Cold Star

Photo: Stephanie Berger

Sylvie Guillem, bred at the Paris Opera Ballet and now a perennial guest artist with England’s Royal Ballet, showed up at the New York State Theater mid-July, trailing La Scala Ballet in her wake. The Italian company offered two programs: one comprising Luciano Cannito’s balletization of the Fellini film Amarcord and a disastrously unsexy rendition of Roland Petit’s Carmen; the other, Guillem’s maverick version of Giselle, in which she danced the title role.

Guillem is hardly a fixture at La Scala. Her I-know-better-than-the-ancients take on Giselle was created in 1998 for the Finnish National Ballet. And though she has on a couple of earlier occasions performed with the Milan-based troupe, she is in no sense its ballerina – that is, a paragon of its style. The present association looks like nothing more than a mutually beneficial opportunity. La Scala copped a New York engagement on the strength of Guillem’s name, while Guillem furthered her progress in the actor-manager tradition. (Her model here may have been Rudolf Nureyev, an early mentor.) The occasion, with its attendant high-power promotional efforts, also bolstered public acknowledgement of her claim to be a kind of prima ballerina assoluta, a status she’s been cultivating assiduously ever since Nureyev, at the time artistic director of the Paris Opera Ballet, made her an étoile – the apex of the French dance hierarchy – while she was still in her teens.

I wouldn’t call Guillem a ballerina myself, though she is undeniably a star and a phenomenon. She’s fascinating to look at, with her lithe, long-limbed body, her uncanny ear-scraping extension, and her truly exquisite feet – extravagantly arched and feral in their articulation. Onstage she has the kind of charisma that draws every eye to her. But she’s not expressive or poetic; her sleek cool forbids that. She doesn’t have the power of imaginative suggestion that arouses the viewer’s own fantasy. And her movement lacks rhythmic and textural interest; her dancing has that remote, uninflected quality typical of postmodern culture.

I believe, too, that her ballet technique is circumscribed by her rigorous childhood training as a gymnast. (As a pre-adolescent, she was short-listed for the French Olympic team.) That extension, of which so much is made it can be called her trademark, is certainly anti-classical, and her turnout, basic to the body’s posture in classical dancing, often seems to give way to the parallel stance of the athlete. For whatever reason, she’s peculiarly unsensuous, devoid of the ability to project the physical lushness and delight that lie at the heart of most great dancing.

Still, she seems to want to be a ballerina – that creation of Romantic-age thinking – and aims for this heart’s desire in oblique ways. She envelops herself in an aura of “artistic temperament” through Garboesque aloofness offstage and nonconformist behavior behind the scenes, continually altering her costumes – and occasionally the choreography – to suit her whims. Journalists, of course, have seized upon this colorful material and cooperated happily in publicizing the Guillem “legend.” But, as was seen in her dramatic departure from the Paris Opera Ballet, which refused her demand of privileges equal to those of Nureyev himself, Guillem is after more than the image enhancement such conduct fosters. She has become a ferociously canny director of her own career, attempting to forge her way to lasting fame not merely through dance talent, which is at heart spontaneous, but through the drier and less useful means of analytic intelligence.

Her Giselle is a case in point. The novelty she claims for it lies in its concept, which never achieves choreographic substance. Having danced the traditional version of the ballet, Guillem now contends that, over time, alterations to the original and inevitable changes in our perception of the world have rendered conventional readings specious. She proposes to return Giselle to more believable feelings in a more authentic setting. Her modus operandi is a kind of picturesque naturalism – the vineyard peasants portrayed as individuals, the Wilis transformed into a debutante cotillion of mildly disappointed brides, and the principals in the action, forbidden from histrionics, behaving like you and me. The result registers more like a local-color painting animated by tepid mime than a ballet, and leaves one wondering why, with the costumes straight out of Little House on the Prairie, the sets are so insistently surreal.

Guillem uses the received choreography erratically, as it suits her, and with no particular dance or theatrical logic. Some of the most beautiful and difficult passages have been simplified to the point of insignificance or omitted entirely. Still, the most blatant symptom of the wrongheadedness at work in this production is that it makes the story indecipherable. If you don’t know the old Giselle, you won’t make head or, more important, tale of the newfangled one. It’s just a mess of unrealized notions.

Guillem’s interpretations as a performer also have a brainy bent. Earlier this season she appeared with the Royal Ballet at the Kennedy Center in Marguerite and Armand. Frederick Ashton created this hallucinatory sketch of Dumas’s Romantic melodrama La Dame aux Camélias in 1963 as a vehicle for Margot Fonteyn, whose technical powers, by that time, were at the vanishing point, though she remained a sublime creature of the stage. Guillem took it into her head to treat the ballet as if it had serious substance, working up a character that appeared to be rooted in the close study of novels by the Brontë sisters. This curious, even perverse, undertaking had a certain intellectual appeal – one, however, that had little to do with dancing. Fonteyn, with her innate ballerina instincts, had been content to play herself.

These latest events in Guillem’s career seem to be part of a long effort to achieve recognition as a ballerina by taking control. Granted, control is one of the first things an aspiring dancer must learn. And the exercise of control is the means to many a desired goal. Still, it is not an effective route to the ecstasy that dancing at its most profound can provide.

La Scala Ballet
Giselle by Sylvie Guillem; at the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center.

Cold Star