Sydney will be a last chance to catch a once-in-a-generation artist’s fond farewell.

Perhaps once in a generation an artist of such incalculable talent and achievement emerges that our understanding of their medium is changed forever. For over 30 years, French dancer Sylvie Guillem has been that generational icon, and now as she embarks on her farewell tour, dance lovers all over the world will be scrambling for tickets to catch one last in-the-flesh glimpse of the greatest dancer of the last 50 years. 

Trained in rhythmic gymnastics from an early age, a bright and medal-strewn future as an Olympic athlete looked likely for Guillem. But when ballet became her focus, quite by chance after a gymnastics exchange with the Paris Opera Ballet School at the age of 11, the ferocious intensity of her abilities yielded some truly spectacular results.

Sylvie Guillem in Mats Ek’s Bye © Lesley Leslie-Spinks

She grabbed the attention of the world in 1984, aged 19, as the youngest ever étoile appointed by the most hallowed and historic company in the world, Paris Opera Ballet. Just five years later, despite the protestations of the French National Assembly, Guillem moved, in 1989, to the Royal Ballet in Covent Garden. 

Over the course of her career she set the standard for the art form’s great female roles. Through the medium of narrative ballet Guillem channelled her astounding technical ability and profound theatrical gifts into delivering definitive accounts of Manon, Juliet, Giselle and Odette that remain unchallenged almost two decades later. Even in the staples of the classical repertoire Guillem redefined the boundaries of ballet, extending further, making leg heights greater, but most significantly elevating the movement from a set of historical steps into communicative choreography of a deep, devastating emotional power. 

Yet Guillem’s prowess as a dancer is matched by her determination and strength of will – a quality that has attracted some controversy over the years and earned her a notorious reputation as one of dance’s most outspoken figures. Her shocking departure from the Paris Opera Ballet, in order to have more artistic independence, was echoed in 2007 when Guillem resigned from the Royal Ballet, citing irreconcilable artistic differences.

Despite her peerless talent for narrative work, through the 1990s and early 2000s Guillem honed a love of a more avant garde aesthetic, through the choreography of the 20th century’s great dance visionaries such as William Forsythe and Robert Wilson. It was to the bleeding edge of modern choreography that Guillem would turn her attentions upon leaving Covent Garden, surprising many with a switch from ballet to contemporary dance. 

Becoming an Associate Artist at the UK’s premiere dance house, Sadler’s Wells Theatre, Guillem was now free to pursue the projects of her choosing and for her farewell tour she will call upon two choreographers with whom she redefined herself as a performer after her departure from the Royal Ballet: Akram Khan and Russell Maliphant. Works by Forsythe and Mats Ek also appear on this farewell programme, which offers an unequivocal message of Guillem’s uncompromising vision of dance in the 21st century. 

What will come next for Guillem is unclear, but at the age 49 her zeal and physical tenacity are as potent as ever. For now she is focused on her long goodbye – a year of farewell performances that takes in much of the world. I urge you not to miss it.

Sylvie Guillem presents Life In Progress at Sydney Opera House, August 19-25