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Final Curtain Call

The Telegraph’s Dance Critic Sarah Compton looks back over the extraordinary career of Sylvie Guillem as she presents her final dance programme.

The end of Sylvie Guillem’s dancing career is just as remarkable as the beginning. In December 1984, at the age of 19, she was plucked from the ranks by Rudolf Nureyev to become Paris Opera Ballet’s youngest ever Étoile. In December 2015, in Japan, she will dance for the last time, leaving the stage at her own volition at the age of 50. In between those two points, she shook the world, changing dance for ever. There has never been anyone like her.

She started out as gymnast, before going to the Paris Opera Ballet School at the age of 11 on a year-long exchange. Then she fell in love with performing – ‘Curtain up, that was it!’ – and stayed, always a prodigious talent. She has always acknowledged how lucky she was to possess an unusual combination of strength and suppleness, with beautiful, sharp feet, and the famous ability easily to raise her leg upright past her ear. But what makes Guillem unique is what she chose to do with those natural gifts.  She has worked liked a demon, propelled by a vision of what dance could be, an idea of perfection, physical, dramatic and intellectual. ‘Dance should touch people,’ she says.

In pursuit of that belief, she quit Paris Opera Ballet when it started to stifle her desire for freedom to explore, and the Royal Ballet, where she spent 12 years as a principal guest artist, when it did the same. Her move towards contemporary dance in the last decade has produced a dazzling coda to a career both original and unforgettable.

In this way, Guillem’s final programme is typical. Once she had decided to retire ‘while I am still happy doing what I do with pride and passion’ she also decided ‘I wanted to carry on exploring.’ So A Life in Progress contains two new works, one by Akram Khan, one by Russell Maliphant alongside a piece by William Forsythe and the solo Bye, by Mats Ek, which she premiered in 2011. 

The title of the evening is also characteristic. Guillem does not see this as an end but a beginning. She is passionate about environmental causes, including the marine conservation organisation Sea Shepherd and the seed foundation Association Kokopelli, and she may work more on their behalf.  She may sit in her garden and look at the sky. But she is convinced that what is to come will be as satisfying as what she is leaving behind. The only problem is that her legion of loyal fans will not be able to watch it.

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