During the years that followed, after my first introduction to Sylvie, I had numerous occasions to see her on stage, mostly between London and Paris, especially during her triumphant returns to the Paris Opera as well as to other theatres and dance festivals in Europe. One particularly memorable occasion was in 1998 when she returned to the Paris Opera as a guest for three ballets: Don Quixote, Nureyev’s Romeo and Juliet and MacMillan’s Manon.
Her Juliet was a truly Shakespearean creature. We could see before our very eyes this young girl growing into a formidable young, passionate woman, falling in love, defying the authority of her parents and society and meeting her death as a conscious choice, that of an uncompromising creature. And her partnership with Laurent Hilaire, her Romeo, was wondrous and magical! These two spoke with their breaths, with their eyes, their bodies. They made us believe in Romeo and Juliet not just as dancers who perform exceptionally well the steps of a choreography, but as human beings. For about two-and-a-half hours the audience had lived fully with them, loved, suffered, dreamed and knew all there is to know about life and death at once.
And then came Manon, as they say, and like many others I felt that my life would never be the same again. One day someone should write a book or an extensive essay about Sylvie’s Manon, one of the towering artistic achievements of the stage world of all times. So complete was her immersion to this part that to my mind she makes no other Manon imaginable (despite some remarkable performances from other exceptional ballerinas). It is as if the character was created especially and exclusively for her, both as Abbé Prevost imagined her to be in the novel as well as in the MacMillan ballet. Sylvie has the deepest understanding of this character. Manon is not evil or over-calculating, or over dramatic as many other ballerinas portray her. She is a supremely free spirit, with no consciousness about what is moral or not, delightfully light and carefree. And this quality is also what makes her downfall all the more moving, for she finds herself trapped and fights hopelessly for her freedom and her love for De Grieux (which she fully realizes when it is too late).
I remember my first Manon with Sylvie and Hilaire as they set the house on fire with their passionate portrayals. When Sylvie rose to dance Manon’s variation at the brothel scene, I instinctively knew, although I had never seen the ballet before, that this was an exceptional, privileged moment. There was such lightness in her dancing, such glamour and precision and musicality as well as an unmistakable and truthful sense of portraying and growing within a character.
Her death scene was heart wrenching with total freedom of movement and abandonment. We could feel her pain as well as her tragic destiny and at the same time we were in awe before this amazing, titanic creature defying death itself, with limbs and arms occupying space like some sort of huge wings in a desperate struggle for survival. Although doomed from the beginning, she fought valiantly for her life and her freedom with a most memorable tragic, epic grandeur. Even death would bow before this Beauty leaving her last breadth in the Louisiana swamps.
In 2011, after several years of absence from the big opera houses in Europe, Sylvie returned to Manon at La Scala with Massimo Murru as De Grieux. I remember clearly how nervous I and many other spectators felt before the performance thinking, “Will she be up to this challenge?” Not only she was up to it, but with Murru’s magical support she gave the performance of a lifetime. It was during Manon’s variation that an awestruck Italian spectator screamed out loud what every single member in the audience was thinking, “Divina!”. The echo of that word will always be engraved in our memories for years to come, a reminder of witnessing true greatness on stage. What a befitting word to describe Sylvie and her art!
Sylvie was also, as always, an expert in making an entrance as well as exit on stage, immediately suggesting what her character was thinking and feeling and its evolution as well. When she first came down from the carriage to greet her brother, she was full of innocent charm and liveliness. When she entered the brothel room in her long coat she was majestic and radiated beauty and sensuality. And when she made her appearance at the docks in the Louisiana, exhausted and worn out from the hardships of life, she was a tragic creature struck by destiny and the cruelty of men who had once adored her.
This infinite sense of detail she brings to her characters over the years, the limitless capacity of always wanting to do better, is also something constant with Sylvie. If you saw a performance of Manon, Sleeping Beauty or as Juliet, or Marguerite, the next one, or the following ones would never be the same. She always strove to add more dimension to her parts and kept astonishing and challenging her audience. Her last Marguerite with Murru in Athens during Christmas 2013 was an unforgettable experience. I had already seen her first Marguerite in London with Nicolas Le Riche in the parts tailor made for Nureyev and Fonteyn. Wisely, she never attempted to portray Marguerite as Margot did. There was nothing too worldly or Grande-dame like in her portrayal. She quite simply became Marguerite Gautier, the young courtesan of the 19th century who loves and dies for love.
When she last played Marguerite in Athens her understanding of the character grew even deeper. With Massimo Murru she elevated her into the ultimate ideal of a noble soul sacrificing herself to the alter of love. There was such heartbreak in her performance, such beauty, such wonderful detail of emotion and warmth and pain in her final reunion and embrace with Armand during the death scene. Sylvie’s Marguerite was as much a creature of flesh and blood as well as a magnificent, generous soul exquisitely evaporating into the air as she left her last breath in Murru’s desperate arms.
