Guillem, at 41, retired from ballet while still at her peak, and went on to design her own programs as a modern dancer and expand her repertoire to include even more physically taxing roles. Now 50, Guillem is retiring for good. Not for her the prolonged goodbyes of other great stars whose final performances extend for years. She will bow out with a world tour that travels this month to London, the Edinburgh Festival, and Sydney, before making a stop in New York (November 12–14), and wrapping things up in Japan in December. Fittingly, her farewell is called, simply, Life in Progress. (Above, Guillem in Mats Ek’s Bye, 2011.)