Dance great channels living history on stage
''Part of me didn't grow up.'' ... Sylvie Guillem performs a duet from her show, 6000 Miles Away.
It doesn't matter if you are one of the most celebrated dancers of the modern era - when you put yourself in the hands of the world's leading choreographers, says Sylvie Guillem, ''you become a student again, someone who is trying, who is taking a lot of risks''.
She thinks of herself, she adds, as at their service, ready for anything. Speaking in quick, idiomatic English with the odd ''voila'' thrown in for emphasis, Guillem is thoughtful, funny and energetic as she talks about her newest work, 6000 Miles Away, a triple bill she is bringing to Australia next year.
She is already part of the Adelaide Festival line-up. On Tuesday, new shows are being announced in other states. She will be at the Sydney Opera House in March, and in October will perform at the Melbourne Festival.
6000 Miles Away grew out of her wish to present an evening of work by three great choreographers who, she says, ''are part of dance history already. And they're still alive, which is lucky for me!'' Two pieces - by Mats Ek and William Forsythe - were newly created for her. The third, Jiri Kylian's 2002 piece 27'52'', was chosen by him to complement the other two.
Guillem's story is the stuff of legend. She was a gifted young French gymnast doing extra training at the Paris Opera Ballet School when her potential as a dancer was recognised. In 1981, at 16, she became a member of the company, then had a phenomenal rise, selected for the highest rank of ''etoile'' at the unprecedentedly early age of 19 by the then director, Rudolf Nureyev.
Four years later, she left the company, seeking more independence. She spent years as a principal guest artist with the Royal Ballet in London and pursued the life of a freelancer.
Guillem has been credited with redefining the image of the ballerina and, at 47, she continues to do so. She comes across as a figure in perpetual motion, touring regularly with new works commissioned for her and appearing as a guest artist with leading companies around the world. She is a drawcard in her own right, a heady combination of virtuosity, imagination and intelligence.
She is equally acclaimed in the classical and the contemporary sphere, although she has tended in recent times to focus more on the latter. Yet only last year she returned to Milan's La Scala to dance in Kenneth MacMillan's Manon, a signature classical work for her.
She first worked with Forsythe at the Paris Opera Ballet; her brilliant technique and creative flexibility was at the centre of one of his key works, In The Middle, Somewhat Elevated. For 6000 Miles Away he has made Rearray, a duet first created for Guillem and Nicolas Le Riche and also developed for La Scala's Massimo Murru, who will perform it in Australia.
With Forsythe, she says, their time together was just as it was 25 years ago. She loves what he does with ideas. Ek's work, Bye, is a solo piece incorporating video, using the second movement of Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 32. It has been seen by some critics as Ek's portrait of Guillem, and also as a kind of adieu.
The title, Guillem says, does not really point to a farewell or an ending - it is ''bye to something, and hi to something else''. The work elicits some very different responses, she adds. She has found while one audience member might see in it ''a woman at the end of her life saying goodbye to everything, others see a little girl imagining the future''. As the performer, she finds in the work a sense of openness to ''all those questions you can have in your life, whether you are young or a bit older. In a way, part of me didn't grow up at all, so I still feel like a kid''. She quickly canvasses, unprompted, the question of time and its pressures, and how long she can continue as a performer. She can't be definitive about future work, she says, but as long as it will be ''presentable, good to see, and I know I can do it well - as long as I can put the power and energy into it - I will do it.
''I have projects up to 2015. But it's also day by day, month by month, year by year. I am very conscious that time is passing and I will have to stop, there is no doubt about that.''
For the past five years she has lived in the Swiss mountains with her partner, photographer Gilles Tapie, and two white German shepherd dogs. She is an avid theatregoer, she says, but also likes to walk, to garden, and she has become a passionate environmentalist. After reading a book by Sea Shepherd's Paul Watson, she became a vegetarian, and is keen to promote his organisation in some way through 6000 Miles. It's not the kind of thing that dance audiences necessarily expect to see at a performance - and for her, that's all the more reason to do it.
6000 Miles Away is in the Sydney Opera House's Drama Theatre from March 8 to 15. Tickets on sale next Monday.