Sylvie always gave the very maximum to her work. She also chose her dance partners with great care. How could a Juliet or a Manon, a Giselle or a Marguerite, click and come to life if they do not find their match in their Romeo, De Grieux, Albrecht and Armand? This is why her dance partnerships over the years with Laurent Hilaire, Jonathan Cope, Nicolas Le Riche and Massimo Murru were privileged and had some very special magic. And the same could be said of her fruitful collaborations with contemporary choreographers and dancers like Russel Maliphant or Akram Khan. She always established a constructive dialogue with her partners on stage and that dialogue managed to reach out and touch the audience.
Sylvie’s symbiotic relationship with her audience is to my mind the very essence of what makes a truly great artist. We all have such fond memories of Sylvie transfixed with emotion and joy taking endless bows after a performance, genuinely astonished by the love of the audience she is so rightfully receiving. No studied diva poses but a genuine, touching humility instead lighting up her whole being and a privileged intimate moment between her and her audience.
I still encounter or talk to people from Italy, the US, Greece, Japan, Spain who say with such awe, “I saw her in Manon at la Scala in 2011” and how that changed their lives with the same emotion with, let us say, audience members recalling having seen Maria Callas in the Visconti production of La Traviata in 1955 at La Scala. How many times can we say that a dancer, a singer or an actor we saw on stage literally made a difference in our lives? Before seeing Sylvie on stage, I never, ever thought that this could be possible in ballet, but she did that in a most profound, exciting way.
I remember waiting for her with a friend after the first of her farewell performances with Life in Progress in Lyon during the festival Les Nuits de Fourvière last summer. There was a woman next to us who spoke rather loudly and who did not seem to know a thing about dance… but it didn’t matter. She was eagerly waiting to see Sylvie after the show simply to tell her how she was deeply moved by her as a woman after having seen her in Mats Ek’s Bye.
This is the essence of dancing, of all theatrical forms as a matter of fact, make a difference in one’s life, the ability to touch an audience, and to tell each member something which they will carry with them after the show, some emotion, some joy, some sadness as well and magic. Thanks to Sylvie’s presence, the lives of so many spectators around the world became infinitely happier and exciting and this in itself is possibly the greatest achievement any artist can strive for.
She leaves the stage which has been her home for decades, the dance stage at any rate, with an incomparable legacy, such diversity in her repertory and risky choices that no other dancer could match. We may regret not having seen her dance for Pina Bausch, perhaps some more Balanchine choreographies or for not realizing her life-long dream of portraying Cranko’s Tatiana. And I would have loved to see her in her mature years in Agnes de Mille’s Fall River Legend, a part she had danced magnificently according to those who saw her many years ago. And how I longed to see another collaboration with that genius named Robert Lepage! They had already explored brilliantly the androgynous side of human nature, the almost invisible boundaries in sexuality one seldom sees on stage in their unjustly underestimated Eonnagata. One could only dream what they could achieve together in Shakespeare’s Hamlet!
But no time for regrets. Sylvie’s career is complete and extraordinary and she has good reason to be proud of her achievements. Sylvie never took anything for granted. She approached the choreography she danced with total commitment and artistic integrity, with passion and intelligence and she always deeply respected her audience. And she kept alive that wondrous curiosity of hers, always exploring new paths, taking risks. Even for her farewell tour, she did just that. No nostalgic pas de deux from classical ballet, no old favourites to please the audience but new works, with the exception of Bye. She was a force of nature in Khan’s marvellous Techne, a fascinating dialogue of Sylvie the woman with nature. And she was a joy to watch in a wonderful pas de deux by Maliphant, expertly exploring space and light with Emanuela Montanari as her partner.
During this year when she announced her retirement and during numerous performances with her latest show A Life in progress we all have shed many tears in the theatres, at the stage doors waiting to greet her and even secretly once returning home. The dance world and the world stage will never, ever be the same again after 31 December of this year and the void she is leaving behind her is an abyssal one. From now on, we just have to learn to live with that void even if it is not an easy task. In the years to come, like some characters in Proust’s novels, we will rely on our memories to recapture and relive the glory of her dancing and the extraordinary sensations and emotions she has left us through her stage performances. These will make the burden of her absence less unbearable and they can still give us much happiness as time goes by.
Sylvie has always been an unpredictable creature, which is part of her charm and she will most certainly keep on amazing us, and herself as well, with that new chapter of her life which is opening soon. She can enjoy more fully the simple pleasures of life. She also has many worthy causes which are close to her heart for the defence of the environment and animal welfare – among others, she is an ardent supporter of the marine conservation organization Sea Shepherd and the seed foundation Association Kokopelli for the protection of planetary biodiversity, medicinal plants and the production of organic seeds – and I sincerely wish her all the very best in the future.
As she prepares to take her final bow as a dancer, we also bow before her with love and respect for allowing us to share a bit of her divinity, for allowing us to live a thousand lives each time she entered the skin of Manon, Juliet, Giselle, Marguerite, Carmen or Aurora and so many other parts. And that light, as radiant as her smile, emanating from her whole being which has lit up all the stages she has graced around the world will always cast away the shadows of darkness and mediocrity which may surround us in the years to come.
Gramilano is grateful to Yiannakis Ioannides for this reflection on the artist and her career. Nakis saw Life in Progress many times from its premiere in Modena and immediately afterwards in Rome followed by London, Lyon, Paris and finally, Milan.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano’) about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman’s Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia’ column for Dancing Times magazine.